Rhi, Light My Fire: Rhianna Pratchett On Tea, Cakes & Lara
It’s about five to seven on a Wednesday night and I meant to call my mum about an hour ago to tell her that I am a failure of a woman because I am twenty seven and sleeping on a beanbag in a loft, but instead what I did was look in the back of the fridge for dinner, which turns out to be a giant pot of Tesco’s Finest pea soup with ham in. I dump the pot of soup on a table and then have a slight heart in mouth moment - I can’t call my mum or eat soup I am interviewing Rhianna Pratchett and she is the Lara Croft of writing Tomb Raiders.
You don’t understand, RPS. It was my New Year’s Resolution to interview one-time PC Zone journalist-turned-game writer Rhianna Pratchett, and everyone knows that if you break one of those resolutions the Ghost Of New Years Past will come and make you celibate like Morrissey. I squeak and boot up Skype in fear for my loins. I shouldn’t have worried. About Rhianna, I mean: I still don’t know if I’m celibate or I just smell like a beanbag ate some pea soup.
“You’ll probably hear cats squeaking and bouncing around in the background,” Rhianna apologises, before we begin, which makes me smile. (Cats have haunted all my recent work on RPS, as if they know I am allergic to them.) I have a notepad with questions about Tomb Raider in front of me, “ask about TEA” underlined with a box around it.
We have chatted for about ten minutes about our various recent niggles, which often include being defined by the closest male to us - for her, her father the author Terry Pratchett, and for me, pretty much every guy who ever wrote in an Amiga Power way about games. But we both have something specific in common: our love of computer games was instigated by our fathers. Whilst it was Acheton on my dad’s BBC Micro that made me want to learn to read and write, Rhianna was a ZX81 girl.
“He introduced me to computer games when I was six,” she says. “I think Mazogs on the ZX81 was my first game. He said I was very scared about it originally... Mazogs was a very very basic dungeon crawler I guess...a little pixellated man, little pixellated crabby-spidery creatures trying to eat you. I was quite scared until I saw that the pixellated man had a pixellated sword and could kill the little spidery-crabby creatures. That was the start of a love affair. ...I would sit next to him and get out the graph paper and draw maps for him. He had a very big chair and I’d sort of sit behind him and peer out as he sort of played, have the maps ready to direct him. Lots of isometric games like Head Over Heels, Knight Lore... We got to a stage where he would play a game first and then give it to me, or we’d get a couple of copies and we’d play it each. He played Tomb Raider first, so he spoilt the part about the T-Rex. I did remember that moment: trying to find the little cave to hide in where it can’t reach you. That was definitely a seminal moment in my gaming history. ”
We have a brief break because a cat is purring down her microphone. I wonder aloud if she ever had that moment like I did as a kid where I realised that Tomb Raider’s adventurer is a woman, and have some sort of mad epiphany that I could do things by myself. Rhianna doesn’t remember that moment. “I grew up going to fantasy and sci fi conventions. I was used to seeing women warriors.”
This is where I begin to be frustrated with my shy upbringing: Rhianna had a childhood where women warriors weren’t just Lara Croft... they were everywhere. “I grew up with Ripley and Sarah Connor at the age I discovered them at...I don’t know - twelve? I discovered them first... That was just what women did... Which I think was a fine lie to grow up with.” She goes on to tell me that when she was twelve she had a six foot Alien queen on the back of her door, where I had a blu-tack stained picture of the All Saints pouting in parachute pants. I’m outdone really. Whatever the equivalent of emasculated is right now, I am feeling it. Femasculated.
We bitch about Aliens: Colonial Marines not having any women in it to begin with, and how Vasquez in Aliens was amazing, and how now that women are now serving on the frontlines in close combat reality is more feminist than most videogame fictions. “I’m hoping someone out there is going to produce ‘Vasquez: The Early Years’,” Rhianna says. In my head this is sort of like The Wonder Years but with bandanas and miniguns. I write down ‘pitch Vasquez: The Early Years at GDC’. Then I write, ‘Cliffy B?’ slightly optimistically. And then draw a heart next to it.
It’s Tomb Raiding Time. I ask her if Crystal Dynamics already had a story in mind when they contacted her to write the new Tomb Raider.
