Sunday 10 February 2013

How I Got my First Job - Penumbra: Overture

Here's laziness for you. By far and away the most common question I'm asked by aspiring writers - after 'How do you be a games writer?' - is 'How did you get your first job?'. As much as I love hearing from and helping aspiring writers where I can, perhaps this post can save us all some time that we can then spend on nice things like writing tests, and reading RPS.

I got my first job, as narrative designer on Penumbra: Overture, at the end of 2006. I was 22, and halfway through an English & Philosophy BA at Southampton. I'd been reading books, playing games and writing stories for as long as I could remember. I'd been in the habit of sending sporadic bursts of emails to UK devs - at first looking for work experience (I didn't get any), then for entry-level QA and production jobs, which landed me a Summer's work at Lionhead on Black & White 2 the previous year. I don't know what spurred me to to switch from applying for actual jobs that existed to fantasy writing jobs that I figured should exist, but post-Lionhead I decided the smartest route into the industry was as a writer. After all, I was actually in the process of getting a qualification that would support my applications, and I already knew rather more about writing than I did about production or level design. Youthful naivety can be a valuable resource.

I recall one thing that happened at Lionhead while I was there that might have triggered my shift in focus. A few months before release a bunch of the other QA guys got together and wrote a short intro script that would frame the gameplay of B&W2 in a way more consistent with the mythology of the first. Frankly it was needed - any semblance of narrative progress that existed in the first game had largely been stripped out of the combat-oriented sequel, and it really didn't make much sense. In the end the idea didn't even get as far as being vetted - we'd hit text lock weeks earlier - but the image stayed with me. I realised that if Lionhead was approaching writing in so haphazard a way then maybe even a writer of my mediocrity could make a difference.

Luckily enough the indie game revolution was well under way by now. For the first time that I could remember the games I wanted to play weren't in the hands of the big corporations - everyone was doing it. Suddenly the people making the games were as inexperienced as I was. I started emailing small studios, new studios, eastern European studios... anyone doing something interesting that might be able to make use of a writer. No one replied.

And then I sent this email:

> Dear Penumbra,
> First of all, many congratulations on Penumbra - the physics based
> interaction interface is so intuitive it's a wonder it hasn't been done
> before.
> I read that you are embarking on a commercial project, and I wish you
> all the best with this, and wish to offer my services.
   The area that interested me particularly was the potential of the
> narrative to further enhance the atmosphere.  It's a promising start, but I
> think there's so much more that could be done with the actual
> implementation of the narrative, from the introduction, to the item
> descriptions, to the character's internal narrative during the game.
> I realise that Penumbra is currently a tech demo: obviously you have
> plans for the commercial release.  If you are currently looking for
> publisher financing, however, I would imagine that the tech demo is
> your greatest tool of persuasion, and as such, it would benefit from
> being as polished as it possibly can be.
> I am a UK based writer with a keen interest in the future of narrative
> based video gaming.  I have had a play with the config file for
> Penumbra, and I see that it is very easy to adapt in-game text, and I
> would love the chance to help write a more stream-lined, more engaging
> script and narrative for Penumbra.
> In case you are interested, I enclose below a re-imaging of the
> original introductory text, to demonstrate what can be done with the
> material.  If you enjoy it, please do contact me at the email provided.
> Yours sincerely,
> Tom Jubert

Despite addressing the email to the name of the game rather than the team, Frictional responded and offered me a volunteer position on the commercial project, with an unspecified offer of royalties on release.

And that is the story of how I got my first job.