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Tom Jubert Talks Projects, Plots, Penumbra

At the Develop Conference in Brighton last week, I had the opportunity to sit down for a beer and a chat with Tom Jubert, perhaps most famous for writing the excellent horror adventure series Penumbra. They’re dark and sinister games whose writing, and the structure of their storytelling, were often their strongest asset. Read on for Tom’s thoughts on the writing process, tales of game design tribulations, and his involvement in a major new title.

RPS: So, to start with, do you want to tell us a little bit about what you do?

Tom Jubert: A bit about what I do? Well, I write videogames. I’m a narrative designer, which is a vaguely new term. It means it’s more than just writing: it’s actually taking the controls of the design of the game and making sure that it’s not just ‘here’s a level, and then here’s a cut-scene vaguely related to it.’ It’s making sure the whole game is designed... not /entirely/ around the story, but that the story and the gameplay actually work together.

RPS: Do you tend to be brought in right at the start of a project?

Tom Jubert: It does tend to vary quite a lot. There’s all sorts of horror stories that I hear from people who’ve been around the block a bit more than me who say they get called in three months before release, and this sort of stuff. And it’s happened to me, and it’s difficult, because your name goes on a game, and you do the best job that you can, but sometimes - if you come in late - there’s not an awful lot that you can do.

But yeah, when I’m working as a narrative designer as opposed to a writer, it’s almost always early doors - which is really good. And people are getting better as well. Like, I’m working on a project with a French studio called Hydravision at the moment, and they got me in genuinely a month into pre-production. Which is /early/. I mean, when they got me in, they had internally I think three people on the project, and I was the fourth one brought on, which is really, really commendable.

RPS: To what extent do you have creative control over a project? I mean, what did Hydravision come to you with? Did they come to you with a story, or just with an idea for some mechanics, or...?

Tom Jubert: It varies, but in general - and ideally - they have a basic premise. So they have a setting, they know what sort of gameplay they’re doing, and they might have a broad idea of the story, but that’s as far as it really goes. So on the Hydravision project - which I can’t talk about in any detail, but I can talk about generally - they had a setting, they had gameplay, they had an idea of what they wanted their story to be, and they had two central characters. When I came in, one of their characters was fantastic - I said “this is brilliant” - and I loved their premise, but I said, “The broad story you have - I’m not sure it’s going to work.” And they were very receptive to that, and gave me a lot of control, which is fantastic.

And you work with the team quite heavily. So it’s not so much that I’m controlling everything in the game, but it’s very much that they do listen to the writer, they do listen to the narrative designer, and try to make sure the gameplay does sort of stem from the story.

RPS: On a project like that, how would you manage the process of the story and gameplay coming together? Because with something like Penumbra, for example, it’s very much a traditionally level-based game. How do you go about working with - say - the level designers to ensure that everything’s consistent between the narrative design and the game itself?

Tom Jubert: In my experience, it’s a pretty iterative process. On Penumbra it was a case of: they had their basic premise, and they had their setting, which was kind of not changeable. And they had a style they wanted to go for: they wanted a sort of Lovecraft vibe. So I was very much working within that.

But the way that it works is you work to and fro with design documents. So the first thing I did on that was look at their three-page plot document and give them a whole load of formal feedback, saying, “This is going to work, this needs work, we can make these changes.” And then they say, “Okay, tick... tick... cross - we’re not doing that.” And you go from there.

Then once you get into the level design stage, the level designers and the game designers do their stuff - hopefully referencing the plot document that I’ve produced by that point - and then they send it back to me, and I look over the level designs, or the puzzles, or whatever it is, and I say, “Cool - but maybe we could move this to here, put a diary entry here, maybe this dialogue could happen earlier...” and then it goes back and forward from there. So everyone’s feeding back on everyone else’s work. It’s not as if any one person is in control entirely. And ultimately, I always think the game design is key. My job as a writer or a narrative designer is to make the game designer’s job easier: to work for them.

RPS: You mentioned a plot document. What sort of stuff goes into that?

Tom Jubert: You tend to start off with a sort of one-page pitch, just setting out what’s happening. Then you develop from there into maybe a five or ten page thing. And that’s all very iterative. The difficult thing is that sometimes, with level design and with programming, it’s very much that you can have one level that you design and it can be completely independent of everything else. In writing, if you change chapter 3, that changes all the chapters around it. So it’s difficult, because with the story you have to go from start to finish, then go back to the start and re-write, and that’s not how game design works.

