By Marty Mulrooney
Rhianna Pratchett is a professional writer who originally started off as a journalist (PC Zone, The Guardian) before becoming a video game scriptwriter (Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge). Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed the new Tomb Raider reboot (PlayStation 3), describing it as “a flawed game that manages to move past its problems to largely deliver upon the promise of a character-driven epic adventure/inception story.” AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with Rhianna Pratchett, Tomb Raider’s lead writer!
Hi Rhianna, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
I’m Rhianna Pratchett, a writer and narrative paramedic. I’ve been working in the games industry for 15 years on titles such as Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge, the Overlord series and Tomb Raider. I also write for TV, film, comics and non-fiction books.
When did you first decide that you wanted to become a writer?
I didn’t want to be a writer. Writing was something ‘dad did’. I originally wanted to be anything else but a writer – actress, lawyer, mermaid. However, it did appear to be something I had the right skills for, and so I eventually chose journalism as my initial writing field. I then moved into games script writing and narrative design about 10 years ago, after seeing a gap in the industry.
You recently worked as lead writer on the new Tomb Raider reboot – How did you become involved with the project and what did this role entail?
I was already working for Square Enix on another project and I got contacted through the internal mailing system by one of the team at Crystal. I’d been recommended by my producer as someone who could help them really capture the voice and character of Lara. I had a phone interview and a test for them and got the gig. I then went over to the studio in San Francisco and started working on pre-production for the story. At that time there was a 5 page synopsis and a few character bios in place. Using those, Noah Hughes (the Creative Director), John Stafford (the Narrative Designer) and I built an in-depth treatment, fleshed out the bios and the world, worked on the relationship webs and character development and eventually wrote the whole script.
What personality traits immediately come to mind when you think of Lara Croft as a character?
Bravery, resourcefulness, resilience and independence.
Had you played the previous games? How difficult was it to balance the familiar aspects of the character with an entirely fresh start?
I’ve played a couple of the earlier ones, but actually Crystal were looking for someone who had some knowledge of the franchise, but wasn’t necessarily completely beholden to everything that had come before. Both Crystal and I had ideas of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go with the character, and luckily they gelled very well from the off.
How did the writing process – and the collaborative process with Crystal Dynamics – work?
I was mainly responsible for creating the treatment, fleshing out the bios and writing the cinematic script, alongside Lara’s journals. John worked on the in-game stuff and we both gave feedback into each other’s work, along with Noah, who oversaw everything. John and Noah were the main contacts for me with the team in the US. I live in London, so there was an 8-hour time difference between us, which can be quite tricky to manage. You end up having some very late nights!
Do you think the Tomb Raider series lost its way over the years? How does the reboot address this?
As someone who’s not followed the games all the way through, I can’t really say this for certain (although I feel that the films contributed) however I know that Crystal felt that the series needed to be refreshed and reinvigorated. They were also getting a lot of feedback from fans who said that they’d like to see Lara in her younger days. Lara had certainly become someone who wasn’t particularly relatable to players in the current climate, and we were very used to seeing her being able to cope with any situation with ease. There was very little that changed or touched her. Whereas that might have been what attracted some fans to the games, from a creative perspective, it was quite limiting.
Lara’s first kill in the reboot is reluctant and brutal – it’s a harrowing scene where Lara has to kill an attacker up close and personal. Was this turning point moment – something that had never been done before in a Tomb Raider game – a conscious decision?
It was definitely a conscious decision. But it really is just one in a series of challenges that Lara has to face and overcome, rather than being the one moment that defines her. It’s the moment she is forced into killing for the first time, which is, as you say, harrowing for her. But at the same time, she has to pick herself up and continue onwards and do even more things she didn’t think she was capable of – both good and bad.
In my review, I stated that “Lara Croft is a revelation in Tomb Raider. Talented writer Rhianna Pratchett has taken a character that was often valued solely for her looks in past instalments and respectfully transformed her into a three-dimensional, likeable and believable character.” Do you think Lara will still be a ‘sex symbol’ for gamers – and do you think she should be?
