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Rise of the Tomb Raider, and the Writer Behind it All

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The pen is mightier.

This week GameSpot shared a set of special features on Rise of the Tomb Raider. In the last of these stories, we speak to Rhianna Pratchett, the game's writer, about the creative process that brought--and is bringing--Lara to life. Head over to our Rise of the Tomb Raider page for more of our recent in-depth articles about the upcoming game, which releases Nov. 10.

If there is a thread through Rhianna Pratchett's work, it's a thin one, and it's hard to pin down.

She has written for major games such as Heavenly Sword, Prince of Persia, Overlord, and the original Mirror's Edge. Her characters range from thieves to princes, vikings to couriers, goblin overlords to tribal outcasts. The personalities that sprang from her pen are an eclectic bunch, and like the writer herself, always in flux.

Shortly before 2010, Crystal Dynamics approached her with a new task: to craft an origin story for one of video games' most iconic characters. "Ultimately, I think we needed new ground to explore, and I think we found it," Pratchett told GameSpot in a recent interview. "I know there's been a lot of appreciation for the more humanizing aspects of this Lara, as well as her escalation to something a little more reminiscent of her classic version. That's something we've continued to build on in Rise of the Tomb Raider."

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Despite the reboot's critical success, Pratchett and the team aren't content to just repeat that first adventure's formula. Numerous novels and spin-off comics have been released since 2013, and Lara has changed even more, growing into someone more assertive, and more aggressive than the globetrotting archaeologist of years past. Crystal wants to develop their flagship character, as well as the plot.

But Lara's challenges are different this time. Her demons are psychological, her fears internalized after the events on the island of Yamatai. Pratchett approached this new explorer with empathy: How would Lara respond to that kind of trauma? How would she move forward? How would she cope, after seeing so much death on that lonely rock in the middle of the ocean?

"She is a survivor," Pratchett said. "It's more of an emotional trap than a physical one. She's seen the game's antagonists do terrible things to those that get in their way, and she's now more mentally prepared to fight fire with fire.

"And although she's not 100 percent comfortable with this, she's starting to come to the conclusion that for whatever reason, she's someone that can do this."

Lara is now more mentally prepared to fight fire with fire.

While some have acknowledged this aggression as a result of the world Lara's been thrust into, critics of recent Rise of the Tomb Raider trailers have questioned this violent streak. 2013's reboot placed us in the shoes of someone just trying to survive. But this new Lara is a different beast entirely. She seems merciless.

For Pratchett, this alignment between characterization and gameplay is one of the challenges of writing for video games. Their stories are told not just through dialogue, cinematics, and plot, but through animations and environmental interaction as well. .

"You have to learn how to use the whole of the game, including animation, mechanics, music, to support video game narratives," Pratchett said. "In a perfect scenario all the different development disciplines should have an investment in the story."

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Furthermore, triple-A projects such as Rise of the Tomb Raider aren't usually written by one person. Although Pratchett's direction permeates the story, world, and characters of Lara's next appearance, there are designers, programmers, artists, and audio technicians contributing, too. Games are almost always the product of a group. In this way they're not as personal as, say, a novel. They have much less authorial control.

That control is diminished even more when the player enters the equation. The hardest part about writing Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and any other games Pratchett has worked on, is incorporating player agency. Video games are, by definition, an interactive medium. The design process needs to cater to that.

"In other entertainment media the audience largely has a passive role," she said. "In games they are active, they are part of the story; they are the story. You are constantly having to factor the player into the narrative equations and find ways to emotionally align them to the player character. There are an awful lot of plates being spun."

So every time Faith leapt over ledges and slid over pipes in Mirror's Edge, Pratchett had to consider that; every time Nariko took up her Heavenly Sword out of protection for her tribe, Pratchett's narrative had to fit that character; and whenever Lara's story moves forward in Rise of the Tomb Raider, Pratchett needs to remember the archaeologist's past, and how she got to the place where she is now, and where she might be going with all of her trauma.

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Pratchett's characters are dynamic, adaptable, and strong. They reflect not just their own agency, but the player's as well.

And with each of these protagonists, a part of Pratchett, however small, remains locked inside those worlds. As a writer, her own personality flows into her work--as do those of the team around her. Rise of the Tomb Raider is the product of a multifarious team, and Pratchett's direction is one of many pushing Lara's story forward.

But still, just as that narrative continues with Rise of the Tomb Raider, so too does that elusive thread through Pratchett's work. It's hard to spot but it's there, connecting dynamic characters, each a survivor in their own right.

"Sometimes you have to learn to live at the edges of a game," Pratchett said. "Hiding in the walls, sneaking your story through the cracks and crevices, spreading the narrative any way you can."

Mike Mahardy on Google+
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    Mike Mahardy

    Editor. Ex-New Yorker. Enthusiast of gin, cilantro, and rock and roll.
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