In her DICE talk, writer Rhianna Pratchett delivered a paean to writing in games and offered advice on how to better integrate writers into teams -- and explained its benefits.
"Story is important, and it is important to players," she said, "We are storytelling creatures, we look for the narrative in everything."
"Even if you're not putting much in, players will look for it. ... It engages them in the world. ... It motivates them, it pushes them forward."
She also argued that storytelling can have a profound effect on the sales of a game: with the Tomb Raider reboot, "We put her [Lara's] journey central to the player's experience and it became the fastest-selling game in the series' history. ... Putting the character's journey front and center in that was, I think, a big part of why it did well," she said. With the Overlord franchise, meanwhile, on which she worked as writer and narrative director, "the focus on writing helped nudge it up to triple-A."
The key, she thinks, is not drafting in writers from Hollywood, as the industry has often flirted with. "We really have to recognize our own uniqueness and our own power," she said. "We need to grow our own writers who are specialized in games, so they understand how narrative in the medium really works."
"You use professional programmers, professional artists, so why would you not want to use professional writers?"
What's wrong with games writing?
But there are stumbling blocks. "Writers are often hired too late. I think you get a bunch of game writers into the room and this is the one thing they'll agree on."
When a game is developed and a writer is drafted in at the end -- six months or a year before it's due to be released -- "it's a weird and frustrating way of working" to try and figure out how to wrap a story around that.
"At best, you get a situation where narrative is sitting on top of gameplay," she said. "At worst, you get a 'narrative paramedic' situation," where the writer is left to perform triage on the game -- something she discussed in our interview from today, conducted at DICE.
Many times, people working on games have the attitude "everyone knows that everyone can write and it's cheap and easy and we can just do something later," she said. But a writer can bring more to the table.
"Yes, part of what we do is the word bits... it's not just that, it's not just the writing. I think that word scuppers us a bit in this industry," she said.
"What a writer can do is very similar to what a designer can do -- they can world build, they can use the environment, gameplay, and mechanics to help build the world, and seed the narrative in the game, and help the world feel cohesive," Pratchett argued.
"Story flows through everything... and everything should support the story. Writers are very good at looking at all the parts of the game and seeing how everything could support the story."
"Narrative really benefits when writers are fully integrated in the team."
Pratchett argued for tight integration of the writer, where possible: "Ultimately, writers need to be engaged in teams, and not kept on the outside."
But note: Pratchett is a freelance writer, and usually doesn't join a team in person for the bulk of production. Yet using online tools, she collaborated closely with the developers of Overlord. When she says "integrated" and "engaged," she's speaking in terms of process.
"I would work each day with every level designer, and they would give me a brief, and I would look at it... They would talk to me: What they wanted to highlight from a mechanics point of view, or a level point of view, or a boss fight point of view."
She'd craft something for them, and "could give adjustments on the fly" while collaborating. "I was still doing all the writing, but they were still fully invested in everything I was doing," she said. And this was important to the project at all levels:
"When the script went higher up the creative director knew the person who would have to put it into the game was fully invested."
For Rise of the Tomb Raider, on the other hand -- a much bigger game -- Crystal Dynamics had two narrative designers on staff who "would decide everything we needed to focus on." They could also fight the battles for narrative inside the team, Pratchett said, because "I'm not in the room to do the fighting."