While at the Develop Conference we had the opportunity to sit down with Rhianna Pratchett, script writer and story designer for Heavenly Sword. We discuss the story of the game, her inspiration, the role of storytelling in video games and, among other things, her dad's (author Terry Pratchett) influence on her work.
Why are you writing for games, in particular?
I've always been a gamer, since I was about six and I started playing Mazogs on the ZX81. My dad was very techy and into computers, electronics, robots and that kind of thing. He'd bring something that clicked and whirred home and I was an only child so, of course, I was fascinated with whatever my dad was doing. Games were only really becoming commercial then and maybe he thought it was quite cute to get his six year old daughter playing a game where she would run around with a sword killing giant bugs. I asked him about Mazogs the other day and he said that he remembers me being rather frightened of the bug creatures, at first. Although once I found I could kill them, I was much happier!
I got hooked from that and I would get all his hand-me-down machines. We would play lots of games together, mainly isometric adventure games. Or rather, he would play them and I would sit beside him drawing all the maps for him. When I was around eleven years old, a girl called Katie moved next door to me and we would play adventure games together (there was precious little else to do in our tiny, one-road village!) but this time it was our adventure. We played games like Monkey Island, King's Quest, even things like the old Leisure Suit Larry games (we'd have to guess all the 'are you 18?' questions – which were mainly, and rather bizarrely, about the American political process!)
I studied journalism at university. I didn't really think about games writing back then, so I started off being a games journalist, in about '98 on a magazine called PC Zone, which was (and still is) quite a hardcore PC magazine. I also did some work for The Guardian for a couple of years. Then about four years ago, I started going freelance and then I got my first gig as a story editor for a game and it took off from there as I started to get more and more projects.
That's interesting, I didn't expect your father to have been a big influence in that.
Yeah, well I think it can be the case, especially with young girls - it's a bit of a cliché really - but a largely true one. If your brother is into it, or someone else in your family, you kind of naturally gravitate to what they're doing. If you see them enjoying it, you sort of wonder what they're getting out of it (and what you might be missing!) I didn't have any brothers or sisters, so I was interested in what dad was up to and it became something that we did together.
So did you have any input into the Discworld games as a result of that?
No, I wasn't in the industry in any form back then. My dad is a big gamer himself, but he doesn't have very much interest in point-and-click adventure games, like the Discworld titles. He had input into them, of course, and played and enjoyed them when they came out, but he much prefers first person shooters and stealth games. He was very into Half Life 2, Farcry and the Thief games. He also loves Oblivion and I just got him the expansion pack for his birthday.
Is he looking forward to Heavenly Sword?
I don't think he'd know what to do with a PlayStation 3, to be honest. He's not console, he's completely PC. His PA bought him a PS2 a couple of years ago, I'm not sure it's ever been opened!
Do you feel that, as game technology is progressing, the ability to tell a story effectively within a game is also increasing?
It's not just that technology is allowing us to tell better stories, though it is to a certain extent. But we're trying to bring stories in-line with technology. When the first games came out, many were text-based adventures, and story was all they had. But as graphics started to improve, everyone fell in love with them, along with things like AI and physics. Story got left behind.
Now, suddenly in the last few years, the industry has really started to focus on story and narrative as an area that needs improving. But this has really been a problem of our own making, because we've simply not grown story-telling in games at the same pace as everything else. I think if we had, we'd be in a much better position with stories in games than we are now.
In actual fact, technology in games is only really now catching up with writers' imaginations. So, for example, all the cutscenes in Heavenly Sword – they are realising the writer and director's imaginations. So it's catching up with that in quite a cinematic way by making the most of technology and just trying to push the bench-mark of story-telling, both in terms of the quality of story that's told, but also the way it's told.
Do you feel that a story is better told through a character who has all these facial animations and has been animated using motion capture rather than, for example, some Japanese RPGs which tell story through an image and text?
