Welcome to the “Narrator Dialogs”; here we seek to put a face on those who are making interactive narrative design a force to be reckoned with. Today’s dialog is with NDN member, Rhianna Prachett – Game Writer and Narrative Designer. Rhianna work has included heavy weight titles like Heavenly Sword, Overlord and Overlord: Raising Hell, and EA’s ever famous Mirror’s Edge. Rhianna recently won the WGGB award for Best Videogame Script for her work on Overlord. She is currently “wrestling the wild beasts of narrative” on forthcoming titles. Today she has come to share her perspective on interactive narrative design with the Narrative Designer’s Network.
Stephen E. Dinehart: Can you tell me a little about yourself and your interest in game narrative?
Rhianna Pratchett: I’ve been an avid gamer since I was about 6 years old and working in the games industry for nearly 12 years. Part of that was as a games journalist, working for UK publications like PC Zone magazine, along with The Guardian and Sunday Times newspapers. For the last 8 years I’ve moved over to working in the games writing field – right there on the other side of the fence. I initially started as a story editor, then moved into level dialogue and finally into full script writing, narrative design and audio directing.
Can you describe your current role(s)?
RP: Unfortunately all the projects I’m working on at the moment are top secret, so I can’t say much about them. However, the spread includes working as a writer, lead writer, narrative designer and creative director, so it’s a fairly wide remit. I hope more will be revealed about them in 2010.What do your daily duties consist of?
RP: Much of this depends on the projects I’m working on and where they are in their development cycle. No 24 hour period is ever the same, which is one of the great things about my job. These days I spend as much time on pre-production duties (namely creating story structure/beats, character bios, themes, world view, bible etc) as I spend on production (the actual writing of the narrative.) This is actually a hugely gratifying thing because it means I’m being brought on early enough to really get my hands dirty in pre-production. This is exactly how it should be, although many writers are still being employed very late in a game’s schedule. I’ve certainly had a lot of experience with those challenges and they’re not something I relish.
Usually when a project is in full flow I like to liaise with the designers and audio team on a daily basis. God bless you ICQ, MSN and Skype! I think that keeping open and consistent lines of communication with multiple team members is essential. Although it doesn’t always comes naturally to us solitary writer types.
Why do you call yourself a Narrative Designer?
RP: Mainly because creating narrative in games is about so much more than the act of producing words. There’s a lot that goes into making a story work in an interactive (or non-interactive) space across a timeframe of 10+ hours. I’ve found it most beneficial if the person producing the actual words is at least involved with creating this structure, delivery and mechanics. It’s still fairly rare for companies to have a specific narrative designer on the team (although I’m working with a great one at the moment) so I’m often wearing both hats.
How do you define the craft of Interactive Narrative Design?
RP: The creation of the structure, mechanics and system used to delivery all narrative elements used in an interactive space. This still applies to non-interactive narrative design, as well. That’s still a large part of what we do and certainly not a bad thing, if done right.
What in your memory is the finest narrative moment you’ve help craft?
RP: That’s a tough one. I have affection for one of the scenes very near the end of Heavenly Sword where *spoiler alert* King Bohan is a battered, broken and blinded man, lying in front of Nariko (the heroine) and suddenly his son Roach (a giant baby of a man, who Bohan has relentlessly been mean and horrible to through the course of the game) bursts in on the scene, tears and snot running down his face, like a toddler. Roach begs Nariko to spare Bohan life and gently picks up his father saying that he will take him far away and look after him. At that moment Nariko sees all her difficult parent issues mirrored in another and agrees to let Roach and Bohan go. The actors did a great job with it and it’s the collimation of several characters’ journeys.
What special advantages do you have working in both audio and story development?
RP: It’s really about the importance of seeing things through to the end. It’s often the nature of the beast that when an external audio director or engineer gets a script they will know very little about its construction, the characters, their journey or motivations. In all likelihood it’ll be in XL format too, which is about the worst possible way you can present a script to an actor – aside from scribbling it on the back of a cigarette packet. Having a writer in the studio, either acting as audio director or providing audio support has never been anything less than valuable in my experience. There are always 1001 questions that come up about the script, particularly context and motivation, and the person that wrote them nearly always has the answers. They can also enthuse and inspire actors in a way that often gets left by the wayside when game audio is recorded.
With Overlord II I not only wrote the dialogue, but I also cast the actors, put together the recording schedules and relevant scripts and decided on the take selection. It’s a huge amount of work, but having one person right in the middle was extremely beneficial. So much can go wrong at the audio recording stage and having the creator in the mix can really help avoid these problems.
What can you tell me about your last project, “Overlord II”?
RP: I worked on the original Overlord (in fact I’ve been the series writer for all four Overlord games, plus the Raising Hell expansion) so it was great to come back and work on the sequel. The team at Triumph Studios (in Delft in the Netherlands) was the same, so we’d all been through the trenches together which meant there was a lot of trust built up. I was also working on Overlord: Dark Legend (completely separate Wii game) and Overlord: Minions (DS) at certain points during the development, so it was quite intense. Sequels are always a big challenge, especially if the original is well received, but I was pleased with what we produced in the time available, which is all you can ask for, really.
What kinds of stories do games need to tell? That is, what would be your dream subject for a game?
RP: I’d love to work on a game set in a completely underwater world. I don’t mean like Bioshock, but right out in the water, with underwater physics, sea life and the dangers of the deep or perhaps something on top of the water, like Jack Vance’s The Blue World. I’d also like to write for a proper female anti-hero. Someone more akin to a female Riddick
What do you imagine for the future of interactive narrative design?
RP: I’d like to imagine a future where writers and narrative designers are standard parts of a game team, (across the board) that they are given equal status and responsibility with other design disciplines and everyone knows how to work with them and what they can bring to a project. But hey, a girl can dream!
Rihanna stands as a fine example of the kind of talent that is helping the Narrative Designer’s Network make a difference. As a game writer looking to expand narrative possibilities in the play space we call videogames she is innovating one title at a time. That said last year she released an impressive 4 games. At that rate, I’m sure we can expect nothing but leaps and bounds as she takes her fans and our craft to bigger and better places. Thank you for reading, I hope you have learned as much as I have. For the NDN Narrator I’m Stephen E. Dinehart.