Tomb Raider: Interview - Lead writer Rhianna Pratchett on rebooting video game fanchise
2013 Tomb Raider game release starts afresh with gameplay and story
Henry Northmore talks to Rhianna Pratchett, the lead writer on the reboot of the Tomb Raider videogame franchise
Lara Croft is surely the most iconic female videogames character of all time. After 17 years (the first Tomb Raider was released in 1996), two big budget movie adaptations (with Angelina Jolie taking the title role) and a multitude of games, the franchise is getting stripped back to its roots for the latest release, titled simply Tomb Raider.
This is a brand new story following Croft’s first taste of adventure. ‘We’ve taken Lara back to when she’s 21. She’s just out of university, she’s on her first really big archaeological expedition,’ explains writer Rhianna Pratchett. ‘They get shipwrecked in an area called the Dragon’s Triangle – which is Japan’s equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle – and they get washed up on this very hostile island.’
Much like Hollywood, the world of videogames is getting the bug for relaunches and reboots. ‘We’re starting afresh. We’re not following the previous canon. There will be some similarities but we’ve been able to pick and choose what we like about Lara’s past. Obviously [developers] Crystal Dynamics have worked on several Tomb Raider games in the past so are very aware of the canon but they wanted to restart things and take Lara in new directions.’
Pratchett started on her path to writing games initially contributing videogame reviews for girl’s mag Minx, then moving to the specialist press at PC Gear before spending two years at PC Zone. She then started helping out on English language scripts for European RPGs and supplied dialogue for a SpongeBob Square Pants game, then a Pac Man title, this led to writing for the Overlord series, Heavenly Sword and Mirror’s Edge.
‘I’ve worked on a couple of action adventure game heroines in the past, Nariko in Heavenly Sword and Faith Connors in Mirror’s Edge, so it was great being able to get my hands on the genesis of female action game heroes. She wasn’t the first but she’s the most recognisable – even my mother knows who Lara Croft is,’ laughs Pratchett. ‘Being British, being a female games writer, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work on a Tomb Raider game.’
Writing for videogames is still a bit of a mysterious art, it was a task that used to be taken on by one of the designers or producers of any particular title but over the last decade writers have become more important. Novelists including Alex Garland, Clive Barker and Tom Clancy have been involved in various games over the years, while a plethora of top comics’ talent, such as Warren Ellis, Brian Michael Bendis and Paul Dini, have all written games.
‘The industry has definitely embraced the idea of professional writers,’ explains Pratchett, who coincidently is the daughter of acclaimed fantasy author Terry Pratchett. ‘It’s still wrestling with how to best use them. And likewise writers are learning how to work with the constraints of level design and game mechanics, which do have a big impact on storytelling, so it’s all about finding that sweet spot in-between, so you’re not obstructing the gameplay but you are getting the right narrative in there.’
You also have to mould the story to fit in around the game itself. ‘Most games are not script-led, they are driven by the gameplay and level design and the story is put in later. How much later depends on how much narrative is valued in the project. So you are always fighting for space to tell the story and try to utilise everything from the mechanics to the level design to the art to tell that story.’
‘For example if you look at the animations in Tomb Raider, the way she runs and her posture, she’s clearly nervous and uncertain and that posture changes as she gets more confident throughout the game, so everything can contribute to the narrative.’
Writing for the medium also throws up some distinct challenges. ‘The player is what makes gaming unique, the player is shaping the game world around them,’ points out Pratchett. Writers have to build in a level of flexibility, so individual gamers will still understand the main story whatever their play style. ‘For players who want to rocket through you have one layer of narrative; if you want to explore a little bit you’ve got to be another layer with more bits of the story, more documents and letters to pick up, and if you are one of those completist players who want to go into every corner you have even more narrative rewards to discover.’
Tomb Raider (Square Enix), PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 is released on Tue 5 Mar.