Rhianna's rise: Meet the writer behind Tomb Raider

One of the game industry's most popular writers tells her own story.

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Rhianna Pratchett is walking along a burbling stream in the heart of one of London's trendier districts, telling a story and, intermittently, pointing out local birds and other wildlife. The story is a pleasant one — one with a happy ending.

It's a story about a girl who grew up in the rural countryside of England, in a place called Somerset. Pratchett calls it "sheepy," as in "there are sheep." The little girl is raised in the presence of those sheep. She learns to care for them and wears sweaters made of their wool. She is earthy, this girl. Her parents fend for themselves. They make their own clothes, grow their own food. They are hardy and proud. They are also deeply learned, and when not teaching their young daughter, their only child, how to grow food and tend sheep, they foist upon her a study of books and a passion for wisdom. Tools she will employ later in life as a writer of books, screenplays and video games.

As Pratchett tells the tale it sounds possible that it is not at all about her, but it is. She is that little girl raised in the southwest of England. She is that woman who became a writer. And she is now, many years later, one of the most talked about writers of video games in the world.

Pratchett wrote the Overlord games. She wrote Heavenly Sword. Also Mirror's Edge, Stronghold Legends and Risen. She worked a little on BioShock Infinite. Did a bit of the latest Thief. But the work she's most famous for is the tale of another young woman. Only this one would become a tomb raider. Pratchett was lead writer on the 2013 action game Tomb Raider, and is currently working on its sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider.

As Pratchett spins her tale, it is engaging, practical and neat. While listening to it, walking along the stream in that park in London, it becomes clear Rhianna Pratchett is no accidental writer. This is what she was made for. What she was meant to be.

It is, after all, the family business.


The little girl in Pratchett's story could have had a different future. After leaving sheepy Somerset, she went to boarding school, took her assessments and was informed by her assessors that she was not good enough for her dream job: lawyer.

So she set her sights on journalism, proved her assessors wrong by finishing school with As and enrolled in the London College of Art.

"That was my first real triumph, I think," Pratchett says, "because I felt like I'd beaten the teachers who'd predicted me down."

This is at the heart of what drives Pratchett, this zeal for proving herself based on her accomplishments, not on people's perceptions of her.

As one of the most visible female game writers in the industry, Pratchett is often singled out to speak for women in the industry, as well as targeted by those who criticize women working in games. She would prefer to simply be a writer and not a "woman writer," but she is a realist.

"I think women's achievements can sometimes get undermined," she says. "Even in the games industry, where the achievements of women are rare enough that you think there'd be focus on them. ... Sometimes it feels like no matter what you do, as a woman, sometimes people will always kind of define you by the nearest man to you as well, especially if he has fame. That can be sort of irritating. Part of it feels like a fight to be recognized for what I've done, and not who I am.

"I think to a certain extent all creators have an element of insecurity. It's the fire that drives us."

"I've just realized that I've just literally quoted the start of Tomb Raider."

The nearest man to Pratchett, by whom she finds herself repeatedly defined, is her father. Pratchett's father is a knight. And if that were all he was known for, her life might be just that little bit simpler. But it's not. Sir Terry Pratchett is also the author of over 40 very popular science fiction novels, and the creator of the Discworld, a satirical fantasy world balanced on the backs of elephants standing on a turtle that has spawned dozens of best-selling novels.

Pratchett is leafing through a scrapbook, in her tiny nook of an office, upstairs, in the London flat she shares with her fiancé.

"That's when dad got his knighthood," she says, pointing him out in the photo. "And [there's] my grandmother. And my mum. I'm wearing his top hat there."

The dad photos and newspaper clippings are the first things she produces in this room of hers. They're kept in a long box under the sofa where she writes. The room is dark, painted green (she says she associates the color green with libraries), lined with books and crammed with all manner of knickknacks. On one shelf is an assortment of figurines from video games she has worked on. On another, a collection of books written by her father.

Pratchett is at once profoundly proud of her father's accomplishments and also frequently on edge about how her own are perceived alongside them.

"I completely understand why people mention it, and I honestly absolutely expected it with the Tomb Raider stuff," she says, sitting at a cafe the next day. She expected it with Tomb Raider because that game's story is very much about a woman emerging from the shadow of her father to become great. She admits that her own desire to define herself is what drives her.

"I think to a certain extent all creators have an element of insecurity," she says. "It's the fire that drives us. You've always got the voices in your head that worry that you're not good enough, you're a fraud, you're just making it up as you go along, which is really what writing is anyway.

