Two narrative designers who worked on Rise of the Tomb Raider recently talked with the guys from Spawn on Me podcast and shared their thoughts on working as writers within the game industry as well as some personal stories about the game’s development process (their segment begins at approximately 00:16:50).
John Stafford (Lead Narrative Designer) and Cameron Suey (Narrative Designer) are no strangers to the game industry. As they told the podcast’s presenters, they’ve worked on a dozen games throughout their careers and had previously worked together on two major projects: the 2008 game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and its sequel.
Although Suey was not involved in the development of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot due to a stint (or, as he calls it, “dark period”) as a mobile games designer, Stafford invited him to join the Rise writing team a couple of years ago and the rest is, ahem, history.
Over the space of an hour, the two writers talked about the challenges of collaborative writing, their close working relationship with the game’s level and gameplay designers, the importance of user testing throughout a game’s development, and some of the research that went into crafting the game’s main narrative and additional dialogue.
Due to the sheer length of the podcast, I have not been able to provide a transcript but have put together a summary of some of the key points they raised during their hour-long talk with the Spawn on Me team. Please note that there may be some minor plot spoilers below so if you haven’t already played the game, **proceed with caution**.
- After a brief chat about their previous work together, the two went on to describe the process of collaborative writing with their fellow writer, Rhianna Pratchett (who worked off-site): how they would send their work back and forth, giving their feedback on each other’s efforts, editing the pieces to ensure consistency, and meeting up with the game’s level designers and other stakeholders on a regular basis. They cited Creative Director Noah Hughes’ critical role as their primary soundboard, how he’d take the writers to task to ensure they were on point with the tone of the game and the gameplay systems.
- Stafford described the 2013 reboot as a “zero to hero” story and said that the writing team knew (and accepted) that Lara’s growth arc in Rise would be less steep and dramatic than in its predecessor, adding that her progression is more motivation-based, that she is not a victim of circumstance but is instead taking matters into her own hands.
- The writers confessed that they initially weren’t going to delve into Lara’s relationship with her father, stating that they had become fixated on what had had happened on Yamatai and how the events of the 2013 game had affected her. The Yamatai references were largely dropped from the finished game to allow Rise to be more of a standalone adventure that newcomers could play and enjoy without having played the reboot.
- When asked how they could create a sense of palpable tension in a game that was both narrative-driven and semi-open world, Suey brought up the concept of “player and character synchronicity”, i.e. making sure that the players’ desires matched those of Lara. Special care was taken to create side quests that were time appropriate, tied into the plot, and didn’t require Lara to abandon her primary objective. Stafford chimed in, adding that the hubs opened up during less urgent points in the game (and not during cliffhanger or “ticking time bomb” scenes), allowing for a perfect middle ground between open-world, RPGness and on-rails action.
- Tying in with the previous point and with the presenters’ questions about respecting gamers’ time constraints, Stafford described the game’s planning process (which involved pacing charts) and the creation of what they call a “metascript”, a beefy document that charted every story moment and gameplay beat and would generally be approved by the gameplay team. This would help them decide how long they wanted gamers to spend in each section and allow the writers to write their scenes in accordance with the blueprints they’d set for themselves.
- The writers went on to mention the importance of user testing and how the testers’ experiences prompted them to create subtle “narrative nuggets” to remind gamers of the main story (something that’s easy to lose sight of when exploring the game’s sizeable hubs). In the finished game, ambient conversations between enemy soldiers will occasionally pop up on Lara’s radio, reminding players of the events going on around them and allowing them to re-engage with the game’s central plot at their own leisure.
- Stafford and Suey also talked about the considerations of working for not only an established franchise but one that had recently been re-established (i.e. rebooted). Taking their cues from the game’s lead writer, Rhianna Pratchett, they learnt that Lara spoke in a very specific way and that they had to take care to avoid channelling the snarky “Teflon” Lara of the older games and Angelina Jolie films. Character dialogue was thus written with the overall tone of the game in mind and, as a result, humour was treated very carefully and used sparingly.
- When asked about Lara’s relationship with a certain character (I’m omitting the details here to avoid posting spoilers), Stafford mentioned that one particular scene had to be rewritten some 47 times in order to create the right emotional connection between the two characters, especially since it was a scene that was crucial to understanding why Lara set off on this adventure in the first place.
- The game’s religious overtones were also touched upon, with Suey describing the chief antagonist and certain secondary characters as being religiously motivated, albeit from different ends of the spectrum. The writers took special care to avoid causing offence and were always aware of the narrative choices they were making. They explained how they would use nuance to show how religious belief had influenced the lifestyles and actions of the game’s “good guys” and how a similar yet contradictory belief inspired the antagonists to do terrible things, pointing out that, as writers, they had to view each character as if they were the hero of their own story and demonstrate how each character’s motivation made sense from their personal point of view.
The two narrative designers also had a lot to say about the game’s historical elements and cultural influences. Suey explains how the in-game relics and documents allowed him to tap into his prose writing skills and how he was given the freedom to work on several self-contained stories and mini arcs so long as they all tied back into the main story, pointing out that one series of documents, “Heart of Darkness”, was essentially his attempt to shoehorn a horror story into Tomb Raider.
Suey also talked about the concept of what Creative Director Noah Hughes called “plausible Googleability”, which essentially boils down to creating a setting and story with just enough true life detail that will make the in-game lore seem real but taking some artistic license here and there. The writer described one particular incident where he stumbled upon a reference to an elite Byzantine army consisting of young men of noble status that seemingly vanishes from the historical record following the death of Emperor John I Tzimiskes in 976 AD, a time period that roughly coincides with the Prophet’s escape to Syria in the game’s lore. By simply changing a few details, he was able to give the in-game army a plausible back story that was largely grounded in historical fact.
Last but not least, The Archaeology of Tomb Raider got a shout-out at approximately 1 hour and 13 minutes into the podcast. Stafford brought the presenters’ attention to the timeline I had created based on Rise’s in-game documentation and relics, remarking that it was astonishingly accurate and very close to the team’s own documentation. *pats self on back* He also went on to mention my propensity for picking at holes and highlighting the differences between the “real” myth and the game’s interpretation, no doubt in reference to this tweet…
Well, what can I say? I’m a sucker for details. 🙂