But when it comes to the plot document, we get to the stage where we’re happy with the plot, we’re happy with the characters, we have a load of character sheets, and then we go into the narrative design stage, which is pretty much the equivalent of the level design for the narrative. So it has 2D maps with all of the gameplay elements in them, and they list every single dialogue in the game, every single cut-scene, every single mechanic you’re working with - you list /everything/. And for a game like Penumbra, we’re probably talking about - oh God - maybe 50 to 100 pages. And for a bigger game... yeah. Scary numbers. So yeah, it gets pretty big. But you have to have everything planned out in advance. And then as it actually gets implemented, things get shifted around, you realise what you can and can’t do, and you just sort of work on the fly.

RPS: What are you working on at the moment, then? You mentioned one thing before...

Tom Jubert: Yeah, and it’s a bastard, because the most exciting thing that I’m working on I can’t talk about - which is the Hydravision project. But I’ve just finished work on Lost Horizon, and Driver: San Fransisco.

What’s strange is, I know writers who’ve come from other industries and have lots and lots of experience. I’ve been doing this on-and-off for four years, and full-time I’ve been doing it for two years. Before that I was doing journalism work and that sort of thing. And it’s difficult to realise that I’ve been doing this for four years, and I’ve only had three games come out. The development cycle is so protracted. I was lucky to work on the Penumbra games, because they were coming out one a year - they were supposed to be one every six months - but they were coming out once a year, so by the end of two years I had three games under my belt. That doesn’t add up. One every nine months, or something. So that was great. But I’ve worked on maybe ten different projects now - a couple of which have been canned, a few of which have come out, the rest of which are still ongoing. So it feels very strange that I’ve been round the blocks a little bit, and I’ve still only three games - all in the same series - that are out.

So my next two games are going to be Lost Horizon and Driver, on which I wasn’t narrative designing. It was quite strange for me that I started doing narrative design on the Penumbra games. Usually you’d start as a writer and then move forward, whereas I sort of did the opposite. So I’ve done lots of responsibility on those smaller games, and now smaller responsibility on larger games.

So on Lost Horizon I was the English scriptwriter, which means I’m working from a translated German script, and re-writing it for an English speaking audience. Which gives you some freedom, but not a lot. A line still has to say pretty much what a line says. You can add some personality, and you can try to get some tongue-in-cheek stuff there...

RPS: But fundamentally you’re limited by what’s already written?

Tom Jubert: Yeah, exactly, and you’re working very much to a style, and to what you’re asked for.

And on Driver I was part of a five-man team through Sidelines Agency, who represent me - it’s a sort of new breed of agent who’s representing just professional games writers with decent experience. And so there was a team of four or five of us doing the incidental in-car dialogue on that. That was a fun project. That was crazy. We were working very, very fast. There was a lot of text - you can imagine, for a game of that size - and every time there’s that mechanic... it’s not ‘Astral Projection’, I can’t remember what it’s called now... but when you zoom into someone’s body and you take over their car, and the passenger says, “Oh my God, why are you driving like a maniac now?” you have to think of a thousand different ways for them to say that line. So yeah: fun, but tiring, too.

And then the next game that I would say could almost be ‘a Tom Jubert game’ is this Hydravision project, which is a big AAA action adventure game. Which is going to be amazing, but not announced for at least a year.

RPS: What would be your advice to developers who are looking to bring in a writer or a narrative designer? There’s kind of this idea that a lot of developers neglect it - do you think that’s true: that there need to be improvements to the way writing is dealt with in games?

Tom Jubert: It’s definitely changing. Certainly. Even this year at Develop, talking to non-writers from big studios, they seem more excited and more passionate about getting good writing in. People are getting better. My single biggest tip is the one that every games writer says, which is: ‘Get people in earlier and better integrate them into the team.’ And people are getting better than that, and people are approaching agencies like Sidelines and trying to put a real focus on the writing. So yeah, that would be my greatest tip.

The other day, me and a load of games writers were talking about BioWare, and why their games are so highly rated, and why the writing tends to be good. One person said, “Well, they just have fantastic writers.” And someone else said, “No, actually. I’m sure their writers are fantastic, but the key thing is that the writers are embedded, and the entire game is designed around the story.” And that’s pretty essential.

But the other thing is that I never think that story should come before gameplay, because games are about gameplay, and they’re about interaction. But story should support gameplay better, and there should be more interplay between the two. My favourite quote - I’m gonna try and attribute this to Ed Stern from Splash Damage, but I may be wrong - but someone said, “The key thing is, essentially, plot is gameplay’s bitch.” And that’s absolutely correct, you know? Plot should make the gameplay more meaningful. And here’s a little cheeky plug for my amazing blog, which is named ‘Plot Is Gameplay’s Bitch’.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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Lewis Denby