"But the kind of snarky Greek chorus of the internet sort of telling me I'm not as good as my dad, or feeling they need to comment on that, can be a little bit wearing. ... Who is as good as my dad? Very few people are as good as my dad. I don't think I stand any more chance of being as good as him as anyone else does, really. I'm just doing my own thing over here. There's no need to compare us."

Pratchett name drops Duncan Jones, whom you may not immediately recognize unless you add the oft-cited appellation — David Bowie's son. Jones and Pratchett are friends. A frequent topic of conversation: dad-checking.

"[Jones is] still very much known as David Bowie's son," Pratchett says. "And he's done some great stuff off his own back and still gets the dad-check. ... I think we both kind of know what it's like to still get dad-checked, even though you've done interesting stuff yourself. I think there's lots of complex issues there."

"You've always got the voices in your head that worry that you're not good enough, you're a fraud, you're just making it up as you go along."

For Pratchett, her father is and always will be the man who walked with her through the sheepy Somerset countryside, teaching her the names of flowers and which plants she could eat and which ones were poisonous. The father who built her toys out of wood and taught her (incorrectly) the words of Monty Python songs.

What Sir Terry does, she believes, is separate from who he is. At least in her mind. And that is exactly how she would like to be seen.

What Rhianna does

"I like to make the joke first," Pratchett says.

The joke: Tomb Raider developer Crystal Dynamics went looking for a girl with daddy issues to write its game about a girl with daddy issues.

"'Oh, yeah, OK, Rhianna Pratchett!'" Pratchett says, in character. "'Geeky, check. British, check. Brown-haired, check. Possible father issues, check. That's the one we'll go with!'"

That's not how it happened, of course. The truth is, although most people might not have heard of her, Pratchett had been a working writer of video games for almost a decade before Tomb Raider, and a working writer about video games for several years prior.

Pratchett's path through the games industry started, not at a games magazine, but at a women's magazine, aimed at 18-24 year-olds. She doesn't know why, but working at a women's magazine was her ambition after securing a journalism degree. She found one that was "more rock and roll" than the rest and somehow convinced them to let her write about Neil Gaiman comics and, eventually, video games.

The assignment was short-lived. Within a year the magazine had been redesigned to cover more "lipstick and boys," but the experience of writing about games for a print magazine gave her career the boost it needed.

"There weren't many female journalists around, but there were a lot of female PR people," she says. "I think they quite liked seeing another woman out there in the game industry. I don't know whether they kind of remembered me or looked slightly more favorably on me. I don't know. But I got [game] code. I got a foot in the door."

From there Pratchett landed at PC Zone, the UK competitor to PC Gamer, home to the famous Charlie Brooker, who took his successful games writing to British television. She went in for an interview and spent most of her time complaining to the magazine's editor about its review of Diablo 2. She got the job anyway.

Pratchett was tapped to run the "back section" of PC Zone, with various stories that didn't fit anywhere else. Meanwhile she wrote freelance game reviews for The Guardian, worked as a "mystery shopper" and temped in offices. But it was the games work that stuck.

She recalls one press event in particular:

"I remember my first press trip, where we were all bundled onto a very old bus and made to put on head-to-toe flame retardant suits, white ones, with hoods, that made it look a bit like — given the very old, slightly tube-like nature of the bus — it was a bit like the sperm scene in Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask). The anticipation of what was at the other end. ...

"This was a Shadow Man press tour. It might have been Shadow Man 2. What might have been waiting for us at the other end — the anticipation of that — was far greater than what actually happened at the end. There were some flames about 20 meters away. That was it."

"I didn't really know much about games writing then. People weren't really talking about it."

While the game media writing was occasionally glamorous, it didn't pay all the bills. She began looking for ways to get more work as a writer, which led her to the game studios she covered on her beat, the smaller studios that other editors hadn't noticed. These just happened to be the ones looking for writers to help them out.

Pratchett hired on with Larian Studios in Belgium to help polish and occasionally translate the writing for role-playing games, including Divine Divinity’s sequel, Beyond Divinity.

"I didn't really know much about games writing then," she says. "People weren't really talking about it. There were not BAFTA panels or awards. There were no interviews or even big dissections of narrative in games. It wasn't being talked about. It was being done, but it was all very quiet behind the scenes. This was 2002. So yeah, I did a job there, and then I thought, 'I wonder how I can get more work doing this?' This beats traveling 'round on buses for hours, getting lost in London."

What came next would look preordained, if not for the hard work involved. It was the kind of success casual observers call "overnight," but is, in reality, the product of years of preparation and straight-up slogging. Pratchett's search for "more" game writing work led her to credits on close to a dozen games. Of these, her favorite is Overlord.

