In the 1980s, when many young girls in the idyllic English village of Rowberrow, Somerset, grew up playing house or braiding dolls’ hair, six-year-old Rhianna Pratchett was getting her first taste of computer games, thanks to her father.
She remembers the fear she felt watching Maze Orcs on an old black-and-white Sinclair ZX81 machine. ‘There’s a little pixelated man, running around a little pixelated maze, being chased by pixelated monsters and I found that frightening. But then I realised he had a little pixelated sword and could fight against the monsters. That spurred something inside me and a flame was lit – it’s been burning ever since.’
That eternal flame for all things gaming and technology turned the award-winning video game writer into a trailblazer.
From plotting maps on graph paper and embarking on pixelated adventures on boxy computers with her father because she had ‘no brothers or sisters to give her guidance about entertainment’, to creating BAFTA-nominated game Heavenly Sword in 2007 and giving Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft a feminist video-game reboot in 2013, Rhianna has come a long way in the last 35 years.
Lara Croft and video game writing are the core topics she’ll discuss at the Emirates Airlines Literature Festival at 2pm today (tickets are Dh75). A creative shape-shifter of sorts, she also adapts her games such as Mirror’s Edge into comic books for DC comics and creates scripts for film and TV: ‘Moving between different mediums suits my brain chemistry. I like having that challenge and there’s a commonality in good storytelling, no matter what the mechanics or medium are.’
After cutting her teeth as a games journalist at UK-based magazines Minx and PC Zone, she was offered a stint as a story editor on the game Beyond Divinity in 2002: ‘I’d been a fan of the studio’s previous games and had just gone freelance. So, I thought, ‘oh this can be an interesting and more reliable way of paying the bills instead of pitching articles to websites and publications.’
Ever since, Rhianna, the only daughter of beloved fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett (who died of Alzheimer’s in 2015), has been a storytelling force to reckon with.
That doesn’t mean her career and accomplishments haven’t lived in the shadow of her famous father’s legacy or the burden of expectations that the Pratchett surname holds.
Best-selling author Terry, who sold more than 85 million books in 37 languages, was the UK’s most celebrated comic-fantasy author in the nineties, before J.K. Rowling came along on the Hogwarts Express. The OBE author’s Discworld series of 41 novels about a flat steampunk world that journeys through space balanced on four elephants and a turtle, are satirical stories full of beauty, pathos and complex characters including one of the most affable personifications of Death. Terry also co-authored the cult apocalyptic comedy Good Omens with Neil Gaiman.
‘He was a phenomenal writer and world-builder and in some ways that can be very daunting,’ Rhianna confesses over a phone call from London.
Terry Pratchett is a tall order to live up to, but her father believed enough in Rhianna to leave her the intellectual rights to all his work and subsequent multimedia adaptations; he even gave her the freedom to continue the Discworld series if she so chose. But she chose not to.
‘It’s a juggling act for me because I’m established as a writer in my own right, so I have to ensure I don’t lose sight of who I am and my projects, while protecting his legacy through Narrativia, the production company we set up to license dad’s work.’
And she guards that legacy fiercely: ‘By saying ‘no’ a lot is the short way of summing it up,’ she laughs. ‘It’s hard to find people who get the world and humour of Discworld and translate that into a script; we’ve had so many pitches over the years, and I’m talking about when dad was alive, but they just don’t get the uniqueness of his world.’
But chin up, Terry Pratchett fans – Rhianna is collaborating with Amazon and BBC on an adaptation of Good Omens, and The Watch Series is also in development for television, she adds. Most excitingly, she’s writing a script of The Wee Free Men with the Jim Henson Company.
‘Adapting dad’s book has given me a deeper understanding of the craft of storytelling. I haven’t read all his books, but having to cut apart and sew one back together has given me an appreciation for how cleverly he structured and built worlds.’
She’s precious about her father’s work but Rhianna is quite detached from the film adaptation of Tomb Raider starring Alicia Vikander, out next month. The film takes a different direction from the Angelina Jolie versions and borrows heavily from Rhianna’s version of the game: ‘I’ve seen shots in the trailer that are exactly from the games and that’s kind of nice to see, but I can’t really call it my work, because even the game was built by hundreds of people and I wasn’t involved in the film at all.’