There are certain advantages, definitely, in that you can show in a look what might take quite a lot of words to explain. Obviously we're used to seeing that in films. We can look at Nariko's facial expression and that will tell us a dozen things about her state of mind. But what makes games interesting is that actually getting that look (and more importantly getting it looking realistic) can sometimes be just as (if not more) expensive than writing those dozen things. So that makes it very difficult for both time and budget. I don't think you'll see many developers doing facial and body mo-cap for a while, for that reason. As Andy Serkis recently said, it's the first time facial and body mo-cap has been captured together. I think there will definitely be more game directors looking into that, but it's still fairly new. Obviously, you can see how effective it is, but it's not cheap!
I think there are lots of tricks to convey emotion in games which aren't to do with facial expression. Facial expression expresses story in a way we're very used to and comfortable with as it's what we see in TV and film. But you can still create narrative in a very specific game-way. For example, if you look at Ico and Shadow of the Collosus they both give you, what I call, narrative markers. These are little parts of the world that have been created to kick off story-telling inside the player's own head.
You know, you always have some kind of narrative going on in your head, when you play a game, even if it might actually be very boring to the outside world. I mean, every time I'm playing World of Warcraft whether I'm on my own or with someone else, there's always a narrative going on, especially if you're playing a strategic character, like a rogue or druid. You have to think about whether you're going to fight in bear or cat form, whether you run, whether you fire off this spell or that, whether you use vanish powder or a health potion etc. This is interesting and powerful to the individual player because it's their story, and humans are natural story tellers.
But as a script writer, do you find that detracts from your job if there's an implied narrative that you don't have to write?
Oh, no! Not at all. I don't consider myself just a script writer, I'm a story designer as well and I am credited as such on both Heavenly Sword and another of my recent games, Overlord. Good story design is actually as important as the words you see on screen, because it's creating the world in which you hear those words. It's embedding narrative in the way a world looks, the way a character moves, speech, facial tics etc. It's doing everything to facilitate the story, but it isn't necessarily what the character is saying. It's much more subtle than that.
Ok, so would you say that writing for games is becoming more a case of creating a world in which the player creates their own story?
I think there are certainly games that do that and are successful. I'm not sure that's necessarily the way that all games should be going because I definitely think there needs to be diversity. I personally love a well done cutscene. 'Well' being the important word! There's a tendency for some players and developers to kick back against cutscenes because often they're done quite poorly. For example, there's no real direction, the animation is poor, the facial animation is shoddy and it breaks the immersion. Harking back now, I really liked the cutscenes in Diablo II. The game had four really long cutscenes, but they were very well put together and they broke up the action nicely so that after four of five hours of hacking and slashing monsters, you were willing to sit down and watch them. I think there's a lot of mileage in taking proper care in the cutscenes, especially in directing them properly, as we did in Heavenly Sword. That enhances the game, makes the characters seem more real and ultimately enhances the player's immersion in the game.
I think it's a definite challenge because with facial animation (be it mo-cap or hand animated) the slightest anomaly (the inside of the mouth looks a bit wrong, the eyes don't move quite right etc) breaks the immersion moreso than if the character was made up of eight pixels and your imagination was filling in the gaps!
There are a lot of things a good writer can bring to a game. If you look at something like Psychonauts, that had a lot of story design because they had in-house guys who married story and gameplay together very closely. As a result the story was supported at all times and the characters were beautifully woven throughout it. Sorry, I ramble on. You're going to have a hell of a time sorting through this, did I answer the question?
[Laughs] Very probably! Yes, I think you did. I'll move on then. As I said in my email, I think Heavenly Sword's production has been treated more as a film than as a game because Andy Serkis was drafted in to work with the actors, which you don't find very often in games. Did that make a difference with writing? Did you feel like you were writing for a film, more than for a game?
Well, although I've written outside games, I've never written for a film. So I can't really say for sure. But it was certainly interesting knowing that you weren't just writing for someone to voice over and for some poor person to have to just animate. That you could had a certain freedom to write a directional notes on a character's expression, or their movements.
