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Rhianna Pratchett (Writer) - Overlord: Raising Hell

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Born in 1976 in Somerset, England, Rhianna Pratchett is a freelance computer games scriptwriter, narrative designer and former journalist. She is also the daughter of Terry Pratchett, famous for his Discworld series of novels. Darren Rea caught up with Pratchett as her latest game, Overlord: Raising Hell, was released for the PS3...

Sci-Fi-Online: You’re credited with writing the script for the new Codemasters game Overlord: Raising Hell, is it different writing for a game than writing a book or a comic script? Were you given free reign, or did you have a brief of the style of game that they were after?

Rhianna Pratchett: Well, as a game writer and narrative designer your job is usually to fit-in with the style of game and gameplay that a developer has already decided upon. Unlike a movie, a game’s story is rarely the first thing created. Often a developer will have some idea of the story they want to tell, maybe a few of the characters involved and the environments. But it’s up to a writer/narrative designer to make that all work in the context of the gameplay.

InterviewThis was certainly the case with Overlord: Raising Hell. I had to work with the narrative elements that were already established by Triumph Studios and weave them into a coherent story, as well as generating the full script and co-directing the audio recording. All this happened alongside the rest of the game’s development.

It’s rather like writing a movie script, for a movie that’s also being cast, directed and shot, at the same time! So yes, writing for games is quite different from writing for any other entertainment medium. There is some cross-over. After all, it’s still about story. But the way you tell that story and the boundaries you have to work within can be quite different.

DR: You’re a huge game player yourself; having worked at PC Zone you’re probably more qualified than anyone to know what makes a good game. What sorts of games do you enjoy? I hear you were a fan of that old ZX81 classic Mazogs... now that ages you a bit...

RP: It does indeed. But I was six back when I first played Mazogs! I don’t play as many games as I used to, simply because I’m spending so much time writing and designing for them. But I’m trying to remedy that and slowly getting through my teetering pile of titles.

RTS games were really my first love. I was a big fan of the original Dune game, which no one remembers because Dune 2 came along and became so significant in the history of strategy games. But the first Dune was a weird RTS/RPG mix, in which you could actually ride sandworms. That was hugely exciting for me back then.

InterviewI am a big fan of all the subsequent C&C/Red Alert/Dune games and anything by the late, great Bullfrog studios. I also got addicted to playing Age of Mythology online! I’d go through cycles of buying it, playing it loads, realising that it was taking up too much time, breaking the discs, having freedom for a few months, thinking I can handle it and buying the discs again. And alas, the cycle continues. I’ve done this about 4 times now. I’m currently between discs... but I know where they’re lurking. They taunt me.

Aside from that, other games I’ve loved include: Vampire: Bloodlines, Psychonauts, Starcraft, Half-Life 2, Planescape Torment, Space Colony, Stonghold, Badur’s Gate 1&2, Evil Genius, Diablo 2, Bioshock and World of Warcraft (which I still play fairly regularly.) So it’s a pretty mixed bag.

DR: Can you tell us a little about Overlord: Raising Hell and whom it will appeal to?

RP: Overlord is an action-adventure, strategy game, with a few RPG elements. It takes place in a twisted fantasy world, where you step into the boots of a newly created evil Overlord.

Unfortunately, in between the death of your predecessor and your arrival, your domain and dark tower have been looted and pillaged by pesky hero types. It’s up to you to restore a bit of Overlorder (sorry!) to the land and bring down the heroes with the aid of your army of Minions. The Minions are rather like little gremlins; who will loot, pillage and slaughter at your command. There’s lots of charging around Tolkien-esque fantasy environments causing mayhem.

InterviewSo if you like the sound of that, it would probably appeal to you! I think it’s been picked up and enjoyed by all kinds of gamers from FPS to adventure game fans.

I should also point out that Overlord: Raising Hell is the original Overlord game (released last year for the 360 and PC) with lots of new tweaks and improvements (such as an in-game map) and the Raising Hell expansion pack - which (aside from in Germany, bless ‘em) was only ever released as an 360 download.

DR: With so many games on the market how do you go about coming up with something a little different?

RP: Well, I certainly can’t be credited with coming up with the idea! That was the great Triumph Studio (previously known for their Age of Wonders games) I merely assisted in the birth. A narrative midwife, if you will. However, I do think that attention to script, story, character development and audio in a game can have a very positive impact on the way it comes across and help keep things fresh.

Gameplay is key, though. Games writers are writing for games, developer aren’t gameplaying our stories.

