Tomb Raider attempts to reboot a long-established character. VG247's Dave Cook speaks with lead writer Rhianna Pratchett on the task and the state of games writing today.
What makes a game character iconic? Is it because we support their cause, or do they just charm us to the point of submission? Is it because they make us laugh, make us cry, or make us really care about their struggle?
There are many factors to consider. In Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider reboot, that consideration must be levied at the new and improved Lara Croft. She's a gaming institution, so rebooting the franchise was always going to be a risk.
Reboots can be tricky, especially when they involve characters as long-standing and as recognisable as Croft. People know who she is, but this new Lara is somebody else. She's completely out of her depth, and is forced to adapt to a world she fears.
How then, can both classic Lara and this new rendition be stacked side by side fairly? How can Crystal Dynamics make us fall in love with this hero in the same way we did back in 1996?
That task has fallen to Rhianna Pratchett. Her work spans games such as Prince of Persia, Mirror's Edge, Heavenly Sword and the Overlord series. It's fallen to her to pen a new Lara who's more sympathetic, but no less as tough or deadly, as the green-topped, gun-blazing firebrand we knew on PSone.
We asked Pratchett how she approached the task, why the relationship between writer and studio is changing drastically, and what it takes to become a professional game writer today.
VG247: How challenging has it been to go into such a long-running franchise to reboot and re-write such an established character such as Lara?
Rhianna Pratchett: It's pretty challenging but I think Crystal Dynamics were fairly flexible with what we could keep from old Lara - what we thought was important - and areas where we wanted to evolve her more, or bring in some traits we hadn't previously established.
I particularly wanted to bring back the humanity of the character, her warmth, empathy, friendship, and more human qualities. Because I think as old Lara has evolved, she has become more of a 'female batman'.
The more heroic and teflon-coated you get, the harder it is to relate to that character, so we wanted to go back to her human side. There's still a lot of old Lara's background in place, so we've carefully interwoven our new stuff in there.
Was it a daunting challenge at the outset?
Yeah, it was kind of daunting, but you just have to knuckle down and do the work. You can't keep thinking about that or otherwise it would just drive you insane.
I just had to think, 'OK, this is a job just like any other', and just approached it with the same dedication to the character and her world. You just have to put everything you can into it.
When you joined the project, how far did Crystal Dynamics have the angle of the game, and new Lara in mind, or were they still unsure?
There was a story arc there that sort of got shuffled around the studio over the two and a half years I was working on the game. There was no script in place, but there was a story arc and levels that had been planned.
“Games writing – when it’s working right – should always be highly iterative. You keep having to write and re-write, and nowhere is that more the case than in games.”
But there were some characters in place, such as Lara and Roth in particular, as well as others that just existed visually and had no character yet. They were built and designed throughout the process of the game.
That's often the case. You get a sort of narrative body parts you have to put together, and fill in the gaps. What I worked on in particular was Lara's character and background, how she evolves throughout the game, how her traits come out, and how she feels about the events around her.
There was also a lot about her relationships with other survivors, and how those develop over the course of the game. So yeah, it was very character focused as you have a lot of survivors, and there was a lot of work to be done on their backgrounds.
Your 'female Batman' comparison is interesting, because a lot of games star invincible heroes who don't feel pain as humans do. Lara has been shown in trailers getting beaten up a lot, so how does your writing help bring that vulnerability out in the gameplay?
Games writing - when it's working right - should always be highly iterative. You keep having to write and re-write, and nowhere is that more the case than in games.
You're constantly having to write and tweak around the gameplay within the available space, and to react to what's happening. But generally when I approach a character I look at the gameplay and the actions that character will be performing.
I try to feed that back into that character's personality, and it's all about feeding action back into character. Usually the action is in place before the character so it's sort of like doing it backwards, although it has the same result.
So a lot of Lara's resourcefulness, bravery and tenacity that she shows in the gameplay is reflect back into her character and how she develops during the more narrative-heavy sections of the game.
It's like when I wrote the character Faith in Mirror's Edge. She's someone who runs for a living - and she runs a lot. What is she running from, why, what happens when she stops running, as well as what makes her stop running to face whatever's chasing her?
When we talk about Lara's evolution over the course of the game, just how long was the game's script?
I worked on the cinematic script, which covers the core cut-scenes, so it approaching about 90 pages, which is about the length of a movie. But not all of that will feature in non-interactive cut-scenes. Some of it will appear in smaller interactive scenes.
I'm not actually sure how long the overall cut-scenes come to in the end, as I did the core narrative script, and then I worked with John Stafford who is the narrative designer. He did a lot of the level dialogue stuff.
I fed back on his writing, he fed back on mine, and we had creative director Noah Hughes overseeing the process, so we worked as a trio to make sure that Lara was consistent in level dialogue and in cut-scenes.
When you say that Lara's cut-scene script alone is 90 pages. That really does sound impressive, and I think a lot of gamers don't give proper consideration to the writing involved in game development. Should game writers be highlighted more for their efforts?
Well, the game script being the length of a movie is not unusual, as they're usually much, much bigger. Because if you factor in the level script, the overall plot, and the cinematic script - the number of words that amounts to is huge.
When you factor all of that in, you typically have something that is three times the length of a movie, word-wise, because of different types of narrative. You have AI dialogue, level dialogue, environmental story-telling, cut-scenes, and it's very, very diverse.