But then again, I also did a lot of writing on Heavenly Sword that was very, very obviously designed for a gameplay experience, not a movie experience. For example, the Chatterbox system that the Ninja Theory guys have talked about way back when they did the cover of Heavenly Sword in Edge. You've got the soldiers talking away to each other during fights, mocking Nariko, mocking each other, reacting to the player's moves etc. The enemy will have a noticeable change depending on how many of them there are in the fight. If there are lots then they'll be more upbeat and bolshy. If there's just a few they'll be much more panicked or cowardly.
So there is a lot of dialogue in there that is driven by the fact it's a game. It helps immerse players into the world, makes it feel like it's living and breathing and that you're fighting realistic enemies, with realistic reactions.
What was your inspiration for the Heavenly Sword games? Overlord is very satirical, but Heavenly Sword is epic fantasy.
I actually wrote Overlord after Heavenly Sword, even though Overlord is already out. The Heavenly Sword story was actually one of the first things on the game to be wrapped up, certainly as far as my role went.
Of course, there's such a lot of work that goes into taking the mo-cap footage and putting it into the game. That's a big, big job. And thankfully, not one of mine! But I definitely think the guys at Ninja Theory who turned the footage into the beautiful cut-scenes you see now, deserve an enormous amount of credit. Not to mention the artists. The art in the game is just draw-dropping. Even every piece of concept art that the Ninja Theory artists produced is worthy of framing and hanging on your wall!. But the Ninjas are really a very strong team throughout, and it's been a real privilege working with them.
In regards to the cutscenes, as Andy Serkis said, it's capturing real performance and that's certainly a milestone for games narrative. I'm really interested to see how gamers react to them, because you always get people who skip past them. Fingers-crossed, I hope that players won't want to!
I was going to ask, what do you as a writer think of people who skip cutscenes?
They should be flayed alive! Only joking. It's horses for courses, isn't it? I personally, never skip cutscenes, because I wouldn't want to miss any part of a game's story. I mean would you go and see a movie then close your eyes and cover your ears every half an hour? Actually that's pretty much what I wanted to do with Crank through the entire movie! But that's a different story!
I say, skip cutscenes if you like, but don't complain that you don't understand the nuances of the story. Having said that, I think a good writer actually tries to embed the story in the interactive narrative as well as cutscenes. In Overlord there's a lot of narrative that doesn't stop gameplay and I think that's very important.
Where was I? Oh yes, inspiration for Heavenly Sword. The Wushu movies were influential to all of us on the team. For me films like like Musa (The Warrior) and Bichunmoo and all the films I watched through the 80s, all the epic fantasy films. Things like the first Conan movie. I focused a lot when I was first writing Nariko's character on what it means to be a warrior. Have you seen the first Conan film? The second is a bit rubbish, don't bother with that.
Ok, well Conan befriends and falls in love with a female half-thief/half barbarian called Valeria. But Conan has this obsessive quest to find Thulsa Doom, the guy (James Earl Jones) who killed his mother and father. He finds out where he is and wants to go and confront him, but Valeria is desperate for him not to do that because she's worried he'll be killed, and she's found something she's never had before.
She gives this little speech about how she's faced death many times, with no one to love and no one to love her, how she's passed campfires in the night and seen figures holding each other in the firelight and yet she's always been the one passing by. That sort of sums up the kind of conflict warriors have between being stoic, warrior-like, and the human emotions that go on underneath. That maybe the warrior life isn't what they always want. So I started thinking about what would happen if these feelings came into direct conflict. So throughout Heavenly Sword Nariko is conflicted by her duties as a warrior and her inner emotions which start to bubble to the surface as the sword sucks more of her life away
I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a warrior. What kind of life that is and what you're missing out on. The emotions you have to suppress to do that. So that's something I looked at a lot with Nariko. There are also a lot of ideas about faith in Heavenly Sword.
Not religious faith?
It's actually, I suppose, more about belief versus faith and what that means to people. You'll see lots of incarnations in the story of the fervent, almost obsessional belief that manifests in King Bohan. Nariko's Clan, obviously, has their own beliefs surrounding the sword. Then I looked at self belief, the most important of all.
Is that, possibly, slightly satirical with the state of western civilization at the moment?