“They had a synopsis,” she said. “It was over two and three quarter years ago that they contacted me, and I think they had a synopsis and they had some character bios and some character artwork, so the core four survivors were all provisionally designed when I came on board.... They’d gone all through what they wanted to do with the game, and the setting. There was a sort of spine in place in the synopsis. During the course of the game I worked on that synopsis and I turned it into a full treatment. The supernatural aspects of the game were pushed back...there were more survival aspects introduced. ...We built that treatment into a traditional three act structure.
"It was mostly Noah Hughes, the Creative Director, John Stafford the Narrative Designer and myself were the sort of narrative trio for it. John wrote the majority of the in-game lines, for Lara I think there’s a couple of mine in there from the old days before John was on the project. He also did the character diaries, based off the character bios that I created. I did the Lara journals.” Rhianna talks about the copious feedback that the trio gave to each other during the writing of the game. “It was a friendly harmonious narrative triangle all the way through.”
I ask her if she was at the helm of what I think was creating a pretty decent portrayal of a very human, more nuanced Lara. “I’m one of multiple parents of Lara. ...My job was sort of to explore that human element... To explore Lara Croft: Tomb Raider... You know, the strength, the bravery... The British grit... Show those traits coming to the fore. Obviously still a human in a videogame, that’s not ever going to be like a human in real life. Just push it... Push the boundaries a little bit. ...I don’t think it’s accurate to say that we took things away, it’s more accurate to say that we rewound her. ...She doesn’t know what she’s capable of. It’s a big surprise to her in a way.”
It seems (and forgive the mini review) that the narrative team Rhianna was part of was often pushing back against what the demands for gameplay were. Rhianna states that the multiplayer aspect of Tomb Raider was already a requirement for the game by the time that Rhianna started, and the ‘survivor’ characters were made distinctly different from each other so that they would be visually recognisable in multiplayer - with little room for character arcs. The features of the game were making decisions for the narrative team, decisions that they were reacting to. This friction is felt throughout the game - where the action thrusts itself in, the narrative sometimes noticeably recedes.
Rhianna explains, “a lot of peril was gameplay needed, and so that was designed into the levels, so I wasn’t the one throwing her around and killing her in various ways. That was down to combat design, level design,” she often “[put] in the scenes to offset the doom and gloom”.
Rhianna also tells me about her conflicting feelings on Lara’s violence curve going from being afraid to kill, to being a mass executioner. “Hand on heart, the narrative team would have liked that to be a bit slower, but on the other hand we’d kept the player without a gun for at least an hour, we’d kept them without a weapon for a while. ...We found that as soon as gamers got a gun, they wanted to use it. ...You’ve got the needs of gameplay, you’ve got the needs of narrative, and you’ve got the needs of the player for this to be a fun experience. They don’t always align exactly. Sometimes you’ve got to make compromises on this.”
Some of the ways that the team worked the narrative into Tomb Raider’s gameplay were genuine touches of grace. A moment a good bit into the game made me unslouch my weary journalism-ravaged back and sit up with the ache of a caught diaphragm: Lara picks up a grenade launcher, and is immediately set upon (as is their wont) by a sprawling crowd of Solarii cultist dickwads who whoop and exclaim at her presence, the ‘outsider’. Hurtling Lara into the fray, I ducked her behind a box and started taking potshots under heavy fire. Frustration at their constant harassment built in me: Lara the outsider, Lara the set upon, Lara the woman afraid.
And then the moment came: my burning arrow sets a man on fire, and Lara bellows guttaral at their exclamations, “That’s right you bastards, run, I’m coming for you all”. My teeth grit into an ecstatic grin and my eyes got hot, wet.
To mention this moment on twitter was to receive an avalanche of recognition: people tweeted me their feelings and interpreted their heartgrins onto my feed. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way about that line, lots of men also felt the same about that moment. Rhianna remarked to me that being this Lara is facing an environment of fear that men often don’t experience, and that moment? It’s a refreshing reminder of what power is when you’ve slowly fought for it, and it tasted sharp, like a Whisky Sour.
Rab says he forgot Lara was a woman, but at that glorious moment, I remembered.*
I tell Rhianna I thought John had done a good job with the Lara-Solarii dialogue in that respect. She agreed and expanded on his role. “Something that John was very keen on,” Rhianna says, “and I agreed with him, was not to dwell upon gender insults. It’s fairly rough and ready but they’re not sort of throwing out ‘bitch’, ‘whore’ et cetera et cetera. We were certainly very aware of the Arkham City stuff, and you don’t get the same gendered insults to a male player that you do to a female. He didn’t feel that was appropriate, neither did I, but he wanted to have it in-keeping with the guys - but also they are working effectively for a woman as well, although you don’t know that at the time.”
