Thursday, 20 October 2016

A Change in Circumstances

Around 8 years ago I had just two games to my name: Penumbra: Overture and Black Plague. I was working fulltime for as editor/content manager, my first job out of uni, and desperately hoping I could find a way to support myself with creative writing alone.

That didn't happen, and in late 2008 I was let go. It was exciting, but difficult, because for the first time I faced the reality that if I couldn't make enough money in the immediate future to pay the bills from making video games I would have to do something drastically responsible, like become a barrister, or a civil servant instead.

Fortunately, and partly due to wonderful people like Gordon Rennie and Andy Walsh supporting me, I was already in touch with a fledgling games writers' agency called Sidelines. It was an offshoot of what remains one of the UK's best (IMO) video game recording studios, Side, and signing up with them secured me work on a bunch of AAA projects such as Driver and Binary Domain. While those two games are the exception in so far as they were actually completed, that string of AAA work from '08 - '12 kept me busy and kept the bills paid until such time as my work on games like FTL and The Swapper was drawing enough attention that I could be more selective about the projects I took on, and stop worrying so hard about what came next.

Now Sidelines Agency is closing its doors, but it's not completely tragic news. Sidelines was always a part-time operation run out of Side's main offices, and their central business continues anon (I was there most recently casting for Elohim in Talos). Further, they will continue to recommend writers to clients, just without taking commission or spending on marketing of the service.

Anyway. They asked me to update my freelancer bio, and I include it here, because why not? You can read it after the break.

Disclaimer: My availability is not super high right now, but it's always good to make contact with people making exciting stuff.

Friday, 9 September 2016

What is moral right and wrong?

The blog's been quiet for some time. There are reasons for this. I'll get to them in time, but I'm going to start us back up with some philosophy.

There are some major questions in philosophy that have been around as long as people have. What is morality? What is the self? What is god? What is free will? What is existence made of? How should I live my life? Depending on your perspective, these questions have either been answered long ago, or are just as open today as ever they were.

I have believed roughly 2-3 different answers to these questions at different times in my life, and changing my beliefs has been a rare (roughly every decade or so) but thoroughly enjoyable and unexpected experience every time.

While it would be poor inductive reasoning on my part to suppose that the answers I have now to these questions will remain so, I believe two things which I think make it worthwhile spelling them out anyway. First, like changes in scientific consensus, changing in philosophical belief doesn't undermine the authority of the process. When we replace newtonian physics with subatomic physics, we're not saying Newton got it completely wrong, we're saying he was on the right track, he just didn't consider some fine print. Second, I feel I have resolved some internal frictions in my philosophy which existed before now, so I feel like now is the time.

So, here is the first in what may become a series of my personally held convictions about the major philosophical conundrums. Because ti seems wrong to do what I do without ever spelling them out.

What is moral right and wrong?
There are two broad answers to this question. One is to deny the existence of moral right and wrong. The other is to accept its existence, and then try to explain how it exists, and why that account means we should behave in certain common sense ethical ways.

I have long held a relativist position, for many reasons, including lack of evidence for god, and causal predetermination. But the greatest argument for moral relativism is a simple counter. I can imagine a person who - for whatever psychological/genetic/causal reasons, simply loves to murder people, and cannot be convinced otherwise. I can find no good reason why this person ought to feel guilty. I can find no convincing way to explain to this person that what they are doing is wrong. I can find no explanation of what this person could do in order to become a good person. And I cannot, on a simple common sense level, understand a system of ethics which condemns someone as evil while simultaneously recognising that there is nothing they or we can do about it. If some people are just inevitably evil then the motivational power of an ethical system is thoroughly undermined.

It's precisely analogous to my favourite argument against god. Some popular religions would have it that not believing in the one true god means you're a bad person. Yet, using every intellectual and emotional capacity available to me, I am not able to believe in god. If god exists, it follows that god built me in this way, and is then hell-bent on punishing me for god's own doing. That cannot be perfection. In fact, that sounds like exactly the kind of fiction a fucked up, guilt-ridden narcissist would create.

