RPS Interview: Penumbra’s Tom Jubert

By John Walker on July 21st, 2008 at 12:45 pm.

It's still fun to bang the lamp back and forth and watch the shadows change.

Tom Jubert is the lead writer on the Penumbra series of games. After Frictional released the tech demo of their remarkable 3D engine, it became clear that creating a fully-fleshed game was the smart move. To do this well, they’d need to plug a weakness: the narrative. So London-based Jubert was brought on board to work alongside the Swedish developers, and the result was Penumbra: Overture. This was originally intended to be the first of a trilogy, which was then shrunk to a two-parter after difficulties discussed below, with the narrative completed in Penumbra: Black Plague. Now, somewhat confusingly, there is to be a third part – Penumbra Requiem – although we’re told it’s not a sequel, but rather an expansion of Black Plague.

In our chat with Tom Jubert, he explains the collaborative process of taking an amateur tech demo into the professional market, the role of fear in games, which publishers we should be slapping, and some juicy tid-bits about the nature of Penumbra: Requiem’s unique design, further taking advantage of the engine’s stand-out implementation of physics.

How do you do?

RPS: There was already had a great reception for the Penumbra tech demo. What were your expectations of how Overture would be received? Was there a sense of people demanding a lot more for a commercial game?

Tom Jubert: There’s a fine line between something being charmingly amateur, and just being broken, and that difference is the £15 price tag. The tech demo was what got me involved with Overture in the first place, and it was an astounding technical achievement for three students – but I think it’s easy to turn community love into commercial disregard.

We knew Overture was superior to the tech demo, but at the same time it’s a low budget product in a niche genre. We had an excitable chat before release, and we all banked for scores somewhere around 70% – 80%, which was about right, so we were pretty chuffed with the reception.

RPS: Can you explain the confusion over the number of chapters in the Penumbra series? There were to be three, then it was two, and now there’s a third again?

Tom Jubert: Frictional had some problems with the publisher that it’s not really my place to go into. Put it this way, if Lexicon Entertainment ever offers you a publishing deal, turn them down, then give the guy a slap.

After the issues with Overture, even the second game was 50:50. After preliminary plotting, I ducked out for a good few months while things got sorted out, and when I came back Paradox had ridden in on a white horse to save the day and finance the sequel, but I think three games was suddenly looking like quite a slog, and my first job was to condense everything down. The ending in Black Plague has split people – it’s certainly a little out of the blue in retrospect – and maybe you can chalk that down to the cut and paste job – but I don’t think much was lost from that process, certainly not in the characters, or thematically.

Black Plague went down better than Overture, and Paradox was keen for an expansion, so I suspect that was a no-brainer for the boys in charge. Requiem won’t be the ‘third episode’, though. It’s less the series conclusion, and more the epilogue. I consider the story to have ended with Black Plague, and Requiem is the chance to further explore themes we hit on in the first two games, to expand on under-used characters, and return to favourites. The actual plot, to be honest, has always been the least popular aspect of the writing – the tone and the characters have been the real success story – so Requiem is more abstract, and more focused in those areas.

I swear I never touched him.

RPS: What did you learn from Overture, and how did that affect the approach to Black Plague?

Tom Jubert: That process was fantastic, because we had lots of time to take on board all the press we received, and all the fan feedback on the forums. We got to focus on the stuff that went down well – the puzzles, the character dialogue, the horror themes – and ditch what didn’t work – the combat, those epileptic dogs, and the over reliance on written notes.

Overture was my first writing job, so second time around I couldn’t wait to let rip. That gave rise to the way I designed the altered perception events, the omnipresent love / hate relationship with Clarence, and the surreal performance for Dr Swanson (and her ‘conclusion’). Being able to direct most of the voice talent on all the games has been a great opportunity, and I hope it’s lead to some interesting material.

We also thought about bringing Red back, but chose to be bold. I think characters like Clarence and Swanson really split people, but I’m pleased we took the risk – it would have been very easy to play it safe and give people what we knew they wanted, but that’s no fun.

RPS: I was really taken with Overture, mostly for the way the physics and lighting – things a lot of FPS games boast about including to little purpose – felt a genuinely integrated and relevant part of the game. However, as I think was a common criticism at the time, it seemed to feel a bit looser when evading dogs and more traditional shooter elements. Black Plague seems to have taken this on board, and the moments evading the diseased are utterly terrifying. But there does seem to be less of building and playing with the scenery. Is this nearer to the balance you’re aiming for, or should we expect another shift for Requiem?

