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Tomb Raider’s writer Rhianna Pratchett discusses the future of Discworld, and making Lara Croft accountable

Tomb Raider delayed until 2013
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In the freshly rebooted Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is one part wide-eyed post-grad and one part mass-murderer. The new vision of the character, conceived for Crystal Dynamics by writer Rhianna Pratchett, suffers from the same disconnect that other action game heroes do: We love Lara in spite of her killer instinct, not because of it. Why is that? What makes her, or someone like Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake or dozens of others, so likable in the face of all of that murder? It’s the writing, of course; these are characters that spring off the screen once they’ve holstered their weapons. How can you not appreciate Drake’s wisecracking charm? Or Lara’s free-spirited thrill-seeking? You can’t. That’s the whole point.

Rhianna Pratchett
Rhianna Pratchett Image used with permission by copyright holder

The key is to always be mindful of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. In the case of Tomb Raider, it’s the time taken to really drive home the significance of Lara’s first kill. The combat is a necessary component in an action game, but the controlled burn is vital, according to Pratchett. You ask for a suspension of disbelief as dictated by the demands of interactivity, but you also take care to never forget the path you’ve carved in getting to that place.

There are points where we do bring up and get her to acknowledge a little bit of what she’s doing,” Pratchett told Digital Trends in a recent interview. “We can’t make the sixteenth death, the twenty-first death, the fortieth death be just like the first. It just wouldn’t work. So we try to make that first death count and [make sure] she has an awareness of what she’s doing. You can tell that things are not really rosy under the surface. That’s all we can do; make the character self-aware of what they’re doing, but not constantly in a way that would annoy the player.”

“I’m not saying we got it perfect, and I’m not even sure how it can be made perfect. All combat-based games with a protagonist are going to have [a body count].”

Leaning too far in the direction of realism is perilous. Blockbuster films avoid it, so why should blockbuster games be any different? As important as it is to paint your cast of characters in realistic strokes, there’s a balance to strike when your working within the context of action-driven fiction. Too much realism, and you sour the experience. “If it was like real life, as soon as Lara dropped from the cocoon that she was in in the cave, she probably would have either died or just curled up in a corner and died,” Pratchett said, chuckling. “It was something we tried to address by making the first kill impactful for Lara, very close up and personal. The rest [of the kills] after that tend to get further and further away, as if Lara is pushing away the thoughts of what she’s trying to do as the enemies are literally getting further away.”

“I’m not saying we got it perfect, and I’m not even sure how it can be made perfect. All combat-based games with a protagonist are going to have [a body count]. Even having a character… acknowledge that death and taking a human life is not pleasant and is not something they would have wanted, it felt like a good step for us. It’s only really in stuff like an origin story where you can take a character back to that point and have them kill for the first time where you can play that card.”

Pratchett’s comment here raises an interesting question. While it’s true that Crystal Dynamics has yet to breathe even a word one of its sequel plans, Tomb Raider has enough success behind it now that the vision presented in this reboot is likely to continue. Pratchett hasn’t had any conversations about what might come next in an official capacity, nor has she technically even been hired for round two. Still, purely as a writer, she’s given thought to Lara’s arc and how the narrative concerns presented in the first game might be addressed if/when we return to play as a more hardened, world-weary Croft.
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“As far as how we’d take it forward, I think again we’d still be looking at action equals character. When you work on a game, you have the action and then you have to work backwards and create the character,” she explained. “The way you play, what does that tell you about who that character is? How are they changing? How are they developing?” Pratchett cites her earlier work on Heavenly Sword and Mirror’s Edge here, two games with strong female protagonists that evolved as characters around the particular demands of the interactive framework they exist in. “I was looking at the mechanics and the gameplay and what they do in the game, and then looking back at how that would inform their characters.”

Mirrors-Edge-1Equally important is context. In the case of post-Tomb Raider Lara, this amounts to everything that she went through in the Dragon’s Triangle. Her first kill. Her many kills after that. The blossoming of her survivalist instinct. The heroic streak that led her to set aside the danger of the situation and drive always forward toward rescuing her friends and keeping them safe. These are all necessary ingredients to consider as the recipe for Lara Croft as a character is revised in subsequent stores.