All this being said, I have always had a strong moral compass - or more accurately a strong emotional reaction to unfairness and contradiction, and this has been hard to integrate with my philosophical beliefs.

One way to cash out on this is to be thoroughly emotivist. To accept that my strong negative reactions to perceived unfairness are merely preferences which carry no more authority than my preference for vanilla over chocolate. This perspective, however, carries some unfortunate side effects. It renders moral behaviour meaningless. It means there is no meaningful moral discussion to be had, no social progress to be made, just changing tastes. Most importantly, it means I have no reason not to screw you over if I think it will benefit me in totality. It means we are all pretending to be moral, while really looking out for ourselves.

Where can we possibly go from here?

This is my suggestion (and certainly not mine originally). It's a form of compatibilism between authoritative morality and a scientific understanding of the world which denies the possibility of an actual moral authority. Here we go.

I suggested above that an essential ramification of moral relativism was a selfish, individualist perspective. This was a lie, but a lie I tried to internalise for over a decade. It's a natural enough assumption, in our particular culture. If there isn't a set of rules telling me I ought or must treat people with a certain moral respect then why on earth would I choose to do so? If everyone thought like me, wouldn't society collapse?

We live in a world which functions on the myth of individualism. We are told from day one that we are in competition with others, for jobs, for relationships, for money, for happiness. We are sold products which turn entirely around making the individual more attractive, more intelligent, more successful. We HAVE to be out for ourselves, because no one else will be.

The joke is that individualism relies on non-individualistic beliefs. The lure of professional success is nothing without the social recognition which comes with it. Looking good is worthless unless something good comes to you because of it. Money is only worth what other people will give you for it. Yet we're encouraged to ignore these facts; to pretend that money is worthwhile in itself, that 'success' will make us happy, that conforming to cultural beauty norms is any less arbitrary than conforming to local linguistic norms.

I always prided myself on being able to step out of these cultural dogmas, but I was wrong - they coloured most of my life in ways I am only just recognising. Most relevantly, they coloured how I interpreted moral relativism.

I grew up (like a lot of my readers) in an environment where the pervasive existential narrative is a scientific and economic one. Humans are understood as essentially selfish. The world is understood as essentially meaningless. Life is understood as a struggle to beat the competition. Against this backdrop, I assumed that in the absence of moral authority, it was my obligation to get the most for myself.

This perspective is false, but self-sustaining. If you understand the world in this way, and you discover that there is no moral authority, then of course you will go out and be a dick to people. You will say to yourself, "Wow, how fantastic, finally I can be myself, do whatever I want, free from authority," and then you will go out and treat people like objects.

But it may just be that you do that, and then realise that that didn't make you happy either. You may do it and realise that actually you weren't being selfish at all, you were still letting someone else tell you what to do, you just didn't realise it - because you were letting your environment define you as this machine that doesn't care about others except in so far as they help you out.

You may realise that being TRULY selfish would mean abandoning that pervasive conception of what a person is, and what the point of life is, and opening up to the fact that we are all in this together. That we are all one. You may realise that in the absence of authoritative morality and purpose rather than having no direction, you are free to choose for yourself. And you may realise that if you can choose from an infinite set of possibilities, it will be much more fun to choose something that is not dickish.

So this is how I now render compatible my logical scepticism of authoritative morality with my strong moral conviction. My morality is not authoratative in the way many moral philosophers would prefer that it was. I will never tell anyone they are a bad person, I will never eliminate them from consideration for a relationship of some kind because of something they've done in the past. I will not guilt myself out for things that I have done in the past.

But at the same time, I will not accept that my moral intuitions are mere preferences, like vanilla over chocolate. Moral intuitions are the result of a complex series of reasoning which draws on verifiable facts about the world. While it's not the case that there is any one correct moral system, it is the case that there are huge overlaps between us in what makes our lives good, and that these overlaps are not a zero sum game. What makes life good is not money or things, but people and relationships - be they close to us, or increasingly in the modern world, far away. We can talk meaningfully about how we can behave to maximise our chances, and we can agree to sets of rules which work towards these goals.

