Writing in games has a pretty terrible track record. Games are sometimes garlanded with the tortured scribbles of designers who fancy their literary skills. Or marketing folks drape stories over mechanistic constructs, like sopping blankets.
Even those games that seek to tell more involved stories through character, plot and dialog — The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Firewatch, Gone Home, Life is Strange — are often caught between their creators' need to keep players busy doing stuff and their desire to engage with deeper narratives.
Rhianna Pratchett recently spoke at DICE on the importance of getting an entire development team focused on story, right from the start of a project. She believes that game developers can all become better storytellers.
"There's a shiver inside when I get to write a really good female character."
Her own work, most famously the two Tomb Raider games released since 2013, have sought to draw central character Lara Croft as an action hero with vulnerabilities, as a young woman who learns and grows through her challenges.
But the character and the games still suffer from the discomforts of gaming, as a form. Lara Croft is a mass-killer whose inner dialog is mostly restricted to the challenges she faces, and their relationship with the plot. Her enemies are in the habit of leaving their innermost thoughts and secrets lying around in easy-to-find documents. The plots in her games are convoluted and circuitous. She is, ultimately, a vessel in which the player enjoys violent fantasies.
I met with Pratchett just after her speech. We talked about the challenge of writing for games today, how Lara Croft has evolved and what she means in a wider political context.
Campbell: I wrote a novel a few years ago, and enjoyed the experience. But the idea of writing for a video game terrifies me. The novel lends itself to exploring the inner lives of characters. Video games really don't. It’s hard to find characters who have any kind of inner life. I wonder what your view of that is.
Pratchett: Novels are at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to authorial power. I used to have to have this conversation with my father [Terry Pratchett]. I’d talk about problems with games and he’d say, "I don’t understand why they’re not listening to you! You’re the writer!"
He was used to writing novels where the writer has almost ultimate power. Obviously there are editors and publishers involved. But games writers are much further down the spectrum. They’re working on a team, a cog in a machine, and they have to balance the needs of narrative and gameplay and players. You’re getting a hurricane of feedback all the time. It’s very difficult.
"I don’t think that means that just because she kills bad guys she can’t have feelings."
One game that did explore the inner life of characters in a great gameplay way was Psychonauts. That’s why I’m excited about Psychonauts 2. It turned the inner life of characters into gameplay. It used level design and mechanics as storytelling in a way I think was very clever. I’d love to see more of that. There was something quite profound about the way you were actually fighting people’s inner demons and tidying up their emotional baggage.
We obviously use a lot of journals and stuff in the Tomb Raider games. I wouldn’t say it’s ideal in terms of what you can do in a novel, but we’re finding new ways to support narrative. One thing I was talking about [during the speech at DICE] was trying to get everyone involved on the team in supporting the narrative, because it really does go through everything.
It’s thought to be just the writer that does it. The writer will put words in at some point. But it really isn’t. If you look at some of the most successful narrative games out there, they have a writer in a hard power position. People like Amy Hennig or Neil Druckmann or Ken Levine, game directors or creative directors. They have the hard power to pull things together from art or animation and have a vision.
Having those writers in a position of power has created some very interesting things. But it’s also resulted in new ways that gameplay can support narrative. I think something like Papers, Please was very clever with how it used all the mechanics to support its narrative and create an emotional feeling in the player. It’s about more than words. That’s the short answer.
Quite often, the character you inhabit in games is an action character. I was watching the new James Bond film a few weeks ago, and I realized I’ve spent maybe 50 hours of my life with this person and I know almost nothing about him. His mum and dad died and he likes cocktails and he kills people. With Lara, I got the sense that she was enraged about what happened to her dad, she feels betrayed, she was concerned about her friends. These are plot cues, but there's not really a sense of how she feels deep down. Can we even get there with a character who’s running around killing 500 people? Is that even possible?
It’s just how much space you have to put it in. Unfortunately, with the first game we didn’t get as much space and time to flesh out the secondary characters as we would have liked. That didn’t mean we didn’t flesh them out in our heads and in the character bibles and the relationship webs. There was just a limit to what we could get in given the kind of game it was and the fact you have to follow Lara all the time. It didn’t have the same storytelling options you might have in a role-playing game, for example.
That was useful when it came time to write the comics, because I could do much more with the inner life of the characters. There probably are ways to do it. We have to look at ways you can use the action nature of the game to use it, look at pacing, look at ways we can slow the game down and get the inner life across in an economical way for the type of game it is.