World-building, character development and storytelling runs in Rhianna’s veins and she credits how her parents raised her than the actual influence of her father’s stellar repertoire of writing. ‘I grew up running around fields and falling out of trees, we had goats in the front garden and chickens in the back and I grew up learning how to milk goats and extract honey from honeycombs and I’m very grateful for that.
‘My dad would bundle me up and take me out of bed in the middle of night when I’m sleeping because he’d found glow-worms in the hedge outside or spotted Halley’s comet. He was far more interested and committed in showing me the wonders of the world than letting me sleep.’
The wonders of Rhianna’s imaginative prowess are best reflected in the worlds of her games, which are far-flung from the village she grew up in. Mirror’s Edge is a quasi-futuristic dystopian society; Heavenly Sword is a combat game; and Tomb Raider is set in ancient archaeological ruins.
‘I’m comfortable writing fantasy, action-adventure, magical realism, horror; pretty much everything that’s not gritty, modern, urban drama or sports games,’ she laughs. ‘Asking me what the importance of fantasy in my life is like asking a fish what is the importance of water; I grew up going to fantasy festivals, it feels like it’s in my DNA.’
Besides the off-the-wall settings of her games, another common thread they share are strong female characters. It’s not a conscious choice she made, but she’s happy to have furthered the cause of female-centric protagonists in an industry that has chiefly been a boy’s club, both in terms of players and developers. ‘I grew up with Ellen Ripley [Alien movies] and Sarah Connor [Terminator series] so I thought amazing adventures and fighting aliens and killer robots from the future is what women did.
‘I’d say the Tomb Raider reboot helped show the industry that an action-adventure game with lot of gunplay and violence can have a female protagonist and still be attractive to male and female players. Prior to that, we were still hearing stories about how publishers were turning down games with female protagonists.’
More reason why of all her characters, Lara Croft has karate-chopped her way into Rhianna’s heart – like Lara, Rhianna is active and loves boxing and weightlifting in her free time. The similarities extend to their stubbornness, British nationalities and wanting to forge their own identities but growing up with father figures ‘who could overshadow that path’.
Rhianna has been public about the fact she wasn’t a huge fan of the father plot as a motivation in the original game. She, however, made her peace with the Crystal Designs’ insistence, as the narrative allowed her to delve into Lara’s humanity and show her vulnerability. ‘She pretty much transitions into a superhero… but explored the fear behind her eyes – there can be no bravery without fear; without fear, it’s just foolhardiness.’
There’s not much Rhianna fears – not even the male-dominated industry she works in or the fact that games writing is still a niche profession and not everyone realises the importance of narrative to the gaming experience. It’s one of the topics she will discuss in her lit fest session.
When she stumbled into games writing back in the day, narrative was often considered an afterthought in many game genres and was done by a designer or producer who had the time and inclination for it. ‘It played second-fiddle to everything else in a game like level design and visuals,’ she explains.
She also explains the challenges of the job where often writers are not given artwork but that they then have to flesh out a character from and devise meaning into the existing aesthetic of the game. ‘You wouldn’t think of it as you tap away at a keyboard or click away at controllers but there’s a lot of creativity that goes into the elaborate worlds and levels built. Sometimes it’s a backward way of working, compared to film and TV or even books, where they have the luxury of time and space.’
In her own words, Rhianna has always sort of ‘bumbled along, finding work that’s interesting and challenging,’ but she has a clear-cut list of upcoming projects: she’s working with Dubai-based company O3 productions on a TV series set in the world of the Arabian nights and she’s working on a indie game called Lost Words that explores the world through a young girl’s journals.
While she’s on her first visit to Dubai, she hopes to go on a desert adventure and saturate herself in the Arabian world: ‘When I’m not writing I’m always trying to absorb things that help me create those worlds including watching a lot of movies and TV. Writers are never off-duty.’
Rhianna Pratchett: Rise of the Tomb Raider is at 2pm on March 2 at InterContinental Festival City. Tickets for the session are Dh75 at tickets.emirateslitfest.com.