It’s wonderful to know you enjoyed the character so much! The idea of ‘sex symbol’ can mean different things to different people. I think Lara’s sexiness now comes from her character as much as her looks, whereas when she originally emerged her sexiness was firmly rooted in her visuals.
Many reviewers and players noted a slight disparity between the story, where Lara is perhaps more reluctant to kill, and the gameplay, where she mows down countless foes. Do you think writers should be more involved with all aspects of a game’s production to address such issues? Or is this always going to be an issue with this type of game? (The Uncharted series springs to mind as the perfect example of this – it’s something Naughty Dog actually addressed at the end of Uncharted 2.)
That was a difficult part of the game to balance. I think the narrative team would have liked things to be a bit slower, as Lara starts ramping up her kills. However, we also had to face the fact that players had just been given a gun, and therefore wanted to use it. They’d already spent over an hour without one and with no weapon whatsoever for the first section of the game. It really is about trying to balance the needs of narrative with the needs of gameplay and the needs of the player to have an enjoyable experience. Narrative doesn’t win every battle.
Are you a gamer? Have you played the finished game – and if so what did you think?
I am a gamer, but I’ve not played the finished game. I’ve played bits of it and I’ve watched most of it being played (which you need to do to evaluate level dialogue). It can be quite difficult to play your own games, because you’re always seeing the cracks and the things that didn’t go quite the way you wanted.
What did you think of Camilla Luddington’s performance as Lara Croft?
She did a wonderful job of portraying Lara’s inner strength as well as her softer moments. She brought a real sense of warmth and humanity to the character.
How would you describe the relationship between Lara and Conrad Roth?
Roth is both a friend and a surrogate father figure for Lara. He believes in her at times more than she believes in herself, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with everything she does. At the same time their relationship is all about Lara finding her own way in the world, and not necessarily following Roth’s advice to the letter.
I thought the use of Conrad’s duel pistols as a plot point was beautifully executed – was this inserted as a hint of things to come (and perhaps a return in the future to the more experienced Lara Croft of old)?
Well, she will of course be more experienced after this game. But that will also bring new challenges and difficulties for her to wrestle with. However, I can’t reveal anything about what will happen next, but I have quite a few ideas!
What was your favourite scene to write for the game?
I enjoyed writing the first scene you see on The Endurance through Sam’s camera, where all the survivors interacting and taking part in various activities. There are lots of little moments in that scene which demonstrate their characters and their relationship with Lara and each other.
What other mediums have you worked in (and would like to work in again, in the future)?
I’ve worked in comics, short stories and non-fiction books. I’ve also written two screenplays, the latest of which is being done with script development funding from the BFI. I have been doing more pre-production TV work, as well, but that hasn’t manifested into writing scripts yet. I really enjoy working across various different entertainment media, as it helps strengthen me as a writer.
If a sequel is made – and I strongly imagine that it will be – would you like to be involved?
What was your involvement with BioShock Infinite and how did that writing experience differ from working on Tomb Raider? Another fantastic game!
I worked on the AIVO – essentially the dialogue for the enemies in the game. It differed in that, obviously, I wasn’t the lead writer on the project and just came on-board for a few months to help support the core team. If was wonderful to get the opportunity to work with Ken Levine. That’s definitely fulfilled an ambition of mine.
What’s next for you Rhianna?
I have a game coming out next year, although my involvement hasn’t been announced yet. Aside from that I’m working on the screenplay I mentioned earlier, which is an adaptation of a novel called Warrior Daughter. I’m also working as part of the creative team behind Terry Pratchett’s The Watch for TV. On top of that I also have other secret projects in the works.
Thank you for your time! I loved the new Tomb Raider – 17 years later, Lara Croft is still the most important female character in video games and I think a large part of the reboot’s success was down to your writing. Congratulations!