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RPS Interview: Penumbra's Tom Jubert

Featured post 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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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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