Tom Jubert: As Thomas (Grip – Co-Owner, Lead Designer, Lead Programmer, Superman) informs me on a regular basis, ‘physics puzzles are hard, man’. I think the problem is both coming up with logical ideas that aren’t just variations on the seesaw concept, and having them fit believably into the world. The section where you climb the scaffolding in BP I thought was a fantastic bit of design – nothing to do with me – but it’s hard to maintain.

Requiem is going to shift again, to the other extreme. In terms of plot and setting, the expansion is much more abstract, which frees up the puzzle design, so the plan is for Requiem to really deliver on the promise of the physical interaction system. It’s going to be a very different game. The boys hate it when we get compared, or I compare us, to Portal – favourably or otherwise – but structurally it’s (coincidentally and non copyright-infringingly) similar. We have nine or ten discreet, linear levels – no more hubs. We’ve all but ditched the inventory, so where Portal concentrates solely on… well, portals, we’re going to deliver a pure, physics puzzle experience. We’re going plot-lite, so there’s a narrative, but it’s more about character and tone than about discovering story details.

It’s another risky move – my fear is that where Black Plague was really Overture +1, this is something else, and you may see people taken aback. I really hope, though, that with an open mind, we might be able to give you something quite unique.

Spiders! Aaiieeee!

RPS: You’ve pitched a site between the adventure and FPS genres. What frustrates you about each of them? They would seem to be the genres most vulnerable to becoming stale and repetitive.

Tom Jubert: I think the most frustrating thing about shooters is the reputation they give our medium. It’s unfortunate that it’s the genre a la mode, because there are brilliant, inventive, even non violent games out there, but all the outside world sees is explosions and blood and prostitutes. There’s certainly a place for all that, I just wish it were understood in the same way as film treats Rambo – just because it’s on the posters doesn’t mean it’s the be all and end all for the whole industry. I’d say 9 / 10 people I tell about my work don’t understand what I do because they don’t realise there’s more to games than blowing shit up.

In terms of adventures, I’m just rubbish at all of them. Certainly the old ones. It’s great today to see titles like Fahrenheit and *ahem* Penumbra taking the genre in different directions, but the frustration I’ve endured just to experience the top notch writing in some of the classic point and clicks… Grrr.

RPS: What role do you believe storytelling plays in a game? Why have you put such an emphasis on it in Penumbra?

Tom Jubert: I think stories are implicit in all games, it’s just writing that’s optional (damn it). Take even an online shooter like Battlefield – driving a tank off a cliff, and bailing before it slams into the whirring rotaries of a climbing helicopter – that’s a story. On that basis, I think it’s essential. I’m really looking forward to stuff like Left 4 Dead for just that reason – games that generate social dramas on the fly.

Thomas and Jens (Nilsson – Co-Owner, Lead Scripter, Audio Guy, Skinhead) knew they wanted more to the story than they could deliver single handed, which was when they got me involved. Penumbra, at heart, is an adventure game, I think. The boys disagree – they just knew the game they wanted to make, and it happened to look like Penumbra, which is interesting in itself – but I always think of it as an adventure, and as such the story is usually pretty key.

Dear Tremors, thanks very much, love Frictional

RPS: What scares you when you play games?

Tom Jubert: Seeing great ideas that weren’t mine! That and Doom 3 spawning enemies behind your back all the time. Seriously, usually when you see through the mechanics in a game I think you find yourself a bit turned off. Building a farm in Civ is fun, building +4 resource per turn isn’t. With Doom 3, for some reason, even though it got to a stage where you could predict when and where the bad guys would spawn, walking backwards into a set of fangs got me every time. Ridiculous – and brilliant.

RPS: When will we see Penumbra on Steam? It seems a natural fit to release the games there.

Tom Jubert: Valve had their shot! Naturally we looked at Steam for Overture, but I think the pricing structure wasn’t quite to their taste. Since then, the lovely guys and girls at Paradox have stepped in, who operate GamersGate (the exclusive distribution channel for Requiem), so it’s pretty unlikely you’ll be seeing the games on Steam any time soon.

RPS: So what’s next for Frictional and you?