We can't do the same thing that film does and have quieter-paced moments. Games are so dependent on gameplay and the mechanics and flow. It’s not just about the words. It’s everyone coming in, mechanics and all. If you want to show the inner life of the characters, you can’t just do it with words. Everyone has to be a storyteller.
In games, we find someone’s journal. A goon writes, "I’m only doing this because I’m being paid money for it." It does give you an extra context for these secondary characters. But it's artificial, isn't it?
It is a game-ey conceit. Everyone’s writing down their thoughts and putting them on tables and leaving them around the game world [laughs]. But there’s a lot of things we accept as gamers. There are unspoken rules.
Having journals lying around makes no sense outside of a game. But it’s actually a very satisfying outlet for writers. It doesn’t get as much focus as the main cinematic script. The main cinematic script, you’ll be dealing with a lot of feedback. With the secondary things, you can explore them in a more writerly fashion.
All of us who worked on Rise of the Tomb Raider have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of doing secondary narrative. We’re all about the inner lives of the characters. It’s just getting that space to do it.
Some of the critiques of the game mentioned the split between Lara who’s upset about the memory of her dad or the loss of her friends and Lara who jumps out of trees and slits people’s throats. It is an interesting problem, and I wonder what your thoughts are. You create this character who has feelings and perspectives, and yet she behaves like a psychopath. How do you marry those?
It’s not like a psychopathic character in terms of gameplay is unusual in games. Plenty of game characters have a higher body count than most action movie heroes. But I’ve noticed that Tomb Raider gets a lot of focus on that.
I wonder why particularly Tomb Raider, when it’s hardly new for an action adventure game to have a high body count. I don’t know whether it’s because we gave Lara feelings at certain points about what she has to do and that she cares about people, and therefore you’re realizing more of a disconnect between being emotional and killing people. But I’d be interested in your feelings on that.
We have this physically beautiful character and yet she’s sort of empty. So you give her these feelings, and then she goes off and kills a bunch of people. Those things don’t fit together.
She’s a very focused person. I don’t think that means that just because she kills bad guys who are trying to kill her, she can’t have feelings. We can't feel how she feels after the first kill over and over again. That wouldn't make sense. It would have been not fun for the player to have to go through. I think it’s just about seeding little things about her backstory and feelings. The secondary narratives are good for that.
"We can't feel how she feels after the first kill over and over again. That wouldn't make sense."
In some ways it’s quite useful for us that she was a bit tougher in the second game, and so she was a little more ready to meet fire with fire. But as a person, she has a mode, and she learned that mode from the first Tomb Raider, where she was more vulnerable, but learned to be self-reliant.
People are trying to kill me. I need to kill them first. I don’t like doing that. But that’s what needs to be done. That’s the mode she goes into.
It’s not like she’s mowing down innocents. They’re very bad people who are trying to kill her. She doesn’t take innocent lives. She has relationships with characters around her. She doesn’t shoot first and ask questions later.
I also wanted to talk about her as an icon and as a woman. When I went to see the development guys at Crystal Dynamics, they talked for a long time about her hair and her skin. I asked them about her role as a powerful female character in an industry that’s very man-focused. And yet she doesn’t seem to project any of that at all. She doesn’t behave in any way as a feminist figure. Or would you reject that?
What would you see as behaving as a feminist figure?
Men behave disrespectfully to women in a lot of ways. She doesn’t seem to encounter that much. When I asked the guys about it they just squirmed and said, well, she’s just an action character. That’s not her role.
We were very conscious about not having characters undermine her because of her gender. There are no gender-based swear words in the game.
A female story or a female character is sometimes seen as being inherently feminist. Somehow just being female makes it feminist. I do absolutely consider myself a feminist. But what I particularly like in stories is just women getting things done.
I grew up with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. I thought that fighting aliens in space, or killer robots, that was just what women did. We just do that and have adventures like guys. And then I realized, OK, that isn’t necessarily the norm.
But then I went into an industry where women could be fighting and having adventures and standing up for themselves and those they cared about. That was really interesting and exciting to me. It’s about interesting human stories.
It’s certainly a little bit more interesting to me when they’re women, because it speaks to me on some level. It’s not to say I don’t enjoy male-centric stories because I absolutely do. I enjoy writing male characters. But there’s something extra exciting; there's a shiver inside when I get to write a really good female character.
"How she interacts and talks with friends feels very much like a female friendship."
I really love Game of Thrones and the diversity of female characters. The female protagonists we have in games, by and large, are good. There just aren’t that many of them. I’d like to see more diversity in representation across the board, for men and women.
I grew up thinking women should have the adventures, I went into a medium where I could make that the case.
