As a Game Writer and Narrative Designer, Tom Jubert has been involved in the making of popular indie games such as The Talos Principle and FTL: Faster Than Light, and larger releases like Driver: San Francisco. Most recently, he has crafted the story of the award-winning Subnautica, an underwater survival game, for which he is currently working on a soon-to-be-announced story-driven expansion.
Tom Jubert started studying Computer Science at the University of Southampton in 2003, but switched to English & Philosophy a year later and graduated best-in-class in 2007. After a few successful years making games, he followed up his studies with an MA in Philosophy at King’s College London, from which he graduated in 2013.
In this exclusive interview with Study.EU, Tom talks about what he studied, why he switched subjects during his Bachelor’s degree, and what you should do to start your own career making games.
You originally enrolled in a Computer Science degree, but switched to English & Philosophy a year later. Why?
I wanted to make video games, and programming was the way to do it, so I took computer science. A year in I was kinda enjoying the programming, but I detested the maths, and was getting my best grades in the essay modules, which isn’t right. I missed writing stories, I missed talking about the fabric of existence, I missed being on a mixed-gender course, I missed being able to pass a module because I was good at and enjoyed it, not because I put in six days a week of 10-hour study sessions (which I never did).
Summer after the first year I applied for a job with a London studio and lied and said I had an English degree, and it got me so far as the interview. That convinced me I could study English and still make games, so day one of year two I dropped out. A year later I started the English degree and added philosophy, because I realised that the process that had taken me from the one degree to the other was philosophy. It was about abandoning all the preconceptions of what it means to drop out and succeed, and look objectively at what I really wanted my life to be about.
As a narrative designer and game writer, you are usually in charge of everything story-related, ranging from setting out the grand themes to writing the dialogues. Can you describe how you typically work?
I’m a freelancer, which means I get bussed in often part way through development to layer in the story, themes and lore. Usually once that happens once, the team decides to get me in sooner next time. I work remotely from my computer in my bedroom, but sometimes I’m called on-site, which might take me anywhere from California to Croatia.
FTL: Faster Than Light (Subset Games)
To pick an example, can you describe your involvement in FTL: Faster Than Light?
This would be atypical for me now, and more typical of my jobs in the first half of my career, in that it was more of a writing job than a narrative design job. On a writing job, there is a creative director on the main game team who is also performing most of the roles of the narrative designer: they are building the world, they are implementing the text and sounds that make up the story, they have already decided a plot etc. You are brought in, basically, to fill out a spread sheet with prettier words. There are big-name writers who do exclusively this, or exclusively narrative design, and I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle. I quite like a quick, fill in the blanks kind of a job, provided the creative director has given me the leeway I need, to keep my brain fresh. Unfortunately not all great creatives are great story designers, and most frequently I’ve found I can do my best work when I have the greater oversight.
So FTL went like this. I played the demo and emailed Subset Games (which is Justin Ma and Matt Davis) offering to write. They checked my rates and agreed in a matter of days. They sent me their background lore, a few pages, and asked me to flesh it out some before starting on the main game. The system for coding events in FTL is not very user-friendly, so Subset didn’t want me to code events straight into the game. Instead I had to write them out in Word, then the guys transcribed them into game language, making necessary changes as they went. So on this job it was high volume text, fast turnaround, no technical work, no plot work, no redrafting, a bunch of editing by Subset. It worked for them, and I love the game, but I would have preferred to be able to implement my story stuff directly and take full responsibility for it.
Subnautica (Unknown Worlds Entertainment)
In contrast, how has your work been on the recently released Subnautica?
Subnautica has been more representative of a typical narrative design job. They worked on the game for years before releasing on Steam Early Access. I played the demo and emailed them offering to work. As it happened they were debating adding story to the game at the time, and they brought me on.
The first thing I do on a narrative design job is look at whatever exists of the game when I start, be it a demo or design docs, and try to figure what the hook is. What’s the controlling idea? What is this experience really about, and what kinda story themes will provide an appropriate foil? Then I develop a series of one page plot pitches for discussion, we select one, and I start fleshing it out into a 30+ page document outlining every story element in the game - characters, dialogues, texts, cutscenes, art etc.
On Subnautica that took a long time, maybe 6 months for the first really solid outline, and a further 18 months for a solid ending. Because the game was already in early access I was able to start work actually writing dialogue and such in the meantime, and get it out to players for testing. That was daunting and invaluable at the same time.
So from there it is really just a rush to the finish line on the first draft of the story, and then polishing and redrafting for about a year. There is constant discussion and change. At some stage I cast and direct the voice talent, which is super fun. They always make the writing sound so much more proper.