Being Cara is always to be asking the important questions. “If you get to work on the next game,” I say, “Can you definitely try and get Lara to call a few people twats? Because there aren’t enough ‘twats’ in games. ‘Twat’ is a very neglected insult.”
“That’s fair,” Rhianna says, “but it would be hard getting it past the Americans. I didn’t get Jaffa Cakes past them (not that Jaffa Cakes is an insult), but I originally had a scene where they were sort of reflecting on things they missed back home, and Lara mentioned Jaffa Cakes” -
I hear myself on the recording of the interview audibly gasp
- “It took a while - and I was like No! British people eat them all the time! They do not have Jaffa Cakes. That scene got changed and cut and moved so unfortunately Jaffa Cakes didn’t make it in.”
I check that this is not some sort of Jaffa Cake scoop (she gave it to Wired and then got tweeted by the official Jaffa Cake twitter account), and then I do my duty and segue neatly into tea questions. “What kind of tea would Lara drink? Is she a Tetley girl?” I ask, looking straight at the ‘ask about TEA’ note and drawing a massive tick mark against it.
A slight pause. “I don’t want to Mary Sue my own tea tastes onto Lara,” Rhianna agonizes. “Hmm. Old Lara would have been Earl Grey. Or what I am currently drinking right now which is Earl Grey with lavender. It’s the height of posh teaness. But new Lara is probably Yorkshire Gold. I think Roth’s got some Yorkshire Gold.”
“I was thinking maybe green tea,” I say, “But maybe she’s not that New Age.”
“No I think something quite strong and robust, so I’m thinking Yorkshire Gold probably.”
“And would she have half fat milk or whole fat milk? How far would she go with the milk?” I ask.
“I think she’d go half fat, I don’t think she’d go completely skimmed, I think that’s a bit reckless... Not as reckless as full fat but not as tasteless as skimmed.”
I nod. “I think you should definitely get twat and Yorkshire Gold into the next one,” I say. The conversation quickly descends into how many more Scottish words we could wedge into the next one - ‘scunner’ featured in this Tomb Raider, but I requested that ‘ya wee skite’ be mentioned in the next one. I’ll be crossing my fingers.
We began this interview on father figures, but they won’t go away. Throughout my almost two hour chat with Rhianna, I come to mention Roth and how I found him to be very paternal. And in turn, there is a lot of the paternal theme: the “You’re a Croft” line, the references to Lara’s father. “It’s a little bit cheesy, but that [“You’re a Croft”] line was one of the first lines I wrote. ...They were test scenes, for getting the gig in the first place.”
“I know we were talking before about how father figures kind of haunt both of us,” I say. “It’s nice symmetry that we are now talking about Roth and Lara’s father. Do you think you accidentally put echoes of that in the script?”
I think I can hear Rhianna grinning. “I was careful not to go too Mary Sue on her, but I do joke that Crystal were like, ‘geeky, British, brown hair, possible father issues...Rhianna Pratchett’. ...We’re keen on standing on our own two feet. We definitely share that.”
My favourite line of the game, which comes fairly early on. Lara is nerding out on a particular female historic figure, and she remarks, “A woman holds that much power, and sooner or later it gets called witchcraft.” There is a discussion almost going on in the way the power struggles happen in this Tomb Raider: there is the struggle of narrative against action scenes, and of quick time events against the player, and of on-rails sections against directed cutscenes. It’s all about power and who has it: but who holds the most power in the game is Lara. She is magnetic: no matter what she is hurled into, it is your wish to keep her going - because she deserves it. She holds the power. She’s a witch, and people are often trying to burn her.
This Tomb Raider has seen the franchise shift significantly away from tombs towards... Well, Uncharted territory. And despite myself I am perfectly willing to take her hand, even with a tearful goodbye to the vast tombs of Anniversary. I think Rhianna might be part of that. I thank her for her time, wish her luck with her Bioshock: Infinite work and upcoming film script based on Warrior Daughter. I wish her a good holiday from press questions in Barbados. I stop the Skype video call happy.
It is at this moment that I realise that I had a weirdly giant tub of pea soup behind me in shot the entire time. Oh god Rhianna’s off now, going oh that’s the soup journalist.
Shit. I better call my mum.
*And then promptly exploded myself on a grenade.