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."

Since Then

The first few years were tough. I had enough work to keep me afloat thanks to my agent, but it was mostly AAA stuff that was getting cancelled. It really wasn't until I returned to the indie scene with The Swapper and FTL that I managed to actually release something I was particularly proud of.

So here we are, roughly ten years later. I am now 31 years old. What's changed?

The first thing to say is that I couldn't be prouder of my industry, or happier with the games I've had the opportunity to write. There are a bunch of games I've worked on that I rarely talk about - around 40 at best guess - and I'm going to take a moment to call some of them out here.

Road Trip (2011, Hydravision) - An Unreal-powered open-world zombie game, got canned when the publisher went under. This was special to me because it was the first time I ever took the reigns on a big budget project with a large team. It was all looking genuinely promising, the design was completely driven by narrative, the team was fantastic, the game was ambitious, I was excited. But I wonder to this day whether I dodged a bullet by having my first foray into big-scale development - and inevitable mistakes - kept behind close doors. The project also presented me a problem: I now had some experience of working on big projects, but I still had no releases to point to.

Cargo! A Quest For Gravity (2011, Icepick Lodge) - I think this experience was what lead me back towards the indie scene. I so sorely wanted to work with Ice Pick, and as it turned out I don't think a single word I wrote ever made it into the game. But at least I got a popular blog post out of it.

The Evil Dead App (2011, Trigger) - Okay, it's a horrible, horrible game, but I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. I have dreams that one day Sam Raimi will play it and email me and say "You know what, I hate all this cheap commercialisation and rubbish gameplay, but I'm so grateful you kept faithful to the spirit of the films." But I don't think that day is going to come.

Fused (Sega, 2012) - I worked with a newly established UK arm of Sega on this bomb-disposal game. Like Road Trip it was shaping up very promisingly until the publisher got into trouble and canned it. For most of the project I was working with Simon Woodroffe, one of the key developers behind Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, and he was fantastic as well. It taught me how important it is to have a creative director who's on side.

Organ Trail (2013, The Men Who Wear Many Hats) - In recent years I have shamelessly taken advantage of my growing credits list to approach smaller developers with cool things and fill up some schedule gaps with jobs that last just a week or two. Organ Trail and The Masterplan are examples of this - games with tight scope and interesting voice/setting that I can basically take as a holiday from my bigger commitments.


There are some long-standing goals I am now closing in on.

Subnautica is a game I have wanted to make, one way or another, for a long time. When I write games like The Swapper, I dream that instead of having to tell all the story with bare text and dialog, I actually had a detailed sci-fi world to help tell it for me. I dream that the world has the sort of fidelity and mechanics that let me flesh out how it works, and use those mechanics to do interesting things in the story. Subnautica will let me do that.

Once the bulk of the work on SN is out of the way I have an ongoing, very early-stage secret project which, again, is something I need to get out of my system before I can think about anything else. It's something I'm very excited about, and represents a step up for me in every way. So it will probably fail, but at least it will fail somewhat privately.

I am going to try quite hard not to take on extra work until these two projects are complete, but as ever if the right thing shows up I will have a hard time turning it down.

Then of course there is Talos 2. I'm more excited by that prospect now than I ever thought I would be. Positive reception no doubt helps, but I am also increasingly aware of just how lucky I am to have a moderately successful philosophical science fiction franchise.


When I started out, I put work before everything else. I reasoned I couldn't afford to turn down opportunities provided I still had some time each night to sleep. I have realised in the last few years that I never really corrected for this course setting - I have not stood back and reassessed my priorities.

My philosophy has changed over the past ten years - if you don't want to hear me waffle about it get off here. Penumbra for me was about a revolution against the moral status quo. The Talos Principle conversely is about rebuilding a sense of value and purpose despite objections to what came before. Politics and culture pick up where morality lets go.

Understanding the philosophy of politics demands some understanding of the human condition (and personhood in general) and how we are affected by all facets of our environment. It demands the realisation that bad people aren't bad - they're just people put in bad circumstances. It demands the realisation that there is more than one way to live a good life. It demands we re-examine and eliminate our own biases to arrive at a fair, objective political solution.