"When I was working on Overlord ... [developer Triumph was] a 30-person team," she says. "I was just allowed to do my job. I suspect I was helped by the fact that I was a native English speaker, and they all spoke English really well, but it wasn't their first language. Therefore they generally trusted me to write. I hit the kind of style they wanted, and I worked with every level designer on the script for their levels. ... They had maps and things like that. I'd look at it, what they needed for gameplay, and then look at what needed to happen for the story. And then created something that supports what they're doing and what I'm doing.

"That was absolutely the ideal. And yet it wasn't on the big, shiny triple-A advertised on the side of buses game. It was for a smaller game that was arguably double-A to start with, that kind of got ticked over to triple-A because the press liked it. ... It was really good fun."

She also cites Heavenly Sword as a critical juncture in her career — her "biggest triumph." Pratchett’s involvement with the project began with her and actor/director Andy Serkis meeting to decide what the game would be about and how to write it.

"The process started with Andy [Serkis] and myself locked in a room in Surrey for two days, being let out to eat," she says. "We sort of brainstormed everything. That was good fun. [The entire development team] had input into the story and narrative. There were areas I had more input into, particularly the relationship between Nariko and Kai and their respective storylines and how they crossed. ... Getting that experience of working with someone like Andy was great. He's full of ideas. I think he got to understand games a lot."

The experience would ultimately prepare her for what would be her breakout writing gig, the reboot of Tomb Raider.

Writing Lara Croft

Pratchett is at a London pub, sitting at a long table, surrounded by fellow game writers. It's a classic London pub that's going modern. Dark wood paneling, a generous selection of beers on tap, fried food, dark corners. Throughout the evening, patrons will come and go, bustling around this long table filled with scribes, talking games. By evening's end, they will be the last in attendance, minus a couple of date goers looking lovingly into each other's eyes at the back.

Pratchett is arguably not even the most successful writer in attendance, but she has somehow become (oddly, she thinks) the most recognizable. She has organized this meeting in part to ensure her fellow writers get some face time with a journalist, out of fear she may be hogging the spotlight. Yet when Pratchett speaks, the table falls silent. These writers, all her peers and then some, show her respect. She's no accidental star here. She has credentials. Tomb Raider is a large part of that.

The 2013 reboot of the classic Tomb Raider featured a lot of modern improvements over the original, but most notable among them, for many critics, was the story. In the original game, Lara Croft was a well-to-do orphan, heir to a fortune and a nobleman's mansion. But this story was pure background. For reasons surpassing explanation beyond that it might make a good game, Lara decided to risk her life exploring ancient ruins and shooting up dinosaurs and tigers with two very large guns, occasionally making it back home to England to whisper vaguely about why all her furniture was covered in sheets. Successive sequels and films did little to expand upon this narrative in any sensible way. Most seemed more interested in highlighting Lara Croft's boobs than in making sense of her story.

For the 2013 Tomb Raider, developer Crystal Dynamics made no bones about wanting to revisit Lara Croft's history (and boobs). Pratchett was tapped as lead writer and worked with Creative Director Noah Hughes to give their Lara more heart and nuance than in the original, and to finally make sense of her story.

"Lara had become bigger than the games, really," Pratchett told Kill Screen in 2013. "In the movies, she lacked some charm. She's a bit of an ice queen ... nothing moved her, nothing touched her. There was a lot of just crashing planes into mountains, throwing money, gadgets, guns and one-liners at any situation. ... We took what people think of as Lara Croft — her traits like bravery, resourcefulness, resilience, independence, strength, etc. — and we rewound those traits until they were just below the surface. Because you don't actually just pop out being a badass with all those traits in place. There is no bravery without fear. We wanted to show where that came from and how it evolved."

"Your story and characters spend quite a bit of time being a bit blobby and flexible until things start solidifying."

In the game, Pratchett's Lara starts as a naive, young girl on a field trip. When the trip turns disastrous, Lara panics and does what anyone might: She looks to others for help. As the game progresses Lara must come to terms with isolation and her responsibility for her own survival. By game's end (spoiler alert) you can begin to see in her the heroine she will eventually become.

The game was hailed by critics as a stunning narrative transformation of a character many gamers already thought they knew. And, as planned, it set up the franchise for a successful revival, with Pratchett at the narrative helm.

Pratchett feels like she never stopped working on Tomb Raider, in a sense. First there were interviews, then the Dark Horse comics, which tell the story of Lara's adventures between the end of Tomb Raider and what will be the story of its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider. And then there were the game reviews.