But most importantly, if you decide the rules aren't up to scratch, I support wholeheartedly you efforts to disobey and change them.

Monday, 21 December 2015

10 Years of Interactive Entertainment

I had to look up the start date of my first project. Thomas at Frictional games emailed me in September 2006 offering me unpaid work on the Penumbra series. My word-for-word reply at the time sheds light on just how long ago this really was:
"This certainly sounds like something I would like to be involved in[...] I'm on MSN with this email..."
That means September 2016 will be my ten year 'professional' writing anniversary, but my games industry anniversary has been and gone. My first taste of development was in the QA department at Lionhead Studios on Black & White 2, way back in April 2005. I remember skipping my university exams that year to take the job, and receiving a curious email from university admin inquiring remarkably softly why I hadn't attended. I told them grades in the first year don't count towards your final degree beyond 50%, and I already had that through coursework, so I prioritised work experience. They were surprisingly cool about it.

Lionhead Studios made me want to be a professional writer. Up until that point I had been cold contacting dozens of studios every week, looking for work experience, placements and QA work. I'd studied computer science with the intent of being a programmer; I'd studied business to keep production a valid option; and I was toying around with LD tools as well. What I actually wanted to do of course was to be a games designer.

Lionhead showed me how big games development usually works. On my second day there I was caught in my lunchbreak trawling the company servers, reading every Lionhead design document I could get my hands on. During my second month there a group of other QA guys started complaining there was no story to the game. They were right. There had been I think a conscious top-down design decision to focus on mechanics rather than narrative, and the story was bare, uninteresting and contrary to the world in front of you. So these QA guys put together their own text-based story - it was basically just an opening crawl setting up the world and your mission there - and pitched it to design.

I was so jealous. I had always been a writer, for as long as I can remember. I'd just nine months ago quit my computer science degree in favour of English & Philosophy. Compared to QA, production, design, everything, writing was the one area I actually had solid, bankable skills, and here I was being outmanoeuvred by these other QA guys.

Now as it turned out the game had already hit text lock and the new story never went in - but it gave me all the inspiration I needed. If Lionhead's QA department was just a text-lock away from successfully pitching a story for a AAA product, then if I could get to other teams at just the right time I could succeed where they failed.

From this point on everything became about games writing. I started emailing very different teams, targeting those I thought would be open to taking a gamble on me, those with games that suited the sort of story I could produce. From that point on I have basically been looking for the same set of magic words that Frictional first uttered to me:
"It has always been our goal to give [the game] good and creative [story], but unfortunately we are at best mediocre writers."

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Tales From the Borderlands: Worth Writing Home About?

Short version: buy it. Why? Because it is the funniest 3D game since Giants: Citizen Kabuto, and Telltale's most structurally ambitious and sound adventure to date. 

Long version after the jump. Major spoilers throughout.

Friday, 18 September 2015

A Faintly Amusing Aside on Schooling

The origins of my surname are in the French 'Joubert', which hundreds of years ago was anglicised to 'Jubert'. This makes my surname quite rare, and thus quite useful as a username, because no one else ever wants it.

However, there are other Juberts out there, and frequently they make the same assumption as I - that we are rare enough to have unique usernames - and this results in my receiving from time to time emails meant for some Jubert on the other side of the planet (they are mostly in Canada and China these days).

