Rhianna Pratchett talks about writing one of the PlayStation 3’s premiere.
Why Heavenly Sword Matters!
The PlayStation 3 needs good, exclusive titles. So when Heavenly Sword came out, it had a lot riding on its shoulders. Luckily, the game delivered a thrilling action experience, complete with incredibly well-written and -acted cutscenes featuring the work of WETA digital and benefiting from both the motion capture and voice acting of Andy Serkis, also known as Gollum.
The game stars Nariko, a woman who is given the task of protecting a blade that her clan worships and keeps safe, and Kai, her young friend who hasn’t been quite right in the head since some traumatic events in the past. The relationship between the two women and the rest of the clan, as well as the evil King Bohan, make up the bulk of the cutscenes.
Still, all those characters needed something to say, and Rhianna Pratchett was the mind behind the script for the game. In the past she has written the superbly-funny Overlord, and now with Heavenly Sword she’s proven that you can make an action game better by adding complexity to the characters, while at the same time keeping her trademark humor in the dialog. Rhianna was gracious enough to talk with us about writing Heavenly Sword, poking fun at Sony, and new content for Overlord.
Rhianna Pratchett is one of the writers trying to keep story and characterization strong in gaming, and as always her insights are both fresh and amusing.
Ars Technica: When you began writing Heavenly Sword, how much information did Ninja Theory give you? They knew it was going to be an action game, obviously, but do you have outlines for each character, or did you create Nariko and company from scratch?
Rhianna Pratchett: There was actually a first-draft script in place when I came on board, which is as rare as rocking-horse poo in the games industry, it really is. So Nariko, Kai (the two main characters in the game), et al., were already there, although not all the characters had names, and most of them didn’t really have properly defined journeys, relationships, foibles, etc. So character-wise there were some good bones then and some goddamn fantastic concept art!
My job was to brainstorm the story, characters, relationship, themes, etc. with Tameem Antoniades (creative director) and Andy Serkis (dramatic director) and then write up profiles, revise story documents, and completely rewrite the script (without changing the basic spine of the story too much) with those ideas in mind. From that the cutscenes were drawn and visually scoped out.
I remember you saying that you finished Heavenly Sword before Overlord. Once you’ve turned in your finished script, are you still involved with the game? Is there a sense of “Oh, my job here is done,” or do you continue to follow the development process?
Script-writing for a game is an incredibly flexible process. It has to be due to the nature of games development. So the script was really written in sections as the level design got locked down and then folded together, and polished up all nice and fancy for the outside world. Even a linear game does not mean a linear script-writing process. You’re always going back and forth tweaking this and that in line with design changes.
After I finished the main script, I also worked with the level designers to scope out and write the level dialogue—everything that occurs in a level but does not include cutscenes or ambient stuff. When it came to the combat chatter we needed to hire another writer (Andrew Walsh) to help me out since there was a huge volume of dialogue that needed to be created. It also all had to not only change in tone and delivery depending on the actions of the player during the combat but be pretty much unique from encounter to encounter. I think the technical term is “shitloads.”
Even after all that there were still other writing tasks to do, such as rewrites, on-screen text, chapter headings, even weird funky bits like the plaques in Bohan’s armory. So finishing the main script was by no means the end of my involvement.
When voice acting goes tear-inducingly wrong!
AT: When we talked to Susan O’Connor, she didn’t like talking about what could happen once her words hit the mouths of voice actors in some instances. Do you get nervous before seeing a final game to see how the developers took your script and translated it into cutscenes and dialog? It must have been easier knowing someone like Andy Serkis was involved with bringing your words to life.
I’ve worked on a lot of titles, so I’m only too aware of how wrong—how tear-inducingly wrong things can go at the voice recording stage. Been there, heard that, cried myself to sleep.
Personally, I’ve found that getting involved in the VO directing whenever possible can help a lot, and not just for my control-freak sensibilities. Obviously it allows me to help steer things and offer advice about what I believe to be the right direction for a story or character, just as a movie writer/director would do. But, as I think I mentioned to you before, it’s also incredibly beneficial to have someone there that knows the entire script line for line.
However, it’s not always possible, and sometimes you really can’t get all Charlton Heston “from my cold, dead hands” about it. You’ve just got to let your baby go. Wave it off with a snotty hankie and a tear in your eye, and just hope it doesn’t come back upside down and on fire.
Of course, it’s a lot easier when you know you’re sending your baby off into the hands of folks like Andy Serkis and WETA. Andy had been involved in the development of Heavenly Sword for a long time, and he was fantastically enthusiastic about the project. I also met with some of the other actors beforehand when we had a full script read-through pre-WETA, and I got a chance to talk to them about their characters and feel confident that they would do a good job, which clearly they did! So, yes, the hanky was definitely drier!