Looking at humanity on a larger scale (generalising) exposes the mechanisms which form us. Just as we say the thief who steals for drugs is a victim of poor social support and education, we have to say that the trader whose greed causes the market crash is a victim of weak financial regulation and a culture which glorifies wealth and consumption.

And we can extend this logic to our own selves. I have to admit that I am a product (and beneficiary) of an expensive education, a loving family, and that same culture which rewards wealth beyond all else. I used to believe that I had chosen to do something worthwhile to do with my life, and that it had been a free choice. Games weren't on the school curriculum, it wasn't a career path I had any cross-over with whatsoever, I just wanted to do it, and did it. It was free.

Now I see things differently. I'm a middle-class guy growing up in 90s Britain. I'm well-educated, I'm not stupid, and my family can support me financially. I basically have more freedom to do what I choose with my life than any human being who has ever lived.

And I chose to make games for a living. And I hope that the games I've made have reached out to people in the same way that I felt close to the authors I loved. But I want to ask - wasn't it also just about the most selfish choice I could possibly have made?

I dreamt of being a writer, or a games developer, for most of my life. And I love it. But am I here because I'm a writer, or am I here because I want to be a writer?

I think that I chose to make games because they represented something money can't buy: self-worth. If I can create something that millions of people will enjoy, I must be doing something worth taking pride in, right? Right?!

This is the core assumption that has carried me through the past decade, and thus the assumption I must now question. How have my choices been influenced by cultural standards so integrated into our lives that they are practically invisible? Standards which I now consciously reject? What would I have chosen if I wasn't motivated by personal achievement?

I was watching The Apprentice the other day. I know, I'm not proud. But there's a scene in the interviews where the favourite is asked to explain his ambitions. He doesn't think twice about how to respond:

"I just want to own the world, and everything in it."

The interviewer seems to need no further justification.

I am that Apprentice candidate. I just set my sights on something I thought was more valuable.


  1. Well, here's to another decade of cool stuff then! I wish you keep up the passion to provide us with something more than muscle reflexes while we're playing games.

    I'm rather envious of people that make their wishes come true not by whining about the doors being closed, but by kicking the doors in instead. So yay you!

  2. Ah but your ambition isn't just to write. It's obvious that you want to provoke ideas and nudge the borders of your audience's consciousness. Philosophy has been of enormous value to you personally, and you want to share that with other people, in innovative ways. There's more to it than doing what you want to do.
    As for having privileges denied to your parents, are we as a species meant to work in jobs we don't like? Or is art and science and the humanities a truer reflection of our worth and potential?
    Don't feel guilty because your parents didn't have the same opportunities. Be grateful for them. Keep doing what you can to give back. Your ambition as an artist is ambition for humanity.

  3. Thanks for the support, guys.

    I think we as a species are designed to designed to solve problems. Those of us lucky enough to live in a part of the world where most of the basic survival problems have been solved seek ever more elaborate ways of creating problems for ourselves.

    Simon Woodroffe once asked me whether I went to private school. I said yes. He said he knew I must have - only rich bastards can afford to become writers. I took his point onboard. Human beings adjust their expectations to their environment, and no matter the environment we create problems within it to solve. If I had to work 12 hours a day just to keep the lights on I very much doubt I'd be too worried about whether or not what I was doing was worthwhile beyond that.

  4. Congrats Tom! You’ve worked your ass off and done great work, so you deserve to celebrate how far you’ve come!

    I think working in games is valuable. Some frown upon it as a career path, but games bring pleasure to many people. Think of a patient in hospital - the doctor is important for obvious reasons, but so too are the people that made the game that the patient can escape into for a while. Art and entertainment are valuable.

    Also the process of making games (and writing games) is still in its formative stages, so I think it’s incredibly worthwhile to work towards the development of this medium.

  5. Posted at 5:20 my time which is 4:20 UK time. I hope I'll get a chance to meet you on Split in April. I know what you mean about feeling blessed, though. Peace.