Anyone who is familiar at all with how video games are made understands how astonishing it is that there have been any video games made at all that have actually told a good story.
Rhianna Pratchett is someone familiar with the challenges facing storytelling in video games. Following a previous life as a journalist, she began to take writing positions at game companies, racking up writing credits on recognizable games like Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge, the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot from Crystal Dynamics, and most recently, last year’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, for which she and her writing team won a Writers Guild Award.
“When I started out, yeah, there were narrative games, but so much has changed over the last decade and a half,” she told me in an interview at the 2016 DICE Summit in Las Vegas, where she’s giving a talk. “There’s so much more focus on narrative from publishers and developers, from the press, from players themselves. Everyone’s got a game that they really love for the story, which wasn’t really the case when I first started out.”
'Do we need professional writers?'
That desire for more and better stories in video games doesn’t automatically translate into an understanding of what it takes to actually make that happen. For many studios, narrative and writing was an afterthought, and respect for writing as a craft was low.
“When I first started out, one of the genuine questions bouncing around the industry was, ‘Do we need professional writers?’” she recalled. “Well, you’ve got professional artists! Why would you choose not to have a professional do something in your professional game?!”
Pratchett said once studios realize that yes, they do need a professional writer for their game, it was often too late, and the writing became less of a creative, collaborative process with the rest of the game development team, and more of an emergency operation.
"When I first started out, one of the genuine questions bouncing around the industry was, 'Do we need professional writers?' Well, you’ve got professional artists! Why would you choose not to have a professional do something in your professional game?!"
“The narrative paramedic, that’s what I call it,” said Pratchett. She said the industry has gotten better about hiring someone to strap a late-term band aid over a bad story, but ignoring story until it’s too late is still not an unusual occurrence, in her experience.
“There are still a few cheeky cobblers in the industry and one is hiring writers too late,” she continued. “That is starting to change as more companies are hiring professional writers and they understand what they can bring to a project…using their skillset for building the world, creating narrative in the gameplay and mechanics, rather than bringing them on six month or a year before shipping.
Words, Pratchett said, have been considered “cheap and easy,” and there has been the attitude of “we’ll make the game then someone will come in and then do the word bits. And there still are gigs like that—gigs that show no kind of knowledge or sensitivity of writers or writing, like giving someone two weeks to write 100,000 words. You’re not really going to get good results from that.”
Pratchett would take those “narrative paramedic jobs,” but they just became progressively less appealing. “All you can do is patch it up a bit, stop the bleeding. It was frustrating, and I stopped taking those gigs.”
The whole game dev team as writers
Crystal Dynamics’ Rise of the Tomb Raider wasn’t one of those paramedic gigs. Pratchett said for that game, the writing team of four people (double that of the previous Tomb Raider, including John Stafford, Cameron Suey, Philip Gelatt and Pratchett), started thinking of how game and story would work together earlier on in the creation process. Writers were involved in the playtesting process, they were involved with the actors, and were just generally more open with the story with the rest of the development team.
It’s challenging, processing feedback on the story from so many parties, from playtesters to team members to Microsoft, but it ended up benefiting the end product.
"We all have to become better storytellers in order to create better narrative experiences in games. And writers can champion that, and they should champion that"
Pratchett said getting writers more involved in all aspects of creation was a lesson learned from 2013’s Tomb Raider. She said that game’s original ending tested poorly with players because it ended on a death—it was kind of depressing, apparently in a detrimental way in terms of what the team intended.
So Pratchett said the team took the death ending out—but without the heavy death ending, the rest of the game needed a bit more…death.
“When we originally did the death ending, we didn’t have so much death in the game. So I had to literally go back and kill off characters so there’s much more death up to the end of the game,” laughed Pratchett. It was a late-in-development choice that could’ve been identified sooner if playtester feedback was collected earlier on in the development process, and if the writers were more involved with the rest of the team, said Pratchett. “We were all more open with the story and the script the second time around.”
“I believe that story comes through everything in the game,” she said. “It comes from the animation, it comes from the art, it comes through the music,” said Pratchett. “What writers are really good at is being able to engage the team members in what role they have to play in supporting the story. We all have to become better storytellers in order to create better narrative experiences in games. And writers can champion that, and they should champion that.”