We always thought of Lara as being a person first and a gender second. By and large that’s what you need to do with all characters. It’s not to say gender isn’t a factor. For example, when I was writing her interactions with her friends, how she interacts and talks with them feels very much like a female friendship. It has elements that maybe, if it were two male characters, would be written differently. They might be acting differently. It absolutely comes into play.
But it’s not the first thing that’s thought of. You just work with an interesting character and then you can play around with gender and see what that adds to it.
Because of the expectations placed upon women by the world, by men and by other women, I find writing women characters to be more more complex and interesting than male characters. But we do live in a political age in which feminism is a key issue. There are only so many women characters in games, and very few of them address that.
It certainly attracted me that she was female and I've worked with female characters before, and they had very interesting adventures and that was exciting to me. I do really like working with female characters.
You’re right that there are a lot of expectations put on them. There’s so much diversity of opinion on them. A lot of people responded very well to Lara being scared, asking for help, being upset about taking a life, and just being a bit more human about things. Not being explicitly female, but being vulnerable because she’s human and because she’s scared to death.
"We’re all different characters at different points in our lives."
A lot of people reacted well to that, but then there were the ones who said, "Oh, she’s been a tough character in the past. Lara would never be like that." Yes, but there’s no bravery without fear. It feels narratively like she would have to have gone through something. She has the strength inside, but it’s these experiences that helped bump it to the surface.
As a writer that felt like a natural progression. I never felt like we had taken away anything from Lara. She still has the traits of the old Lara, the tenacity and resourcefulness and independence. They’re still all there. They’re just bubbling to the surface in the way that you do when you get older. You’re out there in the world and you’re 21 and you think you know it all, and the world just comes crashing in and you have to deal with it. That’s what was narratively interesting.
Crystal [Dynamics] was allowing me and all of us to explore the human side of her, the vulnerability of being human and being scared that’s not often explored in game characters. She was a different character in some ways. But we’re all different characters at different points in our lives. I see her as Lara further down the line. Over our lives our personalities can change.
You're a well-known figure in games. There are also a lot of expectations on your treatment of Lara Croft. How do you feel about that?
I get this a lot, actually. I didn’t find it daunting, because it was a job. It’s not like it wasn’t exciting. But it felt like … I don’t want to say destiny … but it felt like I was in the right place at the right time with the right experience. That was good for realizing what I needed to do.
There was a little bit of, 'oh my gosh, it’s Lara Croft, I’m getting to reimagine her, how exciting is that?' So I was more bowled away by the opportunity and the excitement of that than I was about being daunted.
"She became more of a battleground after the first game."
I’ve been doing this for a while. By the time I was announced in the role, I’d already done most of it. There’s all these people with opinions, but we have to choose our line, choose our vision for the character and run with that. By the time there were lots of expectations, it had all been done already.
We felt the weight of expectation more with the second game than the first game. The first game, people were interested in what we were trying to do, but no one was quite sure. With the second game, we were having to follow up the successful first game. It’s like trying to follow up a successful first movie. It’s really hard to do, because you have this weight of expectation.
We definitely felt that more with the second game, because of how the first game had been received. But again, I didn’t have time to be daunted. I was too busy being excited.
Do you feel an awareness that she represents a kind of battleground between two divergent visions of what video game characters ought to be?
She became more of a battleground after the first game. Some people thought we’d taken her too far away from classic Lara.
Some people dislike classic Lara. There were some great things about the character, I think, and some great things about those games. I’ve spoken about how I didn’t like the marketing, about how as a younger gamer that put me off the character and stopped me playing more of the games. I hated the way she was marketed as a specifically oversexualized character for guys. That put me off, and so I went to play other games.
I tended to play things like role-playing games or strategy games, which aren’t really marketed in that way at all. So I felt that way as a younger gamer, and I’ve seen people dissecting the fact that I’ve said this as somehow, "Oh, Crystal have done it this way because Rhianna didn’t like the marketing."
That’s nothing to do with it. We’re talking 20 years ago. I was a much younger gamer. Now I probably wouldn’t care as much. But it was certainly something that attracted me to the project.
The artwork for Lara is beautiful. She’s marketed in quite a neutral way that works for men and women. Every piece of artwork is strong, beautiful, characterful. I felt very attracted to it because of that. It felt like this was a Lara that could be for everyone.
What are you working on now?
I’m still working quite a lot on the adaptation of Wee Free Men. Hopefully there will be more news on that in July. That’s been very exciting. I have another big game in the works that I just started working on. Some indie stuff. A couple of adaptations, books into screenplays, some pitches. I have a comic pitching with Marvel. Lots of writer-ey things across different media.