You only have to glance at the games Tom Jubert has been involved in to know that he’s a man of rare and enviable talent. He’s worked as a narrative designer for a vast array of highly-acclaimed projects such as The Swapper (my favourite game of 2013), The Talos Principle and the Penumbra series, and additionally has written or helped to write the storylines for FTL: Faster Than Light, Lost Horizon (the game, not the Capra film and/or its musical remake), The Organ Trail, Cargo! The Quest for Gravity, and many, many more. In addition all of those, he’s also done solo work, having made the fiendishly clever brain-melting flash-based puzzler Ir/rational Redux, and its text-based precursor ir/rational (singular).
Basically, he’s one of the most talented and prolific writers currently working in games today, which makes it even more remarkable that he agreed to do this interview for me.
Not that I’m complaining or anything.
Join me as I talk to Tom Jubert about video games, storytelling, video game storytelling, and pressing X to sex.
What drew you to video games as a storytelling medium?
The better question is what drew me to stories as a video game medium. As long as I remember I loved games, I wanted to make games. Everyone has that moment when they click with something – realise that they are in some way built for this. The possibilities of video games blew my young mind, and the wonderful thing is that every year we get closer to delivering the sorts of experiences that I originally (and rather optimistically) dreamed video games could be. Add to this a fascination with classic sci-fi and fantasy literature and you have a career path.
Are there any video game storytelling techniques/tropes in particular that really irk you when you’re playing a game?
– Unnecessary recaps
– Obviously switching to pre-rendered cutscene
– You village was destroyed by an evil power
– You are either a very cool, buff gentleman, or a highly approachable tomboy
– Diary entries
– You have dialog options, but they reduce to good, evil or tell me more
– Press X to sex
– So many more
In a blog post discussing the usage of slavery in FTL: Faster Than Light, you concluded by saying this:
“…it would be irresponsible of anyone to put out a game…without thinking at least a little about the stance they are necessarily taking by making a game at all. Subjects like slavery and war are not simply there for our amusement – when we deploy them in interactive fiction we also need to design the choices and outcomes in a way that doesn’t undermine their seriousness, but instead uses it to express something worthwhile.”
Keeping this in mind, do you think that there are any games that don’t use their subject matter to express something worthwhile? Are there any games that go too far?
Absolutely. I find Call of Duty, and everything in that general area to be not only quite stupid – which is forgivable – but also morally and politically rather unpleasant. I don’t think I need to spell out why. Silly can be fun. Shooting dudes can be fun. Glorifying war is just stupid. And I know the guys make efforts to add an edge to CoD – to simultaneously question the machinations of these huge military organisations – but it always falls back on ‘You’re an American shooting bad people for America!’
FTL is a procedurally-generated game, and as such the story is too. How did you approach the challenge of writing a consistently compelling storyline while having to juggle with the fact that most players will die and start over a lot before they ever reach the end?
To be honest most of the principles were in place when I came on board, and I followed Justin (Ma, co-creator of FTL)‘s lead. We kept the length of the texts down, tried to provide more variation in more commonly encountered scenarios, and to subvert clichés. That being said, I learnt a lot I’d like to take to the next project!
How do you often write a game story? Do the developers explain their universe to you and just have you fill in the gaps, or do you aid the creation of said universe in the first place?
Depends if it’s a narrative design gig (e.g Penumbra, Swapper or Talos) or a writing gig (e.g FTL or Driver). For the latter I just get told what story has to be on the page, and I write whatever’s needed. For the former I come in when the game is in concept stage (ideally) and the studio says for instance ‘We are making a first-person puzzle game set in a digital world, and we like religious and psychological themes.’ I then develop a bunch of different one page plot pitches for discussion, we select something to develop, and we move forward from there. Narrative design is the real deal – you’re involved in game design, regular team meetings, you control the story and how it’s implemented.
Whatever happened to Ir/rational Investigator? (Ir/rational investigator was a planned commercial sequel to Jubert’s free 2011 game Ir/rational Redux, announced in 2012. News about it almost completely dried up 2013-onwards)
So here is the full lowdown. We had ready and submitted a vertical slice of the first 20 mins of gameplay to the 2012 IGF competition. We released The Swapper in May 2013, and I went back to planning out the remainder of Investigator. Unfortunately at that time I was offered two jobs I didn’t want to turn down – Talos, and something else that didn’t go so much to plan. Fast-forward a year, and the moment I get off Talos Croteam (developer of The Talos Principle) is ready to go on the DLC. In addition to this I have another personal project on the go, and the truth is that I am currently prioritising the other project over Talos, because I think it is both closer to what I really want to do, and commercially a more promising venture.
All of this is basically pretty damning of my ability to finish Investigator, but it remains on the list. The team is still out there, somewhere, and I know at least some of them are happy to come back and finish the job.
In the meantime, I actually emailed Valve the other day to see if they would consider releasing the vertical slice as a way to repay the fans who have been waiting so long for a game that’s never officially been canned or delayed. I don’t think they will take me up on it, but one way or another I will get that demo out to those that want to play it.
Is there any one particular game that you believe is better than the rest in terms of its story and how it tells it?
Nah. I’m not a believer in excessive quantification of aesthetic value. I think about it this way. If the world were ending tomorrow and we could only save three pieces of art to represent humanity to whoever comes along in the future, we wouldn’t go about deciding which pieces by trying to quantify their value and then selecting the three ‘best’ pieces. The sensible thing to do would be to select three pieces of recognized value, of course, but also of very different aesthetic form and sentiment. We would want to show the great variety of what we can do, because there is no one best way to go about things in practice.
Bit of an obvious one, but here goes: what’s your favourite game of all time?
I am duty bound to say Planescape: Torment, but I refer you to my previous answer.
Who in your opinion is the best narrative designer/writer currently working in video games?
Good question. Again, I’m not going to fall into this objectivity trap, so I’ll name a few. Chris Avellone, Erik Wolpaw, Jordan Mechner, Dan Houser, Lucas Pope, Paolo Pedercini.
Final question: you are to be stranded on a desert island by a dastardly gang of cutthroat pirates. You’re allowed one film, one book, and one video game. What do you bring?
For the book I suppose I would take something vast and non-fiction, because as I grow older I will find new passions within it of every possible kind, whereas a novel will be strictly limited in tone and topic. I have never read it, so maybe The History of England by one of my favourite philosophers, David Hume. I believe it comes in some pretty lengthy volumes. For the film I suppose I would take something which made me feel in good company. Something classic from my childhood that helped me understand my place in the world. Let’s say Clerks. No, Breakfast Club. There, I had two. For the game… god only knows. I think after enough years there are very few games I wouldn’t want to cast into the ocean. I want to say Tetris, but I think I would regret it immediately. I suppose I could finally get into Dwarf Fortress.
You can also follow me on twitter if you lack good taste and/or common sense: @ComedicPerson
Have a nice day/night/midday/afternoon/dawn/helpmeI’mtrappedinanendlessgapingvoi-