”Certainly five years and beyond, hiring professional game writers wasn’t really done. Occasionally it would be done, but usually it was just whoever at the studio fancied doing it – a designer or producer.”
I think we've got to a situation where game writers are being flagged up more. They're getting to talk about what they do, why they do it, what goes right, what goes wrong, and how to evolve the craft.
You just weren't getting that five years ago, and those are important dialogues to have. What I think is more important than talking about job, is how to use games writers better.
Certainly five years and beyond, hiring professional game writers wasn't really done. Occasionally it would be done, but usually it was just whoever at the studio fancied doing it - a designer or producer.
They wouldn't necessarily have a writing background, they just chose the short straw or whatever, so it was one area of development that wasn't actually done by professionals. That seems a little bit ludicrous.
But of course times have changed massively now.
Yeah, and we've evolved now so that the industry has now put a big tick next to 'hiring professional writers is a good thing'. But it's now much harder to work out how a writer can be embedded within a team, and how they work with designers and others.
There are a lot of challenges around embedding writers in teams, and how to work with them . But it works the other way, with writers learning how to work with developers, what questions they should be asking, and understanding what limitations they're likely to work under.
Is it easier to get into the industry as a writer now that the curtain has been pulled back, and that studios understand that role better?
Well I've always said that to be a game writer you have to be a gamer - which seems kind of obvious - but the amount of times I get approached by writers who have never even played a game, I just think 'why? Do you even care besides making a quick buck?'
That said, routes to market are getting easier, so I can see why some writers want to cash in while they can.
Yeah, but it's like the movie industry. You wouldn't want to make a movie without actually watching a movie. You need to respect the medium and I think the way gamers come to understand games through playing is very important.
Having been a gamer since I was six, and having been in the industry since 1998, as well as being a game journalist, I'm used to looking at, and evaluating games.
I also think it's helpful to understand the medium from within, like understanding how tech and level design all feeds into how you write your script, and what you can and can't put into them.
There are many things you have to consider than don't exist while writing for other mediums, and writers also need to know when to push back, especially against the attitude that writer are people who just do the word bits.
“Writers have to say, ‘Hey, get us in early, we can offer a lot to help establish a narrative world, and narrative logic for your game.’ If you got a bunch of game writers in a room together, I’d say the one thing they’d all agree on is that writers are not hired early enough across the industry.”
Or that writer's are cheap, so studios can slot them in whenever, because then you get into a situation where writers are being hired late to act as a 'narrative paramedic'.
Writers have to say, 'Hey, get us in early, we can offer a lot to help establish a narrative world, and narrative logic for your game.' If you got a bunch of game writers in a room together, I'd say the one thing they'd all agree on is that writers are not hired early enough across the industry.
Say there's someone out there reading this who is a gamer and wants to be a game writer. They already have that passion, but getting into the industry looks like a minefield. What would you say to them?
In my experience, what I did was I came from a journalist background. I used some of the contacts I had while I was a journalist and approached them and said, 'hey this is what I'm doing now'.
I initially got a job as story editor on a hardcore RPG, and then grew it from there using industry contacts, so it's probably a little easier for game journalists to make that transition.
But it's still a relatively tight industry and everyone seems to know each other. But I would say to new writers with no experience in the industry, that it's about going to things like GDC, Develop, and actually getting more immersed in the industry.
Walking around show floors, meeting people, talking about what you're doing, and just starting small - I think - will really help. But the key is to start small - something like script editor, to level design, to mission design, and then to full script.
Getting work as a story editor, or smaller writing is easier. But it really is all about getting out there and meeting people, and of course understanding game writing and getting a feel for what someone will ask you to do.
There are good books about games writing out there now that give advice on how to write cut-scenes, how that transfers to audio, and more. You can even make a portfolio by inventing and scripting cut-scenes in games that didn't exist before. It's just about being brave and being immersed in the industry.
What would you say is your favourite game script to date?
I've always turned to Psychonauts, because I think it really hit that sweet spot between being funny, while having that element of sadness about it at the same time.
When you discover the characters' secrets that they were hiding, the secret room and some of the woes that they had been keeping from people, it was - god - it was really, really touching.
The game used level design as story-telling in a really wonderful way, so I always name-drop Psychonauts as a good example of story-telling. Having said that, Bioshock is also a master class in environmental story-telling.
It's got such good voice acting and it's really well animated. I know that must seem obvious, but I cannot harvest a Little Sister in that game. I cannot do it, and I'm playing Bioshock through for about the fourth time.
”The scope of the medium's limitations - of tech, faces - can be offset by the scope of environmental story-telling.”
I can't do it because of the animation and voice work that goes into them. It pulls on my heartstrings every single time as they push away at your big hand with their little hand shouting, 'No, no!'
That's really down to the combination of animation and voice that works so beautifully, so it's actually about more than the script and words. Writers should do more than just the words bit, because this is actually an evolution of writers within games.
It shouldn't just be writing, it should be a combination of roles because it's so different to anything else once you get down to it. The scope of the medium's limitations of tech, faces - can be offset by the scope of environmental story-telling.
So you can tell your narrative to players in more than just words. You really felt the fall of Rapture in Bioshock and Bioshock 2, so that is a good example of how writing can factor into many elements of the game.