Plotting 15 Years of Overlord With Rhianna Pratchett

Creating the new Lara Croft, helming Overlord, and so much more with one of game writing's superstars

Plotting 15 Years of Overlord With Rhianna Pratchett
Source: Wired.
"Make yourself a sponge for all kinds of stories."

Be it reinventing Lara Croft, one of gaming's beloved icons, or paving a new path with Overlord, award-winning writer Rhianna Pratchett has left an indelible impact on gaming. Having contributed to developers like Ubisoft, 2K, Eidos Montreal, and Larian Studios, Rhianna's words prop up some of gaming's most iconic personas.

Her family has long been associated with excellent narratives.

I'll never forget falling in love with her father's work. "The river was so dry that even a nonbeliever could walk across it" from Mort (1987) perfectly showcases Terry's sharp wit. Fantasy author Terry Pratchett's seemingly effortless sense of humor thrives in Overlord, a feat that his daughter Rhianna pulled off with skill and a heap of teamwork.

A satirical parody of the adventure games before it, Overlord flips tropes and uses impish humor and clever character design to put its own spin on the genre. Its narrative choices tread into "if it's wrong, I don't want to be right" territory and score without flinching. Who doesn't want a little goblin following you around who tells you how cool you are?

Source: GamesIndustry.biz

In this interview celebrating 15 years of Overlord, we touch on everything to do with that property and preserving her father's legacy while building her own.

SUPERJUMP

Overlord's mix of satire and magic has earned it a devout audience. What deliberate and accidental touches helped shape Overlord's remarkable sense of humor? And did you face any friction from the other teams with respect to creative choices?

RHIANNA

The humor in the Overlord games was really baked-in from the ground up. Meaning that it didn’t just come from the script and voice acting, but the mechanics, level design, animation, and art as well. It was deliberately designed as a comedy game, rather than just some funny words in an amusing order. The team at Triumph Studios was great to work with and I don’t recall any particular friction that couldn’t be put down to the normal rough and tumble of general game development.

SUPERJUMP

You worked directly with Overlord's audio team, giving voice actors crucial context, scene by scene. How did this impact the game's dialogues and characters?

RHIANNA

I actually did more than that – I either directed or co-directed most of the audio on the first and second games along with the fine folks at The Sound Guys. I think every writer is a bit (at the very least) of a control freak at heart. So being able to take the words from the page into the studio and guide them that little bit further is very satisfying. You’re also the person who usually knows the characters inside and out and are best placed to communicate what the actors need to know.

SUPERJUMP

You've spearheaded the monumental tasks of polishing an existing legacy (Tomb Raider) and building one from scratch (Overlord). How did your approach vary in each case and how instrumental were the people around you in bringing your vision to life?

RHIANNA

Game development is a team sport. You’re always very reliant on those around you, no matter whether you’re working on an indie game, AAA, or something in between.

With Tomb Raider, Crystal had a fair idea of how they wanted the character and tone of the game to be, which was somewhat darker, and less quippy than some of the titles which had gone before. They also wanted to delve into Lara’s character at a point in her life that hadn’t been explored so much before – her evolution into the Tomb Raider. So there were definitely more creative restrictions in place, which you would pretty much always expect working on an established IP.

Working with a smaller team like the Overlord one (which I think was around 30-40 people, as appose to the Tomb Raider team which was several hundred) also allows you to have more of a voice on a project. It allows you easier and quicker access to team members (I worked closely with all level designers on Overlord) and gives you the ability to work in associated areas, such as voice directing or narrative design.

Source: Microsoft.

SUPERJUMP

Discworld's esoteric people would fit right at home in a videogame. Have you ever considered working on a new open-world/survival Discworld video game that builds on the old point-and-click Discworld games?

RHIANNA

When dad was alive, he always said that he’d never seen the right kind of pitch. He didn’t elaborate too much on what he thought the right kind of pitch might be, but it certainly wasn’t something that involved Vimes running around Ankh-Morpork collecting gems (which was apparently one of them.)

Since then, Narrativia (the rights controlling company I started with Dad, which I now co-run with Rob Wilkins – his former assistant and biographer) has focused on larger film and TV projects. As part of that, it means that we have to keep the rights for future games free and unencumbered, so we’ve not been looking to sign anything up at the moment.

We often get asked about rereleasing the old games, which we’d definitely be supportive of. The difficulty is, that we don’t own the rights to those games and, due to studios being bought and sold over the years, it’s not completely clear who does. Best guess is that it’s Sony.

SUPERJUMP

What were the steps/sacrifices that Triumph Studios had to consider to achieve Overlord's brand of satire? Did the game's "inverted seven deadly sins" theme carry Overlord forward or hold it back?

RHIANNA

From my perspective, I think the seven deadly sins really worked well as a framing concept and gave each level and associated hero their own feel. Sometimes working within specific constraints can make you more creative than working with a completely blank slate.

As mentioned earlier I think we all had to make sure that the comedy inherent in the game ran through its DNA, rather than purely the script. I remember that the mistresses in both games were quite a challenge to write, particularly doing the audio ‘sex scenes.’ But making them characterful, fully (and enthusiastically) consensual and a bit silly certainly helped.

SUPERJUMP

What is your most pleasant memory from your time spent on Overlord?

RHIANNA

I remember working on the games very fondly. Which certainly isn’t the case for all the projects I’ve been part of. I got on well with the team at Triumph and was well integrated into the projects in a way that felt collaborative but also gave me a strong voice in the room. I had a great time working with the voice actors – particularly the hugely talented Marc Silk, who voiced Gnarl alongside many other characters. He’d sometimes sing along to songs in his Gnarl voice to entertain us between takes.

Source: WallpaperHaven.

SUPERJUMP

What is that one question you've always wanted to answer in an interview?

RHIANNA

A lot of interviews connect me with my dad, but they never really ask about what it’s like trying to look after someone else’s legacy whilst trying to build my own (bloody hard is the TLDR answer.)

SUPERJUMP

As a journalist-turned-videogame writer, what advice would you share with journalists (cough, yours truly) looking to make the switch to videogames?

RHIANNA

Always assume that, when it comes to narrative in games, it’s much harder than it may look from the outside. I’ve certainly seen journalists who were quite sneering about the narrative aspect of a game (sometimes games I’ve worked on) only to go into narrative themselves and realize how hard it is to tell a solid game narrative, how many moving parts there are and how, as a writer, you are normally a cog in a much larger machine. Some had to learn the hard way that they couldn’t just burst onto the scene as the heaven-sent gift to narrative that they thought they were going to be.

SUPERJUMP

With new challenges like working from home and virtual collaboration, what advice would you like to share with aspiring writers who want to enter the videogame industry?

RHIANNA

Play games, for sure, but also look beyond games for your inspiration. Absorb books, theatre, poetry, philosophy, history, etc.  Make yourself a sponge for all kinds of stories, be interested in people. Have something to say.

SUPERJUMP

We’d like to thank Rhianna for generously making time for us. And best wishes for her upcoming projects. Fingers crossed for a Discworld CRPG.


Stay tuned to SUPERJUMP, we’ve got a whole slate of awesome interviews planned so make sure to check back regularly and keep watching our social media as well!

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