Today I received the following email:
Hi, this is Mrs.[Name Removed], Jason's teacher. I was wondering if there was a time that we could meet to discuss Jason's behavior? I know that you work so I wasn't sure what would fit into your schedule. Is there any day next week that you'd be available before or after school? 
Jason received another pink slip from the bus supervisor today. It is stapled into his planner. 
I feel that Jason is a smart boy and is not working up to his potential due to making poor choices. 
thanks for your time.
Mrs. [Name Removed]
Since I have no children, I have concluded this email was intended for some other Jubert. However, since it is my birthday today (thirty-one if you must know) I thought I would have some fun and send Mrs. [Name Removed] the advice I would have liked to give my teachers twenty years ago. I quite liked the writing, and so I figured I would reproduce it here for posterity. I don't pretend that this advice is easy to follow, nor that it isn't biased. Frankly it's just venting some steam. All the same, I believe in the core message. Kids get a really bum deal in school, and we can do a lot better. Enjoy!

Hi Cindy, 
Good to hear from you, and sorry to hear you're having difficulty with Jason. I agree Jason is probably a smart boy, and I have no doubt he is not living up to his scholastic potential. Without knowing the exact details of the pink slip it's hard for me to know what the appropriate action to take is. 
The best I can do is try to draw lessons from my own experience. I was a smart kid when I was Jason's age, and my teachers found my behaviour disruptive (which of course it was - but try explaining that to a kid!). In the end I was suspended multiple times and it was decided best I be sent to a school with a much less disciplinary culture, where I actually thrived. Today I am every bit as rebellious as ever I was - but now there is no one telling me what to do, and I am able to hold down a well-paid creative job. 
When you're young and smart, you're made distinctly aware by every facet of society that you are different: by your peers and by adults. Lessons move too slowly to be of any real interest, so you start acting up. Typical pass-times often feel mindless and mundane; but the more rewarding intellectual pursuits that keep me busy today such as philosophy, debate and political protest aren't made available to younger people. 
What I'm suggesting is that while Jason's behaviour is proving a problem in the context of school, he is simply reacting to the environment being forced onto him, and he maybe requires a different kind of treatment to other children. Discipline is never, ever, ever going to work, because Jason is probably smarter than you and me put together. In fact, authority in general is part of the problem - Jason needs to be free to explore who he is, and he will never accept the word of an authority figure as justification for anything. He needs to know for himself. 
In my experience, school tends to reward sheep-like behaviour. Learn your times tables, learn how to spell, learn how photosynthesis works; learn the rules, don't question the rules, follow the rules. For someone with some intelligence and independence this will only be a destructive force in their life. Children have all sorts of skills, passions and talents which often go completely ignored in favour of forcing them through traditional scholastic disciplines where they all have to think the same. I don't want this for Jason, nor for any child. 
I would be happy to meet with you to discuss this matter in more detail, however I think it would be most appropriate if you were to get directly in touch with Jason's parents or legal guardians, who will be better positioned to talk to Jason and yourself about the situation than I am, being as I am a stranger on the other side of the internet who happens to have a similar email address to whoever you actually wanted to talk to. 
Nonetheless I hope you will take my comments to heart, and I would be most grateful if you would also share them with Jason's guardians. Not everyone knows how to deal with a smart, rebellious kid - sometimes it takes one to know one. 
Best of luck in all your endeavours,
Tom Jubert 
PS To you they are poor choices, to grown-up me they are poor choices; but to young Jason they are the only choices he sees available to him. The trick is not to try to 'correct' his poor choices to be more in line with those of the children who unquestioningly do as they're told; the trick is to offer him better, fairer choices that cater to his particular needs.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Quick Update

Here is what has been happening for the past couple months.

Yesterday I did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. Last time I did one was three years ago, and I'm pleased to say the number of questions fielded this time was roughly triple, and ran the gamut from the usual 'How do I do your job?', through practical questions about the future of Subnautica, all the way to rather sillier ones. Here's a quick excerpt:

Tom, it turns out that I love every game that you and/or your pal Jonas Kyratzes have worked on. So, I have to ask...
Which would you rather fight: 100 small, brightly colored, six-legged, horse-like animals, or one horse-sized mantis with max ranks in combat?

In other news I am continuing to develop the general plotline for Subnautica (which will likely be true until a couple months before it ships), and next week I'm hoping to move back onto doing a proper redesign of the intro sequence and first 30 mins of story. Should be a big jump forward for the next update.