"There was the hide-under-the-bed terror of reviews time," she says. "I kept in regular touch with the narrative team (namely Creative Director Noah Hughes and Senior Narrative Designer John Stafford) until they decided the direction they wanted to take next. Thankfully, it still involved me, so here I am."

The plan for Lara's further adventures is still under wraps as of this writing, although Crystal Dynamics unveiled a teaser trailer at the E3 2014 trade show featuring a shell-shocked Lara Croft in therapy, intercut with scenes from her eventual raiding of tombs. For Pratchett, the narrative design begins with discussing the goals for the game with its designers, and then iterating based on what narrative can — or can't — add to that.

"Generally, writing for games tends to be hugely iterative as you're always reacting to the needs of gameplay and level design," she says. "Therefore your story and characters spend quite a bit of time being a bit blobby and flexible until things start solidifying. Even then elements can still get pulled apart by the wild horses of games development."

Pratchett is enjoying revisiting the character but admits that taking Lara from the end of Tomb Raider to the tomb raider we all know is a much different narrative arc than in the first game.

"It's a little harder this time around," she says, "because ... the character arc was such a strong and satisfying one in the first game. And there's no repeating that. This time it's a bit subtler; it's a lot more about Lara's internal wranglings with who she is and how the world sees her. She's obsessive, constantly following the golden thread of truth, partly so she doesn't have to stop and confront the yawning darkness behind her."

On Thief

Pratchett is known for being outspoken and honest about her work on games — to the point of agreeing with the occasional bit of criticism.

Some critics of Tomb Raider, for example, suggested the game might have benefitted from a slower ramp-up from Lara Croft killing one dude (which was presented as a powerful, emotional moment in the game) to her killing hundreds of dudes (which just sort of happened). Pratchett agreed, which ruffled some feathers at developer Crystal Dynamics and publisher Square Enix.

Pratchett has spoken openly about the issue and the struggle to balance gameplay (in which killing dudes is fun) with narrative (in which it should have some weight). She says the narrative team will try to smooth that gap in the next game.

"Arguably [Lara is] now in a place where she knows she can kill if she has to — if she's pushed," Pratchett says. "And the world does seem to conspire to push her a lot! It's almost like she has a mode she slips into, and she's unable or unwilling to face what that really means. It's definitely something we explore in the game.

"Ultimately, this is a game with violence in it, and although I'm a lot less involved in the moment-to-moment gameplay than Noah and John, I do try and encourage us to explore what that violence actually means for Lara's psyche."

"It was a very long and complicated project, and I wasn't really involved in the last year of it."

But on the subject of another recent game, Pratchett has very little to say.

Pratchett was briefly involved with the 2013 Thief reboot, but the development team finished the game without her. Of the experience she will only say that she was not involved in the final stages of the game.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Islington, Pratchett produces from her phone a photograph taken during her PC Zone years. It's of a younger Rhianna Pratchett dressed up as Garrett (the hero of the Thief games). Turns out the original 2013 Thief team found the photo on the internet and used it as inspiration for a female Thief character.

"I looked like the whitest, palest Garrett you'd ever seen," she says. "I looked like I would glow in the dark."

Telling the tale, Pratchett's mood turns. When asked again if she has thoughts to share on making Thief, she replies, "I was a big fan of the Thief series, but it was a very long and complicated project, and I wasn't really involved in the last year of it."

Critics, for their part, panned the game for being technically flawed and narratively uninteresting. One went so far as to call it a "train wreck."

"From start to finish, Thief plays like a game that had an exceptionally painful birth. To be perfectly blunt, it feels like three different games that were stapled together in a fat hurry, as a last-ditch effort to stop the game from being canceled outright. It's one part stealth, one part heavily scripted action-platformer (read: amateurish Uncharted knockoff), and one part survival-horror game. That's not necessarily a blend destined for disjointed failure, but here, there are palpable mood swings, moments where you can see the stitching that separates one creative vision from the next. Thief constantly oscillates, never making up its mind about what, exactly, it should be."

The criticisms rankle Pratchett, but she remains studiously opposed to commenting on the specifics.

"I was glad to get a chance to work on Garrett," she says, then repeats, word-for-word, the last thing she’ll say about working on the game: "But it was a very long and complicated project, and I wasn't really involved in the last year of it."

On games writing in general, however, she has more to say:

"When you're a contract writer, there's no time you're in charge. You're just trying to do the best you can with what's available and trying to steer things the best way you can. It's like watching someone else drive a car and going, 'You probably want to turn left now,' rather than being able to drive the car yourself. ... Ed [Stern, lead writer at Splash Damage] has a great analogy for it. He says it's like being a feng shui consultant. People have heard that [feng shui is] a good thing ... but they don't really understand what you're doing, and fundamentally they think it's a bit strange."