Oh god. Everyone says that about every modern game/movie! No, not particularly. No. It's not. I'm not trying to make any comment on the world, I'm just trying to create an interesting story and get people to think about things.
There's a lot about the sword. It's very central to it and how people feel about the sword is very important. Bohan sees it one way, Nariko sees it another way, as does the Clan. That's all very interlinked. I think the whole warrior thing is very central to Nariko and her journey is the predominant one. Bohan was an interesting character as well. He was one I looked at straight from the off and I have a whole load of backstory about what happened in his past. There's some indication in the game that he and Shen have some sort of history, but you don't find out much about it.
Maybe that's something for game two and three.
Well, you can kind of almost see what Bohan must've been like at school. He's the kind of guy who, as a kid, would steal other peoples' toys. Not because he wants their toys, but because they want them. He wants other peoples' things because they're important to them. He initially wants the Heavenly Sword out of greed, but eventually gets sucked into its mythology.
Your dad doesn't have much influence on your writing?
Not really, no. We kind of keep our writing separate really. We occasionally talk about writing in general, the things he's doing and the things I'm doing. Having someone there that's writing so much and so often is both a blessing and a curse, really.
I wouldn't say he's particularly influenced me. I mean, he influenced me in that he taught me to read a lot, watch a lot of movies. The game influence is there, but not in writing style. Though I think we both have a similar way of looking at the world. Same sense of humour, I suppose. I don't think he really gets writing for games (pretty much like half the games industry!) and he doesn't understand why writers aren't more important in the food chain. So he's disbelieving in some of the plots I get given or some things I have to work with and he doesn't understand why writers can't have more influence. Hopefully they will in the future.
That leads on quite well to my next question. How much freedom did you have with the Heavenly Sword story? How much did the story affect the direction of the game itself?
When I came on board, my job was what would be referred to in the film-world as a "page 1 rewrite". So there was a first draft script written and my job was to rewrite the entire script and flesh out the story, characters etc. Tam (the Creative Director), Andy Serkis and myself work-shopped for a couple of days working out the characters, the themes of the game, the relationships etc. Then I re-wrote the script based on that and also things like the bios for the characters, which not only detailed their personality, and journey through the game, but also things like how they might talk or walk. Then there was also ambient and combat dialogue writing later on in the process, for which we hired another writer (Andrew Walsh) to help with, simply because there was so much of it to do!
Was there anything like that when you joined?
The main arc of the story, the bones of the story, the structure and levels were all there. I think the levels were designed around the script. I don't think it vastly affected the direction of the game, simply due to budget. I would've loved to put more characters in. But the characters we have all worked out really well. We've got a small cast, but they're all very well thought out and realised from their original conception and concept art.
Did you have any concept art waiting for you when you joined?
Yeah, for all of the characters. It's really nice to be able to look at a character and think "what sort of personality should they have?".
Finally, what are you working on now?
Mirror's Edge for EA DICE, which is on the cover of Edge magazine at the moment. I can't say anything about it, only point you towards the feature. But it's going to be great though!
And possibly being called back by Ninja Theory for a sequel, if it does well enough?
We'll see. It's exciting enough that the first game is near to being released and the demo is finally out now. When I finished with the project I hadn't seen everything working in the game. I'd seen all the raw WETA footage, but actually seeing it on the characters and seeing it all come together is wonderful. I may have to buy a PS3!
Sony haven't given you one?
No, they haven't. Sony, if you're reading this. I still haven't got a PS3, you know where I live!
Try and come along to the writer's workshop. I'll be talking about Overlord and my role in the game. I know it's not Heavenly Sword related, but who knows, we might be seeing a PS3 version of Overlord one day. It's doing pretty well on the PC and 360 but I think it'd be nice to see one. There's nothing like it on the PS3, certainly. I think it'd be a lot of fun.
So you suspect there might be one..?
I don't know, to be honest. You have to take one thing at a time and at the moment we're working on the expansion content for Overlord. All I can is, "It would be nice.. watch this space!"
[Laughs] That's a perfect quote to finish on, I think. Thank you very much!