“We definitely have to not ignore [all] that happened,” Pratchett said. “Certainly what she’s discovered about the world and what she thought she knew [is a big part of it]. Lara was always quite pragmatic and a realist; it was her father who had more fanciful notions and bought into the mythology of the world. He was a pursuer of myths and legends, really, and that wasn’t something that Lara particularly subscribed to. Now she’s certainly come out of the game thinking maybe he was right, he had a point. We don’t know how much we don’t know.”

“I always joke about… how writers are used as narrative paramedics that are just sort of parachuted in to fix up a bleeding story. That does happen a lot.”

“Now she’s opened Pandora’s Box in some ways and there is no shutting it again. Not only a Pandora’s Box into the world but a Pandora’s Box inside her as well. So it’s sort of getting that balance between what is that Pandora’s Box inside her telling us about her character and, [as for] the Pandora’s Box into the world, how is that going to push her onward? How is it going to make what she’s experienced on the island and the lives that have been lost not have been in vain?”

Bear in mind, this is a clinical and entirely hypothetical take on what might come next for Lara. The process of writing for games as a mercenary writer like Pratchett has come to understand it doesn’t always afford the luxury of time or space or really crack the character behind the bio. Granted, coming back to work on a Tomb Raider sequel would bring the added benefit of having much of the early groundwork in place, but Pratchett feels strongly that the actual process of writing for games could stand to mature a little bit.

tomb raider 2013 screenshot
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“I always joke about… how writers are used as narrative paramedics that are just sort of parachuted in to fix up a bleeding story. That does happen a lot. I don’t tend to take on those projects, but I know a lot of talented, hard-working games writers that do, and that’s kind of what needs to change,” she said. “Writers do need to be involved in the process. It’s not about writing specifically, in that the actual writing down the words bit is only one part of being a writer in games. It is about building the world, it is about bringing narrative logic, it is about using gameplay mechanics to define characters and themes. That is all stuff that would benefit from being done earlier. I think the term ‘writer’ somewhat scuppers us. The earlier that you’re involved, the more you can bring to a project. It’s as simple as that really.”

“…you do need people like myself. Especially with big games, a lot of things need to be shaped. It’s very difficult for one writer to write an entire game.”

Pratchett actually started relatively early on in the Tomb Raider process, having been given a rough synopsis, loosely defined character bios, and artwork. It was then up to her and narrative designer John Stafford to carve out the fine points. Bios needed to be expanded and character relationships needed to be thought through. The larger story was another challenge, and a separate one, and it saw some significant changes as the creative process unfolded.

“Originally, the more supernatural elements of the story were a little bit more front-loaded than they are. Then we decided to back-load them a bit more so it’s a bit like an Indiana Jones format; there’s usually supernatural weirdness in the Indy stories, but it’s always toward the end,” she said, adding,”[such as] the opening of the Ark, the drinking from the Holy Grail. We took that into consideration and pushed some of the more supernatural elements back to make the survivalist story more prevalent, which I think worked quite well.”

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Pratchett is quick to point out here again that there’s really no standard for writing in games development. For Tomb Raider, she was handed what amounted to early design documents. Sometimes she’ll see a few levels, sometimes it’s little more than character artwork or basic themes. There are even situations, as was the case with Mirror’s Edge, where an entire game has already been designed and it’s up to the writer to work out how a narrative plays into it.

“I had to sort of fit a story retroactively around the levels that existed and the gameplay that existed,” she explained. “They knew what they wanted for the visuals of the city and they knew what Faith looked like, but they didn’t really know how it all fitted together. Obviously parkour was very big at the time and they took that sort of parkour look. They decided they wanted to do something different from the dark and dreary futuristic cities, something completely opposite from a Blade Runner city.”

As a contract writer, Pratchett has worked in a variety of roles. She obviously brought a significant amount of creative input to the table with games like Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge, but she’s also been hired to work on more peripheral roles that help to flesh out one virtual world or another while another team – typically staffers – hashes out the key beats. “I came onto Prince of Persia and helped out a little bit there with AI dialogue for Andy Walsh,” she said. “I did a similar thing for BioShock Infinite where I worked on the AI for that and helped to kind of define it, but as a minor writer in the spectrum. The sexy stuff is done by [the Irrational writing team], but you do need people like myself. Especially with big games, a lot of things need to be shaped. It’s very difficult for one writer to write an entire game.”

