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.

Sunday 14 June 2015

The Swapper Postmortem - What Went Wrong

This is a two-years-belated follow up to my post-release discussion of what worked and what didn't in The Swapper. What went right is here. These were my thoughts at the time.

Some reviews of the game reflected the concerns I had in advance about my work's shortcomings. Some reviews, if I may be perfectly honest, let me get away with more than I think I deserved to.

For this postmortem I am going to take quotes from this review as a way to bring into relief some of the narrative approaches that didn't work so well. It is quite an entertaining read.

Is The Swapper just the "video game equivalent of a circle jerk between fucking spacemen"?
It is my constant fear that once we as artists step beyond a certain level of obscurity of presentation, or once the intention of a work is so open-ended that it is hard to see how it could have been inspired in the first place, we are just being obscure for the sake of it.

Is The Swapper one of those games?

I wholly understand people who didn't like the story for reason of obscurity. Why is it necessary to hide these ideas away behind the fiction? Why did we choose not to have a text at the end of the game which explained everything in detail? Why didn't we have the balls to pick a particular world view and present it coherently, rather than all this open discussion without clear conclusions?

In developing The Swapper I thought about the critical reception of games I'd worked on and other games in the genre, and figured less was more. I didn't want the flabby diary entries that slowed the pace of Penumbra; I didn't even particularly want to use voiced characters. I wanted The Swapper to be an exercise in minimalism and efficient use of language to convey and engage people in a complex topic. The shorter the script the better every word had to be, and if that's also the perspective amongst the critics then all the better.

The result is undeniably not as accessible as, say, an Uncharted game, and that is not necessarily my desire. The Swapper can be dry, difficult and obtuse, and it needn't have been that way.

Is Integration of Gameplay and Narrative in The Swapper Really a Success?
Reviews have commented on how good it is to play a game where the gameplay and narrative are so seamlessly integrated. I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me, but I think we really faile don this level.

When I started on the game most of the puzzles - as well as the general station layout - were already implemented to an alpha standard; so when a review says something like 'It's clear The Swapper was designed from the ground-up to explore topics in philosophy of mind' I'll take it as a complement, but not really a deserved one.

What I think has happened is this. I made it my goal to develop a narrative which took the concept behind the Swapper device as a cornerstone of the action. This, it seems to me, is really the bare minimum: any story which didn't address the ramifications of the use of that device would just be a sci-fi story arbitrarily bolted on to a thematically independent set of gameplay mechanics (it'd also be missing a wonderful opportunity to explore something fascinating). It's like making an action game whose story is concerned with political intrigue: the two just don't mesh, and each element ends up being redundant (even destructive) to the ambitions of the other.

So The Swapper has at least a consistent central mechanic, and I think this accounts for any positive feedback we received in this area.

This doesn't change the fact that "the puzzles themselves[...] don’t necessarily do a lot to reinforce the themes and concepts[...] they’re just fun dynamical exercises using the game’s mechanics and physics."

Except in so far as the puzzles test your brain there's really no connection between what you do in the game and what the story is doing. There was nothing we could do about that by the time I came on-board, but the point still has to be made: this game did the bare minimum necessary to be a reasonably engaging sci-fi. Let's put up with it for now, and keep looking for something better.

How Big Are the Plot Holes?
There are plot holes and/or 'ludo-narrative dissonance' all over The Swapper. Here's a small list:
  • How do the security orbs work, because the player seems to be able to go anywhere they want just by picking up enough of them?
  • What happens to clones when they disappear?
  • How do the clone grids (the white reset light) distinguish clones from players?
  • How do clones gain independence?
  • How on earth did anyone ever navigate this station without the Swapper?
Some of these issues come down to the unavoidable facts of making a puzzle game. The station, at one stage, was to have a lot more broken infrastructure (catwalks, ladders etc) in the visuals which would help explain how people previously navigated the space. The security orbs, of course, are ridiculous as a genuine security policy, and so our policy was to refrain from explaining any of that and hope people would suspend their disbelief.