DR: Were you ever worried about this project?  Because you were giving over your creations to someone else who would make them live on screen, were you concerned that the game play might be bad, or the graphics might be awful and that this would reflect badly on you?

InterviewRP: Well since I’m creating the characters specifically for a particular project then I don’t consider them purely ‘my’ creations. There are certainly 1001 ways that a game’s development can tear a story apart and very often, if there isn’t someone on the full-time team who is watching over the narrative, it can get completely pulled apart and generally botched up. But you can only have the control that your bosses are willing to give over.

It’s not always about how good you are, but how good you’re allowed to be. But there are obviously many, many things that, as a writer, you have no control over. So for those, it’s just a case of praying and small sacrifices to your respective narrative gods.

DR: Do you think being the daughter of Terry Pratchett has helped or hindered your career? Does it get tiresome being referred to as “Terry Pratchett’s daughter”, or people thinking that maybe you only have a career because of him?

RP: It’s a dull roar. I won’t lie; it’s certainly no fun having a prefix to your own name. It’s getting better... now I sometimes even get my name first and people very kindly wait a whole couple of words before they mention what is essentially an accident of birth. I’ve worked in the games industry for ten years and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter who your parents are, if you can’t do your job, you’re no good to anyone! It’s just stuff, you know? It’s not how big the shadow looms, but how fast you run.

DR: Can you tell us a little more about Where Evil Lurks (which we reviewed favourably in November 2006). Did you work closely with composer Alex Otterlei, or were the music and story two separate projects that were joined later? And were you proud of the fact that the two of you were doing something a little different?

InterviewRP: I think the idea of reading a story whilst listen to accompanying music is a pretty original multi-media experience, which probably has lots of un-tapped potential.

Alex recorded the music first and then came to me to write the accompanying story on the release of the digitally-remastered, special edition. It was a small project, quite below the radar, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It was pretty challenging to come up with an original haunted house story, I can tell you! I wanted to do something that was more gothic than grotesque and more in-line with the horror stories I used to listen to when I was young, such as those on BBC Radio 4’s Fear on Four programme, presented by ‘the man in black’. I was terrified by classic tales like the Beast with Five Fingers and The Monkey’s Paw. So with the short story, I wanted to go for the chills down the spine rather than the axe through the forehead!

DR: What’s the thing you’re most proud of... and the thing you’re most ashamed of?

RP: Do you mean in the context of my writing career or life in general? I was pleased (in about as much as a creative person can ever be truly pleased) with The House (which was actually the title of my story - The Album was called Where Evil Lurks) because I came up with it fairly quickly and managed to create something interesting (all without an editor - though I probably needed one!) I’m proud of what we’ve done with Overlord, as well. Being able to make people smile and laugh with gameplay, dialogue, VO, animation etc. is often underrated (as is humour in general) but it can really add to the tone of a game.

InterviewI don’t think I’m really ashamed of something I’ve done within my work (anything outside of that, I’m keeping schtum about .) You should never be ashamed of something you’ve created because it’s all a learning process. You just have bits that aren’t as good as other bits. It happens and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You just get better (ideally!)

DR: What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?

RP: Mostly they are amateur dramatics related, which I used to do as a kid. Turning up late for my own death scene (I’d drowned, you see, which meant someone throwing a bucket of water over me off stage, ah AmDram!) Also having to play Evans in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor (not one of his best). Evans was male, bearded and Welsh. To top that all off, he was also a vicar. It was a terrible thing to do to a young girl. I think you can see the embarrassment unfold from that description.

DR: If a movie were to be made of your life, who would play you and why?

RP: I veer dangerously close to being a Sandra Bullock character sometimes - Somewhere between her characters in The Net and Miss Congeniality. So possibly a young Ms Bullock. Maybe Ellen Page (Juno/Hard Candy) or Emily Perkins (Ginger Snaps.)

DR: What next for you? What will you be working on next?

RP: Game-wise I’m currently working on Mirror’s Edge for EA Dice and Dungeon Hero for Firefly Studio and some other projects for Codemasters and Ubisoft. I’m also, finally, trying to get my website together. Aside from that, I just never know what’s around the corner. And that’s the way I like it.

DR: Thank you for your time.

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With thanks to Stuart Taylor at Barrington Harvey PR

Overlord: Raising Hell is released on PS3 from 20 June 2008.

Click here to buy Overlord: Raising Hell on PS3 for £39.99 (RRP: £49.99)

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