Editor’s note: this is part one of a two-part series documenting Pratchett’s career, from PC Zone and Overlord to Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider. Header photo credit © National Media Museum.
“It’s all to do with a gay tortoise,” says award-winning games writer Rhianna Pratchett of her big break.
The story of Mirror’s Edge begins in the ancient village of Rowberrow, Somerset. That’s where the Pratchetts lived, just up the road from the Cousins. The two families had something in common, and that was tortoises. The Cousins’ tortoise fancied himself as an escape artist, and from time to time would break out, trundling up to the Pratchett residence to join his fellows.
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Then one day the Cousins moved away – and the getaway tortoise got his wish, moving in with the Pratchetts full-time.
“They lived in this kind of homoerotic Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson kind of relationship,” remembers Pratchett.
Life went on. Young Ben Cousins grew up to become a producer at DICE. And when it came to building a plot for his strange parkour project, he recommended the only videogame writer with whom he shared a background in shelled pet-keeping.
“We kind of bonded over mutual tortoise ownership,” says Pratchett. “And eventually that led on to Mirror’s Edge.”
That was the opportunity – but opportunity wouldn’t have been much good without the ability and love for games to back it up.
Rhianna’s dad first introduced her to games when she was six. Terry Pratchett – whose own career was carried on the back of a turtle, not a tortoise, but close enough – liked comics and robotics and computers, and especially PC games.
“I’m an only child,” explains Pratchett. “I didn’t have any brothers or sisters to tell me what they thought my gender should like or not like so I was just interested in what dad was interested in.”
Rhianna would sit next to dad and assist by drawing maps on graph paper – or tuck in behind him on his big chair “like a human bolster cushion”, peering out at the screen.
The writing ability was honed later, as a games journalist at PC Zone.
“I resisted it for a while,” she remembers. “I wanted to go into something else to start with because of, you know, certain other people in my family. But my father said he could see the scaly hands of journalism reaching out to me. Journalism is very good if you don’t know what to do with your life.”
Pratchett’s first game writing gigs were for the idiosyncratic developers she would pour praise on in her reviews – Stronghold’s Firefly and Divinity’s Larian. For Beyond Divinity, she polished up the English-language script of a German writer and wrote a novella which, even now, is required reading for new Larian writers.
“I can’t remember what I wrote,” says Pratchett. “It was my first short story, with no editor, so it was really rough and ready. And now, oh my God, people are being made to read it as part of their job.”
As for the script, keeping track of Divinity’s many threads proved a “real nightmare”. Yet something clicked: “It put me off RPGs for about 15 years but I found it much more satisfying than doing journalism.”
Heavenly Sword followed: a much-anticipated project from the early days of the PS3 which starred a mo-capped Andy Serkis. Pratchett remembers getting the job after a four hour interview – “in which I gurgled a lot about Conan and Aliens” – before retiring to a toilet cubicle for a silent “squee!” of celebration.
But the first game which Pratchett felt inextricably involved with was Overlord, the minion-directing comedy action game.
“Ownership is difficult to really have when you’re in my position, because I don’t have hard powers,” she notes. “I’m not creative director, I’m not an internal lead writer, I’m not a game director. So I’m always relying on how much power people choose to give me. And Triumph were very generous in that regard.”
Pratchett and Game Republic’s Jamie Sefton at Yorkshire Games Festival,© National Media Museum.
Pratchett worked alongside Triumph’s designers on level scripting, and has since gone on to write everything in every Overlord game – the kind of continuity freelance games writers rarely enjoy.
“Maybe I’m looking back on it with rose-tinted glasses and comparing it to some of the projects I’ve worked on since,” she says. “But it was as fun to develop as it was to play.”
As we reach Pratchett’s rise into triple-A writing, her accounts are more frequently punctuated by frustrations and concessions. In the writing of Mirror’s Edge – the tortoise breakthrough moment – those frustrations began before her pen even hit paper.
“They had just designed the game with no narrative in mind,” Pratchett recalls. “They weren’t pretending that wasn’t the case, but I don’t think I realised how difficult that was going to be, because you’re essentially working backwards and wrapping the story around existing gameplay.”
DICE had originally planned a cops-and-robbers style multiplayer game – and Faith was one of a number of concept art characters they had drawn for it. She was the protagonist of Mirror’s Edge, but nobody could say exactly who she was. There was a gleaming white world, but no-one on the team knew why it existed. And the game was about parkour, that much was definite – but nobody could tell Pratchett why the runners were running.
“A lot of what I had to do was ask the ‘Why’ questions and fill in the gaps,” she says. “That was a real challenge. Faith wasn’t a character, she was just a visual.
“I think I actually came up with the name Mirror’s Edge, which everyone thought was weird at the time. But we’d gone through every possible momentum title we could and they’d all been taken by racing games.”
By the time Mirror’s Edge was out, all the questions were answered. Faith was a courier delivering sensitive material on the peripheral of a dystopian city she saw as cold and sterile. Hence the washed-out colours. But the game was hampered by uninspiringly animated cutscenes and a script that was short on character and world-building. With good reason.
“They decided to cut out all the level dialogue for Faith at the eleventh hour, after it had been written and recorded,” Pratchett explains. “I think they felt it was too distracting to the player in a first-person perspective. Which is OK as a decision, but it came right at the end, and it wasn’t a script where you could just hack 40% out and it would still make sense.”
It wasn’t the most difficult project in Pratchett’s career to date, however. That miserable honour is reserved for 2014’s Thief – a troubled game with dramatic team turnover in which “everything completely changed”.
Part two covers Thief, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst and Tomb Raider controversy.