Tom Jubert: Frictional’s next project is code named Lux Tenebras, which is running on a new version of the in-house engine, and will be ‘Penumbra-esque’, but not Penumbra. Even if I knew anything more, I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you! Meanwhile, I’m living it large in the luxury London penthouse I bought with my Overture royalties, waiting for the phone to ring! When I get a spare moment, I’ve also been collaborating with (Penumbra composer) Mikko Tarmia on a music project due to be announced next month.

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18 Comments »

  1. Al3xand3r says:

    Penumbra rocks, but does the fact the next one will be lighter on plot elements mean it won’t offer a satisfying conclusion? I like the sound of it as a game by itself, but I fear it might degrade the series as a whole. Maybe they should provide a Penumbra 2 and do this thing for a different game which doesn’t have to be a part of a series? Maybe not. I’ll play it either way, I just don’t know if it’ll be all it can be.

  2. Gladman says:

    WAR is rubbish :/

  3. Deuteronomy says:

    I absolutely love the Penumbra series for being chock full of weirdness, intelligence, and tension. Overture’s dogs practically drove me insane but it was worth it. And I’m playing Black Plague on Linux! – that in itself is trippy in an awesome way. Long live OpenGL/SDL !

    Glad to hear him mention Doom3 – at least I’m not the only one who appreciates it as a benchmark in scariosity.

  4. phuzz says:

    WAR is rubbish :/

    Yes, but what is it good for?

  5. Velt says:

    ‘Yes, but what is it good for?’ ~phuzz

    Absolutely Nothing! ow!

  6. phuzz says:

    Thanks Velt, I’ll set ‘em up, you knock them down :)

  7. Al3xand3r says:

    My last post wasmeant to have “Penumbra [plus] 2″ since he described the second episode/game as “Penumbra [plus] 1″ but for some reason the [plus] icon doesn’t show up in comments and I only noticed it now…

  8. Crispy says:

    He really, really, really didn’t have much to say on the role of fear in games. I have to say, John, that I feel cheated having spent my time reading the interview in anticipation of a perspective on this topic and getting a soundbite on Doom 3′s made-you-jump moments.

    You shouldn’t feel the need to bend the truth to get us to read an interview with the Penumbra guys because they’re the Penumbra guys, so just tell it how it is next time.

  9. John Walker says:

    Hey Crispy – I’m sorry. It wasn’t malicious media savvy evil – just an interesting comment he made that I picked up on. Anyway, it’s a great interview so you weren’t that cheated.

  10. David Kidd says:

    Great interview, and fantastic responses from Tom (the comments on storytelling are nicely neat).

    I’m slightly worried that after reading this interview that I’m none the wiser about Penumbra: Requiem. It sounds like it’s going to be an expansion of the trippy end sequence rather than the chilly Lovecraftiness of the earlier parts. I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

  11. Tom says:

    ***Black Plague spoiler alert [and Half-Life 2 Ep 2 spoilers too - Ed] – don’t read the points if you don’t want to know***

    There are only 3 games that have ever elicited an emotional response out of me.
    1: SS2 – when you realise what’s-her-face has been dead all along – made me feel used
    2: Thief 2 – when Victoria (was that her? Plant woman) sacrifices herself – made me REALLY want to kill Karas
    3: Penumbra BP – Dr Swanson’s demise – made me feel genuine shock/remorse/sadness/anger (finest of them all, and a far more mature response. I was obviously much younger when I played SS2 and Thief)

    I’m going to use Ep2 as an example here. Did anyone really care when Eli died? I mean it was rather predictable. He was the lovely old dude who was clearly going to die simply because of his character. I think a far better person to kill off tragically would have been Kliener, surely? Weak, a geek, easily scared and pretty much incapable of defending himself. Seeing him die in some horrible way would have been a real sucker punch. Instead Valve chose the father figure. I was quite disappointed tbh. For gods sake, than man even had a fake leg!

    And that’s the thing. You were emotionally invested in Dr Swanson because she was kooky, female, friendly and sounded like a genuinely likeable character (emphasis on “character”). Eli was too much of a classic, aka stereotype.

  12. phuzz says:

    As far as HL2 is concerned, while I wasn’t that bothered by Eli’s death, (but then I’m not a big people person), I was more affected by Alyx’s reaction to it, because I’d had a chance to build up a rapport with her.
    But point taken, Kliener would have been a more shocking choice.

