The Woman Behind The Legend: An Interview with Award-Winning Games & Comic Writer, Screenwriter & Author Rhianna Pratchett

Monday 29 April 2019

Into The Script welcomes award-winning screenwriter, games and comic writer and author - Rhianna Pratchett - whose name may sound recognisable for many reasons!

Rhianna has served as the lead writer behind the legendary Tomb Raider franchise (comics and games), having been tasked with re-imagining one of the most iconic characters of all time - Lara Croft - as the gritty and complex character that we know today. 

She has also become synonymous with creating some of the most powerful female narratives in gaming history, and is the daughter of one of the most celebrated authors of British literature - Terry Pratchett. 

Rhianna generously shares a very in-depth look at exactly what it takes for writers and filmmakers to craft an iconic and memorable protagonist, and how your story can work across multiple mediums!

Now, go grab a pen - believe me - you're going to want to take notes!

  1. Can you share with us what first inspired you to begin your career in this industry, and how your first ‘break in’ the industry came to be?

I’ve been playing games since I was six, so they’ve always been part of my life. I studied journalism at LCC and got my first professional work over twenty years ago, writing for Minx, a magazine for 18-24 year-old women.
As Minx had a bit of a maverick style for the time, I ended up reviewing games. This eventually led me to full-time work on PC Zone, where I travelled the world interviewing game developers.

After I left to go freelance, I was contacted by Larian Studios, makers of the Divinity games, who were looking for a story editor for their next game. They thought of me, and it sounded like a more interesting way of paying the bills than the endless rounds of pitching I was doing.
After I finished with Larian I started using my contacts to find more work and gradually started building my new career.

2. Your credits include having written for some of the most famous game franchises; including Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite and Overlord, as well as the Tomb Raider: The Beginning comic series for renowned comic publishing houses - Dark Horse and the Mirror’s Edge comic series for DC Comics.

Can you discuss the elements you focus on when it comes to creating a great story, and how these translate across the variety of mediums (Film &TV, Books, Comics and Games) that you write?
There are a lot of commonalities in storytelling across all entertainment media - creating strong characters, journey arcs, plot beats and the need for engaging conflict and drama.

Those tend to be the focus, whatever medium you’re working in.
What makes writing for games different from writing for other mediums, is the emphasis on the player, who needs to feel that they are the driving force of the story.

This could be through the role of a specific character (like Lara) or it could be through a created character who is continually role-played by the player.

Or it could be more of a blank slate character (like the mute protagonist in Overlord) who is defined mainly through their actions within the game.
This presents unique challenges when trying to balance the needs of narrative and the needs of gameplay.

These can sometimes be diametrically opposed to each other as narrative is often about character depth and motivation, and gameplay can often be about experience and pace.  
Other mediums tend to have more of a passive relationship with the audience, with the audience absorbing the story rather than being part of it.
Comics, especially if they are tied-in to games, tend to be quite focused on action and movement. They can be great for capturing the spirit and tone of a world, whilst also allowing you to delve deeper into your characters in a way that sometimes the fast pace of games doesn’t allow for.

I found writing the Tomb Raider comics with Dark Horse very cathartic, because I could explore things I wasn’t able to do in the game as I wasn’t beholden to the gameplay and levels.

Working in games for so long has forced me to think beyond the page.
Environmental storytelling has huge potential in games, both for texturing a world and helping underpin tone and mood.

Although every medium uses it in some way, the real estate for it in games is huge, as is the audience’s engagement with it.
That has been particularly helpful for me when developing worlds for TV in particular, because I am always thinking of the wider narrative and how the world can be stretches to encompass multiple stories and journeys.

3. Your role as Lead Writer with Crystal Dynamics for the Tomb Raider Franchise meant bringing audiences a Lara Croft that felt more human and relatable.

Can you share your experiences had during the process of re-imagining such an iconic character and any tips you might have when it comes to creating a memorable protagonist for audiences?

With Lara it was looking for the path less travelled, and featuring her at a time in her life that hadn’t really been as explored as much before.

Namely, the period before she became the Tomb Raider; the human before the hero.

That way we could show that evolution bubbling to the surface and explore the conflicts that it brings up.

We were also trying to depict her in a more realistic way and ground her in real-life experiences and friendships, and give her a sprinkling of the every-girl, in a similar way to what was done with Sarah Conner in Terminator.

Showing her being more vulnerable and expressing pain, sorrow and frustration in a very human way was also a bit of a departure from how she had sometimes been represented in the past – flawless and untouchable, with the guns, gadgets and witty one-liners to deal with every situation thrown at her.

We wanted to create a more scrappy Lara who was just getting out of danger by the skin of her teeth.

Finding those new angles and unexplored territory is often the way to create a more compelling and interesting character.

4. You’re known for providing the voice of some of the strongest and well-written female characters seen in recent gaming history; for example, Faith in Mirror’s Edge, Kai and Nariko from Heavenly Sword, and of course Lara Croft.
Can you discuss what it is about these characters that you believe has helped root their authenticity and popularity amongst audiences?

Thank you. I’ve been very lucky with the teams I’ve got to work with.
Both Nariko and Faith came along at a time when there were very few female protagonists about, let alone mixed race ones.

They both had very strong looks, in keeping with the world and tone of their game. The had compelling external challenges from the nature of the world they lived in and their unique way of inhabiting it.

They also had a lot going on beneath the surface and I tried to use the nature of the gameplay to enhance who they were and their inner lives.

For example, with Faith, her gameplay involved running. Lots and lots of running.

So I focused her internal journey on what she was really running away from and what was going to make her finally stop running and face up to her situation.

5. What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given for working in this industry, and would you mind sharing with us?
I’m not sure there’s any one bit of advice that anyone’s given me.

Largely because, certainly in the early days, I was usually the person on the team who knew most about narrative. Sometimes the only person.

So I didn’t get to experience mentorship or writers’ room environments, where advice could easily be dispensed. I had to learn on the job.

What I’ve learned is that you need to be flexible and pick your battles.

Learn to take direction well, iterate fast and have something to say.

Look to the gameplay to help define your characters and if the gameplay and narrative are telling different stories and portraying different characters, make that your biggest battle to fight.

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