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Lara is different though. Pratchett has developed a sense of attachment to the character, a vested interest in seeing where she goes and what she does next. “I feel I’ve become her new stepmum. Hopefully not a wicked stepmum, but I can’t argue with that charge after what she got put through. She’s a really interesting character. What she’s been through on the island and how that’s going to affect her in the future, I do kind of feel responsible for her in some ways… but ultimately I don’t work at Crystal. Things seem to have gone pretty well on the project and I haven’t managed to disgrace myself utterly, so hopefully I’ll get a call from Crystal at some point.”

Terry Pratchett's first Discworld novel, 'The Colour of Magic'
Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel, ‘The Colour of Magic’ Image used with permission by copyright holder

For now, Pratchett has plenty of work to keep her busy, especially with her ailing father, Terry Pratchett, having handed over the reins to his beloved Discworld series late in 2012. This is a difficult topic for Rhianna to talk about, though not for the reasons that you might think. Accepting the eventual loss of a close family member is a fact of life that we all face, but the two Pratchetts have a media spotlight to contend with as well. Rhianna makes it clear as we chat about Discworld that her light tone shouldn’t be construed as her being “cavalier about my father’s death.” It’s more that discussing such a personal matter in a public space requires a certain amount of professional distance.

That said, Rhianna very much sees herself as the carrier of Discworld‘s reins rather than an active creative participant in future novels. “I do not see myself writing the books. I don’t think my skills and talents lie in that area, in all honesty. I don’t think I would be able to match up to him in that area,” she explained. “I think when people say they want more Discworld books, they just kind of want more Discworld books from my father. So unless I have an extremely good Ouija board setup, that’s really not going to happen unfortunately.”

“My father is very open about his disease and his support for assisted dying. I sincerely hope it’s going to be many years from now, but just as dad thinks about the endgame and how that might go, who might take over Discworld, I have to think about it as well,” she continued. “I would just be taking over his books because I’m his daughter, not because I have experience in that area. I don’t think anyone needs that. All I would be at best is a good mimic, and that’s not the creative life I want for myself to be honest. They’re sacred to him and I don’t want to risk endangering that in any way.”

“I think what I’m interested in [personally] would be adaptations and spin-offs [like] The Watch,” she said of the upcoming TV show based on the Discworld series. “I’ve had experience with adaptations, completely outside of games and completely outside of Discworld, and I feel I can come to the table with more skills and experience in that area.”

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Even with Discworld in the picture, the younger Pratchett isn’t ready to give up on games and games writing. “Games need champions to stand up and shout about them, and try to get people to listen, even if they don’t necessarily listen,” she said. Her hope is that, as these champions of interactive narrative emerge, they’ll start asking the right questions and discussing the right problems. Considering not just what’s being done right and what’s not, but why as well. What are the next steps? What is required to move us forward? Pratchett sticks with games because she loves them, sure, but it’s also because she appreciates the challenge.

“I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and I’ll never leave it completely, but I like doing stuff in other mediums because I think it strengthens me as a writer,” she explained. “I’m always hoping to balance it. As long as I can find the right challenges and the right projects that I think I can add something to, then I’ll still keep working in games. It is important to always push yourself as a writer. Not to be complacent and not think there’s not more you can learn.”

“It’s difficult to imagine yourself getting better in the moment, but once you look back at your old work, sometimes you say, ‘Oh god, I’m so much better now and I don’t know how that happened!’ That doesn’t feel like that’s how it should work, but a lot of it just comes down to hard work and practice and understanding the difference between good writing and bad writing. I’ll always be looking to improve myself as a writer and I’ll always be looking for the challenges wherever they may lie, but as long as at least some of them lie in games, I’m not going anywhere.”

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Adam Rosenberg
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Previously, Adam worked in the games press as a freelance writer and critic for a range of outlets, including Digital Trends…
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