How much technical knowledge do you need for the role of Game Writer or Narrative Designer? For instance, do you need to know programming or certain engines?
To be a writer you don’t need anything more than basic Word and Excel. To be a narrative designer you’re going to want experience with:
Which computer games inspire you and why? And where else do you get inspiration?
So many. Growing up I was thrilled by Planescape: Torment. It was the first game I played that felt literary and seemed to me was interested in asking bigger questions. I thought to myself, “Huh, games can talk about life and philosophy, dialogue trees can explore our humanity”.
All the other games are a similar story – games that made me see broader opportunities for what a game can be. Papers, Please continues to inspire me. So much theme, so much weight, so much simulation, such an utterly simple game. I want to make games like that.
All those other media inspire me from time to time too, of course, but less directly, less consciously. The main other source I draw on is works of philosophy. I’ve been basing my stories on philosophy since I first started that degree. Every story I do the antagonists represent some philosophical school or other, fighting over someone’s soul, sometimes literally.
Musicians, novelists and film makers very rarely revisit their published works if they feel something requires a change. On the other hand, updates and bugfixes are the norm with video games. Have you ever been tempted to significantly adjust narratives of your own games in hindsight, and have you even done that in updates?
No, god, I hate that idea. Yes I’ve been tempted, but that’s just a whole can of worms. I’ve been tempted on Subnautica. We’re working on the expansion now, and there’s the opportunity to update the base game. But I learned on my creative writing courses that a work is never truly finished, only abandoned. Hell yes it feels good to abandon one thing, stop feeling responsible for its quality, and move onto something new. I live for that.
On your website, you quote from the 1990’s video game classic Earthworm Jim: “I’m proud to live in a nation where anyone, regardless of species, can buy a college education.”
LOL. I was looking for quotes from characters I loved, didn’t consciously pick that one for a reason, but there’s always a reason, isn’t there? I always thought Earthworm Jim had a very British sense of humour. It’s kinda dry, it renders everything and everyone kinda small and ridiculous, but it has a heart, an underlying warmth for what it derides. I think that’s in the quote. I’d prefer it if education wasn’t a business. I’d prefer a world where everyone gets it equally. I think that would be better for all of us. But I am nonetheless a beneficiary of the system as is. I’m a rich kid who’s getting richer because my parents bought the education I needed to pursue any job I wanted.
After a few years in the industry, you followed up your undergraduate degree with an MA in Philosophy, studying part-time. What sparked that decision?
I think I always wanted to study more philosophy. I just wasn’t done. And sitting at home reading it isn’t the same as actively engaging with other philosophy students. So many topics I still needed to read up on at the time. On my BA I did extensive ethics and lots of early modern philosophy, but not much that was up to date. Good grounding, but not enough. On my MA I studied contemporary theory on gender, politics, consciousness, as well as ancient Greek, and it filled in a lot of holes. I was never studying philosophy for the grades or the work experience. I was the kid looking forward to the dissertation because, finally, I’d get to work out some answers.
The Talos Principle (Croteam)
Looking back at the previous decade making games, do you feel that your own university studies prepared you well for your career? And in hindsight, do you think switching subjects paid off?
Honestly, I think people make their opportunities. My studies didn’t prepare me well to be a games writer, but the experience of being able to read and get critiques on short stories, trade philosophical arguments, all that stuff – that was invaluable. I think someone could do what I do without university; and I think someone could go to all the same courses as I did and struggle. But for me, uni was a time to explore new ideas and ways of being in a relatively safe, stable environment. Switching courses was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I know computer scientists. I feel like I have something in common with them – that rational, problem-solving, often slightly spectrum mindset. But I’m not a computer scientist any more than I’m a logician.
What have you learnt after graduation that couldn’t have been taught in a classroom?
My brain doesn’t like this question, it’s too open ended, there’s too much stuff. But if I have the opportunity to share some wisdom that was shared with me, I’d say one important thing I learned was that moral blame, and the concept of punishment, is some epic-level bullshittery. You can’t believe in blaming others without believing in blaming yourself. And you can’t blame without punishing, and you can’t punish without making whatever it is worse. So, to be simplistically rhetorical, there are two kinds of people in the world: those that are fighting everyone else and themselves, and those that are loving.
What advice do you have for the young, aspiring game makers out there reading this interview?
Make games, dude (I use this gender-neutrally). Do it at the weekend. Do it at night. Use Twine. Game Maker. RPG Maker. Unity. Show your friends. Put it on Kongregate. Put it on the AppStore. The only thing stopping you is you. These are the words I say to myself.