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Interview: Rhianna Pratchett

Jem Alexander

With Rhianna Pratchett's most recent projects -- a trio of Overlord titles -- complete, the game scribe took some time out to discuss what it was like to write for three games at once, what she's looking forward to in the future, and why Faith in Mirror's Edge wasn't quite as talkative as originally planned:

Did you have any difficulties writing for three different platforms? What are the differences and limitations of writing for one platform over another?

It was mainly a question of age ratings. I'm sorry it's not more of an exciting answer. The Wii and DS, Dark Legend and Minions, were aiming for a lower rating than Overlord II, so there were certain things that I couldn't talk about in the scripts -- mainly to do with excessive violence and debauchery. You know, all the really fun stuff.

You can certainly get away with more by taking a comedic angle, but games ratings are actually pretty stringent. I don't think it impacted too much on the Overlord feel, although it was a shame to lose things like drunken minions and mistresses. Okay, in Dark Legend the lead character is only 16, so a harem might have been rather wishful thinking.

There was a definite need for economy of language when it came to the DS, which was a little more restrictive. Condensing a loquacious character like Gnarl was quite a challenge. Other than that it was really just trying to capture the right Overlord tone.

Which of the games is your favorite?

I've noticed that players have been quite divided between whether they prefer the story in the first or second Overlord, which is interesting. I think the first maybe had more defined characters, but the second has a stronger world -- although I am fond of Florian in OL2. He's very loosely based on that "Crying for Britney" guy.

That said, I actually really like some elements in the OL1 expansion pack Raising Hell, which was also bundled with the PS3 version. This was where the heroes from the first game are being put through this kind of Greek myth-style torture. Oberon, the Elven hero, is being made to perpetually watch a really bad play about the destruction of the Elves at the hands of the Dwarves. Meanwhile, Melvin the fat Halfling hero is stuck in a binge-binge-explode cycle.

I really think the team pushed the boat out there in terms of level design, as well. It's a pity that it's not as well known about.

Did you find yourself focusing on Overlord II? Were the Wii and DS games treated more as side projects?

Overlord II was obviously the biggest game in terms of scope, but I moved between the projects during quieter narrative periods -- mainly starting on OL2, moving onto Dark Legend and Minions and then coming back to OL2. Climax Studios were great to work with on the Wii and DS games and I certainly didn't regard them as side projects -- more like partner projects. I also earned my first "additional design" credit on Dark Legend, which was pretty exciting.

It was a lot of fun fleshing out more and more of the world via the different platforms. I now have a Tolkienesque map in my head from filling in the gaps as I went along. "Hmmm ... the Elven Domain doesn't have a name ... taptaptaptap ... it does now!"

Were there any shortcomings in the first Overlord that you wanted to address in the sequel?

From my side it was things like trying to cut down on NPC repetition (which I think is better this time around, but still not perfect) and creating more of a coherent world, rather than a series of levels with their own bosses. I think we managed it, although as I mentioned earlier, players seem pretty evenly divided by which story they prefer.

I was also keen to focus more on the cast and voice acting. We used a mixture of professionals and amateurs last time, with varying results, and I wanted to make sure we strengthened things in this area. So I took the plunge and became lead voice director -- very ably supported by Dan from the Audio Guys. This ended up meaning lots of late nights and early mornings prepping for the sessions, drawing up cast lists and printing off entire rain forests of scripts.

Our cast wasn't that big (I think it was about nine actors in the end), but they were all extremely versatile and brilliant to work with. Some of them I've picked up along the way, such as Jules de Jongh, a very talented lady who was the voice of Juno in OL2, Doris and Little Red in Dark Legend, and Faith in Mirror's Edge. A pretty diverse mix.

Any chance of a Heavenly Sword sequel? Will you be working with Ninja Theory again?

That's really up to Sony, as they're the ones who own the IP. I know it was rumored that Heavenly Sword 2 (which the Ninjas had already revealed they weren't working on) had been canned, but I'm not sure if Sony ever confirmed that one way or another. So I'm as much in the dark as you are.

I had several fans of the game writing to me in utter dismay about the rumors. They were really attached to the characters and wanted to know what would happen next. It was heart-warming to know that people cared about the characters that much. I know Ninja Theory have moved onto new things and so have I. The Ninjas are a really strong creative team and I can't wait to see what they'll come up with next.

What was your favorite game at E3 this year?

I'm looking forward to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and I hope they manage to pull off the multiplayer side of it. I think Amy Hennig has done some great work on that series. The Last Guardian, oh gosh, you can just see how that one is going to go down, can't you? Legions of gamers sobbing over their gamepads. I'll probably just have to admire from a distance. I won't be able to play it, because it looks too much like a larger version of my cat. I'm not entirely sold on Project Natal yet. Don't get me wrong, the tech is astounding and certainly elicits a healthy curiosity in me, but I need to see more about its practical applications.

Have you ever been tempted to return to journalism?

Not a chance! The amount of work you're expected to do for a games journalism piece versus what you actually get paid is pretty shocking. And it's become worse with freelance budgets being slashed all over the place.

I still do a little bit of free film reviewing (I used to work for the late, great Hotdog Magazine) for But that's mainly because my friend who runs it saves me all the odd horror movies and therefore stops me buying them. I have no filter for that kind of thing because I'm always trying to root out the indie gems. Well, that's my excuse.

As a games writer, what are your thoughts on Heavy Rain? How do you feel about its potential to change how stories are told in games?

Experimentation within the narrative space is essential and intensely challenging, so more power to Quantic Dreams for even trying. However, I remember Fahrenheit being touted in the same way and, putting my gamer hat on for a moment, I felt it rather squandered its potential.

I did finish the whole game and I thought the opening half an hour was excellent. If things had continued like that I would have been very happy. But the game seemed to get less and less interactive as it progressed, leaving me with the vague sense that I was watching someone else playing it. I also felt there were too many occasions (without going into spoilers) where the gameplay was at direct odds with the narrative.

Still, QD do seem to be aware of the problems in the first game, so I'm prepared to give Heavy Rain the benefit of the doubt. I wish someone would give that poor woman in all the screenshots a new expression, though.

You mentioned in an interview with Newsarama that a lot of the dialogue from Mirror's Edge was cut. Can you tell us more about what happened with that -- the reasoning behind it and, perhaps, how much of the game story was ultimately removed?

Well firstly, it's not uncommon for quite violent things to happen to a game's narrative during the course of a project; usually because of other factors, such as time or budget constraints. I've been on games where characters and even whole levels have been lost on the rough seas of games development.

It was decided right at the end of the project that it was too intrusive for Faith to speak during levels; that it broke the immersion. In all fairness, this is a difficult thing to balance, as you are working with a first-person perspective. As a result of this (and not getting too far into specifics) the majority of Faith's level dialogue was cut along with other bits and pieces. Prior to this point everything had been structured, written and recorded. So you can imagine that -- given how quiet Faith is during levels -- this was no small amount.

From a narrative perspective it wasn't the best time to be reaching for the axe, and I wasn't involved in the process. But like I said, these things happen. I'm still proud of the world we created and I think we all learned a lot of valuable lessons from the project. And if you can walk away with that, then it's no bad thing. Often the complexities of a story and the realities of game design make writing for this medium rather like trying to stuff a jelly into an envelope.

Will you be working on Mirror's Edge 2?

That's up to EA.

So what's next?

My next project's awesome, but it's one I'm keeping to myself for the moment. I think the internet could do with a break from me for a while.

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