Others of these holes I had solutions in mind for, but left out the detail because I wasn't convinced that the exposition necessary to fill the hole was any better than leaving it be. For instance, clone grids were supposed to be security measures installed throughout Theseus and its excavation sites following widespread adoption of the device and a major industrial accident of some kind. The idea was that it would be madness to allow people to create clones willy-nilly, and so these grids are used for population control: they identify active brain processes and vaporise any biological matter that doesn't exhibit such activity. The same goes for clone independence - this is plausibly explained by some kind of metal or other barrier that severs the links between original and clone.

These explanations might basically work, but if they take a paragraph to explain here they no doubt would have taken longer in the game itself. Further, it would be abundantly clear to anyone paying attention that that scrap of text exists in the game wholly to provide fictional justification for a necessary gameplay device. If what you've got is a bit naff maybe it's better just to let people make up their own minds?

What do you think?

Like all the games I've worked on, The Swapper was a learning process, and I hope you can see some of the lessons in play more recently in The Talos Principle.

Friday 15 May 2015

Project Announcements: The Masterplan & Talos: Road to Gehenna

Okay, so both these projects were already announced but I was too busy writing them to say anything about it.

The Masterplan
I played The Masterplan in early access six months ago, and instantly bought into its world. It's a top-down heist game with real-time pause and a tactical stealth focus, and central to the whole thing is the hostage-taking mechanic which enables you to control rooms and implement on-the-fly tactics like having the bank manager rob his own bank, or having the clerks form a human shield between you and the cops.

I ran into the Sharkpunch team deep in the snow at PAX East, and couldn't resist the chance to offer them some help with the writing. It's such a charming little game, it deserved better than second-language English - plus the entire script is less than 10,000 words, so it's not a great time sink.

Since coming onboard I've tried to make the world feel more consistent. A simulation game like this, where most of what happens is player-driven, turns not on the cinematics or the linear text, but the authenticity of the world you are interacting with. It doesn't need to be real, it just needs to make internal sense.

To that end I've been using flavour texts to build out the sense that you're in a 70s crime caper, recruiting a team, scoping joints and pulling off the impossible. Right now we're working on implementing more dynamic in-game speech. It's silly stuff, but the world comes alive when the characters in it react in unpredictable but logical ways.

Finally, the whole game is bookended with some more traditional linear plotting which was already hinted at in the original teaser. This is not a story-heavy game, but it wouldn't be a crime caper every detail went to plan.

The Masterplan releases on 4th June 2015.

Road to Gehenna
Having gotten Talos out the door in December last year I was all ready to take a bit of a break, and then come back and start something completely new. As ever, things did not work out that way.

Croteam collared me in January. They'd been working on extra-hard Talos DLC puzzles for who knows how long and contrary to their intentions throughout that development they decided the DLC needed some kinda story.

Not blown away by the thought of churning out more Milton, more Elohim Jonas and I immediately set about generating plot pitches which would  expand on the original world without simply following in its footsteps. We wanted a new challenge.

Pitches we discarded included the game being set in the distant past when the system was still being developed, with researchers commenting on and interpreting your every action; a secondary server with all the same rules, but completely different archive information, resulting in very different versions of ELOHIM and Milton; and one where far future beings discover the system and begin to explore it.

Without spoiling anything, the pitch we went with provides us huge flexibility in terms of the sort and tone of material we deliver. It gives us a world that fits within the original game's religious and science fiction mythology, but which resolutely has its own identity. Most importantly for me, it lets us explore completely new ideas about how to interact with the game.

Road to Gehenna is ambitious (overly so: the script is around the same size as that of the original game). I haven't undertaken a follow-up to one of my own games since the Penumbra series eight years ago because I want to keep moving forwards (the same reason, more or less, that I didn't work on Amnesia), and so Gehenna we have consciously designed to be experimental. We wanted to explore new ideas in a safe environment so that when we inevitably come to Talos 2 we will be able to raise our audience's expectations once again.

Story was fully implemented a week or two ago, and we are now in final bug-hunting. Road to Gehenna will arrive for computers and other toys in the next month or two.

Monday 5 January 2015

New Years Resolutions

  • Update blog more
  • Work on a procedural generated game
  • Publish a game of my own
  • Make something political