This is the first series for the NDN Narrator, “The Narrator Dialogs”; with it we seek to put a face on those who are making interactive narrative design a force to be reckoned with. Today’s dialog is with Tom Jubert, Freelance Narrative Designer. Tom is best known for his work on the Penumbra series of horror adventures, and has been in the industry one way or another since his teens. He was nominated for a Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award in 2008, and was recognized by Develop Magazine as one of the top 30 game developers under 30 years old. Amongst other things, he is currently hard at work on an unannounced AAA action / adventure for consoles. Today he has come to share his perspective on interactive narrative design with the Narrative Designer’s Network.
Stephen E. Dinehart: Can you describe your current role as Freelance Narrative Designer @ Hydravision Entertainment?
Tom Jubert: If it’s got ‘narrative’ written on it, it’s my job. We’re working on an AAA action / adventure for consoles, the interesting element being that rather than the usual ‘save the world’ scenario, the plot revolves around a small picture, character driven story.
Full credit to Hydravision – they brought me on early in pre-production, which is a god send, and already had a really intelligent, mature ambition for the story. At the time, the team was limited to one designer, one artist (both in-house), and me. It’s grown a bit since then.
What do your daily duties consist of?
TJ: Every day’s different as we move forward in the project. Today I’ve been working on the plot walk-through, which is a longish chunk of prose drawing together all the central plot elements that have come out of the character design stage. The characters inform the plot, so now I’m taking their arcs and winding them around the bare-bones narrative to form what I hope will be a fully fleshed out story, but may look more like a skeleton with some viscera awkwardly draped over it.
I discuss all my plans for characters and plot with the team, and then go ahead and write it up. Once this stage is complete we’ll move ahead with mission design, integrating the gameplay objectives with the plot to give meaning to the player’s actions.
I work from home in London mostly, but I go over to see the team every month or so in Lille, France. I work anywhere from zero to seven days a week, spending the rest of my time on other smaller projects, lining up work for next year, and watching Countdown. Oh, and I get to play games sometimes as well.
‘ How would you define the craft of interactive narrative design?
TJ: Bloody hell… erm… beyond the obvious, I’m torn in two different directions on this. One the one hand, obviously interactive narratives are about writing a tale that will be emotionally engaging and artistically meaningful (whatever you take that to mean). On the other, though, I wonder if interactive narrative has anything whatsoever to do with writing. If our medium is all about audience participation, how is there room for such an inflexible thing as writing? Dialogue trees are too restrictive to provide a truly interactive story, and it’s only projects like Façade that are really scraping the surface. Jonathan Blow has some good talks on that subject.
How do you feel the craft of interactive narrative design is similar to game writing and game design?
TJ: I think there’s a family resemblance here – they all share traits. Obviously there’s a key point of contact between writing and planning a narrative, which is understanding drama (or comedy, or characters, or whatever you’re focussing on). Clearly they’re on different scales – the writer worries about where in the argument Joe should hit Charlie, whereas the narrative designer worries about when in the story they have the argument – but both require that basic storytelling ability.
I most often find myself closer to being a game designer, though. While I do all the narrative design and dialogue production, I spend most of my time thinking about missions, and gameplay, and technical limitations. Both game and narrative design require the almost computational logic that it takes to piece together a sprawling experience and get all the cogs to fit.
How does it differ?
TJ: I suppose, depending on the project, it’s a very responsible position. Often you might be the only narrative designer and only writer on the team, and your work will be the frame of reference for all other disciplines. The audience doesn’t differentiate between art, design and story; they just experience the game, and the way you provide context for the other elements affects their own success (and vice versa). In fact, in a world where many AAA titles are at heart somewhat similar in their gameplay, it can often be the story, or more importantly the tone and style of writing, that generates that game’s identity.
What is it about interactive narrative design that compels you?
TJ: Ooh, all the shiny new things. It’s not the first time it’s been said, but we’re at the forefront of a new artistic medium. What’s not compelling?! There’s so much still to achieve!
On a practical level, the thing that keeps me motivated is purely and simply the feedback. Often a developer won’t give huge amounts of feedback on your work – they’re not professional writers, and they hire you because they want someone they can trust to do a good job, without having to look over your shoulder. So the best feedback you get is from the critics, and the players. I’m not exactly milking a celebrity status, but I do get the odd bit of fan mail and it really counts. Reading praise about your work is what you live for, and reading a reasoned criticism is what makes you work harder.
Is there anything you can disclose about your current project(s) and the effect interactive narrative design will have on them?
TJ: The main thing we’re focusing on for the Hydravision project is a character driven plot. Our story isn’t about saving the world, or rescuing the princess, or building an empire. It’s about normal people facing abnormal circumstances and just trying to come out the other side. It’s about what we can discover about the human condition by putting it under pressure. How does doing that in an interactive medium affect the outcome? To be honest, we’re not dealing with a heavily interactive plot, and it’s fairly traditional in its linearity if not its content, so I suppose the strongest element the medium brings is the immersion and playtime. Being able to act in the world rather than just observe coupled with staying in that world for three, five, ten times what you would for a film can be a powerful way to connect.
You have a rich background in game writing, quality assurance, and content management how do these skills influence your work as a narrative designer?
TJ: You’ve been reading my LinkedIn page! Hmm… well, QA made me pretty jaded, and content management made me enough money that I could jack it in and go full time freelance without keeling over.
QA is a bit of a right of passage. I’ve done some crap teenage jobs in my time, but QA was the toughest: 12pm – 3am shifts sat at a desk playing the same section of gameplay over and over is pretty soul destroying. You also learn how valuable good testing really is, and how lucky you are to be a narrative designer now.
The content management role I had was at a gaming file host and social networking site, and it was a position I always wanted to spend time in – the other side of the business. My real role was pretty broad – PR, marketing, B2B, community manager, journalist – and it was fascinating working with the guys who, from the creative perspective, hold all the purse strings and set the budgets.
What do you envision for the future of interactive narrative design?
TJ: The most interesting aspect for me is how far narrative design will (or won’t) become removed from writing. It feels to me like there will always be a place for scripted, linear experiences, but I’m more interested as a designer in the opportunity to give people narrative experiences that are truly procedural, unique, and appropriate. Maybe that last point is the most salient – so often we have these interactive experiences where the player can affect the outcome, but in an arbitrary way. Giving people different endings based on percent completion, or letting them play a good or evil character doesn’t have any meaningful value for the player – once our narratives are interactive in a way that adds to the weight of the story we’ll really be on the home straight.
Tom’s frank responses are clear evidence that our movement is not a North American phenomena. Here he has provided us insight into the fringe of gamemaking we call interactive narrative design; you can find out more about Tom @ www.tomjubert.com . Thank you for reading, I hope you have learned as much as I have. For the NDN Narrator I’m Stephen E. Dinehart.