Finally, let's have a quick celebration of the fact the UK for the first time in decades has a prominent left-winger leading one of the two main parties, who believes in things like thinking before shooting, abolishing the monarchy and giving everyone an equal share of the things in life that really matter: health, education and political involvement.

Friday, 31 July 2015

How Video Games Will Destroy Humanity

31st July 2015 EDIT: Full video here.

Recently I gave a little talk to games dev audiences at Subotron in Vienna, and Gamelab in Barcelona. The idea of the talk was to first establish some strong design rules I learnt from authors like Terry Pratchett and George Orwell - keep it simple, make it speak - and then to develop a science fiction world using those principles which might form the basis of a future game. As I did this I realised that video games were going to destroy humanity.

For those that requested it, here are the notes and attached powerpoint. For those that didn't request it, feel free to take a look, but note it's probably better live.

As always, feedback, thoughts and counter arguments very welcome.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Project Announcement: Subnautica

Rather than try to put into words how excited I am to sign onto another innovative new project, I will simply invite you to have a play of Subnautica if you haven't, and then ask you to enjoy with me a restrained mutual fist pump. Yes.

Subnautica, like FTL, is one of those games I loved so much as a player I just had to get in touch and see if there was something I could help out with. Much as I dislike the market pressures early access puts on consumers to purchase unfinished product, it certainly has its advantages.

Subnautica beguiles me so for two reasons. First, it is a non-violent, open-world exploration / survival game. While I've done a bunch of non-violent things in the past, it is great to be able to start 'specialising' in it, but it's the openness of the world that really holds the potential for me. My entire career I have wanted to explore ways of telling story that are not just audio logs, cut scenes and dialog trees - or at least be ambitious with how I apply those techniques. Subnautica offers a whole new palette.

Second, Subnautica's world is without parallel. Aesthetically speaking, where The Swapper lacked visual definition, and Talos had too much of it (for my personal liking), Subnautica's slightly exaggerated first-person world is hugely to my taste. It is colourful, immediate and intriguing, and its science fiction provides lots of opportunities to build on that world.

Thematically it is right down my alley as well. I always try to make my stories be about whatever the gameplay is about. If you are swapping your consciousness between different bodies to solve puzzles, the story had better be about that. If you are shooting many men in the face, your story had better be about that (hence why I don't work on so many shooters).

Subnautica's gameplay is about exploring and surviving on an alien world, and learning how to live harmoniously with your environment. That is literally what you do minute-to-minute. The story, then, is going to be about concepts quite alien to video game narratives in general: survival, environmentalism, life itself. I think these are topics which I can do justice to.

Now, what's the lay of the land, and what are we going to do?

To date there has been some initial story development at the studio, and early access players will already be familiar with the established backstory: you're on a space ship, it crash lands on an ocean planet, find out what happened and get home. Most of the gameplay systems are implemented, along with over half of the world map, but there is a way to go yet with original content creation before moving into polish stage.

Since this is early access, we are not taking the front-loaded approach I usually take, where we spend half the budget on pre-production planning before writing a single word. Instead we're firing multiple cylinders at once. Right now I am working directly with Charlie (Cleveland, Unknown Worlds' founder and creative director) to nail down some of the big outstanding questions about the story. Who is the player character? How do we deliver lore and story in-game? What crashed the ship?

At the same time I am developing plot pitches so that soon enough we will have a firm idea of what actually happens at the end - and of course what happens after that, since in a game like this there is no end.

Finally I am developing in parallel a practical in-game script for the first 40 minutes or so of gameplay, potentially to include in a future game update as a way to test the water for the direction we're taking, and share some of our work with the players.

If you want to follow development there will doubtless by story tasks added to the Subnautica Trello, once my workflow within the team is a bit more established. If you want to play the Early Access (it's in very playable state, save for a bit of stuttering) it's £14.99 from Steam.