Playing At Writing part 2: Rhianna Pratchett has a chat

The rather lovely Rhianna Pratchett was kind enough to sit down with our very own Simon Fox for a chat about what happens when you fill up your games with delightful words. This is part 2 of that interview, part 1 can be found here.

Simon Fox: We’ve spoken before about the idea of building a blank slate character for players to inhabit against building a complex character - which do you feel players prefer?

Rhianna Pratchett: It actually tends to be fairly even between the players that prefer blank slates and ones that prefer a deeper character. I also think there’s space in between these extremes - Gordon Freeman has a look, he has a name, has people who know him but is more or less a blank slate. Then you have characters with depth that players shape through the game which drives player investment. 

When you’re working with blank slate characters the world and your other characters have to work a lot harder. Especially if you have a mute blank slate character which Overlord was - I think I put a lot of what I thought the player might be thinking into Gnarl’s voice who was often speaking to the player. 

From a writers perspective I think it’s more fun to have some kind of character to work with, or a good cast around your protagonist. Alyx was very strong and helped give Gordon Freeman a sense of character. 

SF: When you’re building a strong character you’re essentially asking the player to be an actor in your narrative, and the idea that they might behave inappropriately can cause problems - are there any tricks you use to encourage better behaviour from your players?

RP: There are a lot of conversations that happen behind closed doors along the lines of ‘what if a player tries to break X’. Trying to get the player to empathise with what the player character is going through, and not to break that link between them is important. If an action has repercussions, then I think it’s something the player has to do personally to hold that link strong. Allowing the player to drive action, but the player character to drive narrative is the key. Important actions should be driven by the player, important narrative by the character. Ideally the players character will never do anything idiotic that the player wouldn’t do, or anything cool that the player wants to do.

SF: What would be an example of a game play mechanic which really serves to build character?

RP: In Bioshock, when you first came aboard Rapture and you’re asked to plunge a syringe into your arm, and you do it, the player does it. At the time you don’t know why you’re doing it but the plot justifies it very well.

Arkham Asylum was great and I enjoyed hanging off gargoyles and toying with goons - It seemed to reinforce what Batman was about. He’s a great video game character because really he is a bit a psychopath. 

SF: How do you go about increasing the player’s sense of freedom?

RP:  I think it’s about making the world around them seem real and putting in those little bright flowers of narrative away from the safe path. Little things to encourage the player to explore. If you’ve got good stories or characters or interesting conversations happening - they are good ways to draw the player off and make them explore the world, giving them the sense that they have a good amount of freedom - in that voyeuristic way. Arkham Asylum had those conversations between goons that you overheard and that also gave the player a sense of power. 

SF: Can you playtest a game’s story? 

RP: It’s really hard to do. There’s this big feedback loop between writing a line and actually getting it working in the game. You have to write it, it has to pass through all the gates and checks required to approve it, it has to be recorded by - if you’re lucky - an actor, and then it has to be placed in the game. Now you have to make sure it triggers in the right place and if it’s part of an animation then it has to go along with that. It can take a long time before you can see if it’s working in place. 

Mostly it’s about having time to test. All you can do is get people in early - get writers in early. Ideally writers should be doing a lot of work before they write any dialogue - character profiles and bios and working out relationship structures and world building exercises. Really getting to know your characters before you write them is a luxury and it’s about having that time to iterate. Most game scripts get only one draft and that’s it! Even the best Hollywood screen writer doesn’t get it right first time and that’s in a linear medium. So often there is just not time for polish and iteration on scripts. 

SF: What gaming memory has really stuck with you the most?

RP: I had a lot of fun with the Dungeon Keeper games - I have these, they’re like cosy blanket games. I might even after this interview go and rummage around for my Dungeon Keeper 2 disc and try and get it to work. There are some games that just hit the spot - DK2 was one of those games for me. Even though it will probably crash once every game on Vista I still love it.

You can check out more of Rhianna’s work at here personal site.

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