The last Pratchett

Walking through London, Pratchett seeks out a cat friend. She calls him "the Marquis" (pronounced the English way: "markwiss"). She says he looks aristocratic, sitting high on a wall, surveying the road. She fails to find the cat, but shows off a picture from her phone of the Markwiss, sitting on his wall. He does look aristocratic.

This is the existence of Rhianna Pratchett. Sitting in a small, green study, typing on a comfortable sofa. Occasionally searching about the neighborhood (going for "a bit of a wander," as the British say), making friends with cats. Pointing out birds. And occasionally attending board meetings of the two organizations she is involved with through her parents.

The Discworld Foundation seeks out smaller charities and groups doing good work for environmental and literacy causes. Causes dear to the Pratchett's hearts, like badger rescue. It's a sort of jump-starter for groups that are too busy or too small to write grant proposals. Pratchett is trustee of the foundation and sees her role as that of a caretaker, although she, too, is quite fond of badgers.

She's busier with Narrativia, the production house started by Sir Terry in 2012. Pratchett is currently working with Narrativia to adapt some of her father's work for screen, and it's this work (in addition to writing comics and her own novels) where she feels more herself. Able to "stretch out."

"I want to push — I want to explore new ways of storytelling," she says. "I would like to be involved in the smaller indie games again, like Overlord ... [but] in games I'm not getting as much space to stretch myself, and the bigger the game, the less space ... because there's so much money involved. Everyone has to have their say."

With Narrativia, it's the Pratchetts who have the say. And in many instances, that means Rhianna more than Sir Terry.

There are Narrativia projects in the works Pratchett can't speak about. "The Watch" is one she can. It's a sort of police procedural based on characters from the Discworld books. Pratchett herself is writing a screen adaptation of Sir Terry's young adult novel, Wee Free Men. The book, about a young girl named Tiffany who meets tiny, blue, kilted men while "having a bit of a wander" reminds Pratchett of herself at that age.

"She sort of grows up in the chalk country in England," she says, "which is very green and has lots of sheep and — although I grew up in Somerset, which is still very green — my grandmother lived in the chalk country, and I used to go out and see her a lot. In the book, the young girl's grandmother was a shepherdess, and my grandmother was a shepherdess."

When asked if her father intended the character to resemble her, Pratchett demurs. Sir Terry has openly admitted to casting the character of Esk in Equal Rites after his daughter, but of Tiffany, he's said nothing. It's possible they've never spoken of it, or that, at this point, he no longer remembers. Sir Terry suffers from Alzheimer's.

"[Wee Free Men is] actually the only book I've ever said to dad, 'That's one I'd like to have a go at adapting,'" she says. "Years ago I said, 'That's the one I'd like to have a go at adapting, but I'm going to go off and get more experience working on adaptations and screenplays before I have a go at that one. ... I have to get this right.' The author literally knows where I live. I have to do a good job. And it's a book I've always been very fond of."

Pratchett chose to become involved with Narrativia because she feels it is her obligation and, after having more or less proven herself in her own field, she now feels she can do good work preserving her father's legacy without the effort defining her.

"I always wanted to have my own career and do my own things. I couldn't imagine it being any other way."

"I came on board because it felt like it was the right time for me," she says. "I'm the last of my family's line. So I am — it's like the last unicorn, only more Pratchetty. I'm an only child. There's no one else."

Where she draws the line is in writing Discworld books of her own. Sir Terry has stated he wouldn't mind if she did, but for her it's out of the question. Not because she's too proud, but because she doesn't believe she would do them justice.

"People will say, 'Oh, I want more Discworld books,'" she says. "But no, you want more Discworld books written by dad. I can understand that, and one day that's not going to be possible without a really good Ouija board."

It's been a long and, at times, strange road for the game writer. Looking back to the story of the earthy little girl in sheepy Somerset, you can see the grit and determination showing through in Pratchett’s success. Although you might expect it to have all been a bit easier for the daughter of one of England’s most famous authors. When asked if she would have done it differently, Pratchett laughs at the suggestion.

"I'm just not that kind of person," she says. "I always wanted to have my own career and do my own things. I couldn't imagine it being any other way." Babykayak

Editor's note: This story originally ran with the subhead "Sir Terry Pratchett's daughter on making her own path." Some felt that meant we were diminishing Rhianna's own accomplishments, which was not our intent. We have re-written the subhead to more accurately reflect our intent.

Images: Russ Pitts / Vox Media