  13. Mman says:

    ****BLACK PLAGUE SPOILERS!!!****

    “3: Penumbra BP – Dr Swanson’s demise – made me feel genuine shock/remorse/sadness/anger”

    Agreed; that moment is one of the few times in a game I’ve felt genuine rage towards another character for reasons that aren’t related to them killing me twenty times in a row. I wasn’t sure what to think of Clarence in terms of implementation up until that point, but that moment completely justified his whole existance in the game for me. I’m not even fully sure why it got me so much considering I didn’t really care about Swanson too much up until that point, and her voice acting was pretty dodgy (and I usually don’t even notice), yet that moment still somehow hit me perfectly.

  14. Crispy says:

    ****Half-Life 2: Episode 2 SPOILER ALERT****

    In response to Tom’s comment about Eli I will agree that I felt barely a tinge of emotional involvement at Eli’s death but I disagree with your reasons for why it didn’t work.

    I think I was expecting more out of Alyx when she’s watching her father having his brain sucked out. That should be an horrific experience, but to me it came across as if someone had taken a tickling game a bit too far, nothing more. I was expecting violent screams as if she too were being tortured, I expected her to be going out of her mind, and what I actually got was a fairly limp response, what I’d describe as being a bit Disney. I put this down to the immaturity of games; if this had been the reaction of a main character in a radio drama or a scene in a film it would be a clear indication of weak (voice) acting skills and poor direction. The bloog and gore in Half-Life 2, while not the worst ever seen in games, more than justifies a more graphic and chilling response from Alyx in my opinion, and for me it jst wasn’t there.

    But on the choice of character, Eli was surely the better choice in terms of emotional involvement (other than Alyx, but she is too key to the plot as far as the G-man goes to be offed at this stage). Objectively speaking, a far stronger statement is made about the Combine if they kill the resilient Eli than the impotent Kleiner. Eli does have a replacement leg, but that shows his strength and constitution, in the final stages he is even suggesting to go himself to rescue Mossman. Eli is the tower of strength for the Resistance, and to have the ‘leader of good’ killed is much more powerful than to kill a wimpy scientist. Valve did well to build up a connection between this character and the player with a lot of Eli-Gordon dialogue (or monologue, to be precise) in the final act, so all that was really left to do was for Alyx to play her part in the very final scene. Sadly it is Alyx’s performance that let the game down in terms of eliciting a more marked emotional response.

  15. todd10k says:

    Penumbra spoiler alert***********************

    Swansons death really hit me hard too. I physically stopped the game and tried to go back and undo what i had done. Once i realised i couldnt, i felt genuine remorse. No other game has ever done that to me. And fleeing from the diseased? Awww hell yeah. I was scared shitless. Helped by the fact it was 1am, the room was dark with the exception of my monitor, and i had the headphones turned up the whole way, i almost had a heart attack when a diseased burst through the door and started chasing me round the room. it takes real craftsmanship to do that.

  16. zzaz3 says:

    *Penumbra Spoiler*

    I didn’t really care about Swanson at all, in fact, I didn’t even remember what her name was. What really made me upset was when I had to kill Red in the end of Penumbra: Overture. Hearing him scream and seeing the flames rise, after waiting the entire game just to see him. :(

  17. MannPower says:

    Ha! And here I am now, playing Black Plague on Steam. ;)

  18. Graham L. Wilson says:

    Swanson’s death was an artistic high point, and I think she was well voiced. I too actually felt it, and let me get this clear: I don’t get emotional reactions from fiction. When I watch films or play games I am too busy cracking cynical or sarcastic comments to give a damn about some figment of imagination. Again, this over-active wry sense of humour is why I generally don’t get creeped out by games. For me, Amabell’s death was necessary to make me want to get rid of Clarence. Again, my cynicism makes me like Clarence, just as I actually grow to like Betruger in Doom 3 or the evil conscious in Black & White (who I heard is voiced by the same person as Clarence). I would not like these evil people in reality, but their indifference and wit appeals to me in my head, just like a good Warren Zevon song (Mr. Bad Example…) However, the shocking trick made me think again about Clarence. A really good bit of manipulative motivation, especially since I knew that Swanson would buy the farm when I began playing (its just I had no idea how Clarence would trick me). Excellent writing… and great to play it on GNU/Linux.