Let’s talk about Nariko and Kai for a moment. Nariko is really defined by her relationships: with her father, Kai, her clan, and even who she believes she is. Kai is much odder, and she’s a very funny character, but at the same time there is this core of loyalty and bravery in her. It seemed like these characters were more complex than what we usually get in action games, and it was a very welcome change from the norm. Do you find that lately, developers are more willing to put a better story with more compelling characters in action titles? Do you think a strong story and characters can help action games stand out from the crowd?
The game focuses on Nariko’s journey and obviously that is a mental, almost spiritual one, as well as a physical journey. Nariko has had to live her whole life under a curse, under constant suspicion from much of her Clan that, by the time we start the game, has manifested into downright hatred. She has to find a way to cope with this as well as her duties as a stoic, fearless warrior. It’s unsurprising that this gives her very little time to be a human being.
Nariko is much more conflicted than your average action hero
A constant question for me when helping create Nariko’s character was “What happens when the mask slips”—what happens when you listen to all those little voices—and not only listen to them, but give them body and form, and let them take you over.
Nariko seems very single-minded on one level, but inside there’s a lot of churning emotions going on. When she makes the decision to wield the Heavenly Sword, she knows she is sacrificing her life, but what she doesn’t know—and what she discovers through the course of the game—is that what kills her actually allows her to live more completely than she has ever done before.
Gamers seem to have warmed to Kai a great deal, which I’m very glad about. Writing younger characters is always hard, even more so when they are, let’s say, “special.” They’re a fine line between cute craziness and just plain annoying. She’s a funny little creature, and Lydia Baksh does a great job with her. Kai’s relationship with Nariko is quite central to the story as well. Kai doesn’t care what the Clan thinks of Nariko—she simply loves her without question. In turn, Nariko would do anything for Kai—and does.
I do think that a strong story and especially strong characters help action-adventures a great deal. I love developing characters… I even love the evil ones (actually I especially love the evil ones). I don’t think there are enough video game stars—even well-known ones—that are really fully rounded characters. Lara Croft started out as nothing more that a pretty avatar for the first couple of games, and I’m not really sure she’s ever been able to better herself. True, there was more of a concerted effort in Legend, but that was seven titles in, so rather late in the day!
Maybe that’s enough for some people, but it’s not enough for me. I want my game characters to be lovable, hateful, flawed, neurotic, confused, bitter, twisted, dark, regretful, wrong, righteous—full of guile, pathos, quick wit, brokenhearted and open-hearted—human.
Although maybe not all in one character! That would be rather a tall order!
Evil characters and good dialogue
AT: I’m glad you brought up the evil characters. There is a line about Bohan’s genitals that was just… it was out there. Do you have fun writing a character who is that crazy? It almost made him scarier, once you were done laughing. You get a sense he had a terrifying personal life when it came to chasing his pleasures.
The great thing about Bohan is that I could write him with Andy’s voice in my head. It sounds a little freaky, but it’s actually extremely useful. Andy did a great job in bringing out Bohan’s craziness and also the fact that this guy might seem mad as a box of frogs, although almost sane compared to his generals, but he is also extremely, extremely, dangerous and unpredictable. And you know that anyone who would get involved with Whiptail (a half-woman, half-snake General) on a personal level has some questionable tastes.
Andy Serkis (right) and Stephen Berkoff (left) show off the motion-capture look.
Kai’s line about hitting an enemy soldier in his “weak point for MASSIVE DAMAGE” was a great touch. Were you scared that SCEA wouldn’t have a sense of humor about that infamous quote? Did they groan when they first heard it?
We actually didn’t think that line would make it in there, so I’m glad to know it has. It was just a bit of fun really… a kind of wink to the hardcore gamers.
Wait, so even after the game is up, you’re not sure of what actually made it into the final title? It seems odd that you don’t see a final, approved script.
There are always last-minute changes for all manner of reasons, and as an outside contractor, it’s not always possible to keep up to date.
Well, the story and script are only a small part of what makes a good game, so after you’re done writing and the game comes out, do you play the title to see how the story and cutscenes work with the play itself?
I actually got to see a lot of the cutscenes online as they got released, and obviously I’d seen most of the raw WETA footage. I haven’t had a chance to play the full game yet… as I’m still trying to get hold of a PS3. I’ve managed to play the Whiptail fight at a friend’s house. That made me smile; Race Davies is fab, and she’s got a fantastic voice. I’d love to write for her again in the future.