Jordan Thomas has been helping to build atmospheric, "immersive simulations" for over 10 years -- he was the lead designer of Thief: Deadly Shadows
, and went on to work on all three Bioshock
games before departing Irrational Games to form
his own independent studio last year.
Lately, his work doesn't have that same kind of dark, immersive simulation design that he's most familiar with. Most recently, Thomas served as a creative consultant on Obisidian Entertainment's comedic RPG South Park and the Stick of Truth
, due to release next month from publisher Ubisoft.
Gamasutra sat down with Thomas during a recent Ubisoft press event to learn more about his work on the game and the challenges he faced in trying to create opportunities for comedy in a medium where the creator must cede some level of control to the player.
How have the skills you’ve acquired in your time in the industry been brought to bear on this project? It doesn’t seem, at first blush, like the kind of thing that you’ve worked on in the past.
No, that’s actually what attracted me to it! I think I’ve atrophied inside my comfort zone. I always wanted to work on a pure RPG, and Stick of Truth
As far as how my time on the immersive simulations, for lack of a better term, applies to Stick
: First thing was, I pushed really hard for more combinatorial use of the player tools -- [that is,] the ability for players to be creative by combining tools in ways that the designer selected in order to open a field of play, and also the Deus Ex
-y sort, in which there are multiple paths within a denser dungeon-like environment.
So early in the game, you’ll make it to what we call a dungeon -- a more intense narrative experience with a greater density of combat. Within those environments I pushed very hard for you to be able to say, “Okay, I like this path better” -- offering an alternate path through the vents, if you know what I mean, versus the standard path. The level of magic in the world is a function of the boys’ reality-warping play, and the magic unlocks more and more paths, and the hope is that you feel like a partial author of the experience, instead of just solving an adventure game-style puzzle in the manner the designer intended.
I’m not a big fan of lock-and-key design, and so the notion that there might be any analog space there at all is hugely important to me. It was the first thing that I asked about.
What was the state of the game when you came on? How contrary were your opinions to the overall design?
It varied a lot by the module of content we’re talking about. The town was already built to fulfill player fantasies of exploring, at will, the town of South Park, and that was a bit closer to my style. It felt like I had more editorial rights, as a player, and that’s the sort of thing I’m attracted to. The dungeons were more traditional, and given that the gameplay’s roots in games like Super Mario RPG
were fairly lock-and-key outside of combat, that wasn’t a shock. I was simply hoping I could push for some 2014 sensibilities to creep in there, because ultimately it’s not targeting the same audience as the old-school RPGs that this game is referencing.
What was your role on the project?
I was brought on as a creative consultant, but my actual role is really amorphous. I was sort of a set of fresh eyes meant to play through the whole thing, read the script, and try to identify the places where either the joke wasn’t landing interactively, or identify something about the design that didn’t work for me personally. Then I'd make proposals about what we could do with the time available to improve it.
So I worked with [South Park creators] Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] in L.A., and Obsidian as well, in Orange County. I just sort of flew back and forth, playing the game a lot and trying to offer advice.
So how did you get linked into this project? I understand Ubisoft picked this game up from THQ -- did you get pulled in immediately at that point?
No, not at all. Obsidian and South Park had really built the kind of skeleton of this thing long ago, and I came on mainly to help...sculpt the flesh, I guess? Which sounds awful, but there you go. I got linked in through this other, very complicated project I just finished that took itself very, very seriously -- that was kind of part of its brand -- and somebody said “hey, you know, Laurent [Detoc, President of Ubisoft North America] has this opening for someone to work as a design consultant.”
I said “Okay, I’d love to work on something that has a deeply ingrained comedic tone,” just as a palette cleanser, you know? And that’s why I’m here.
Did you have any influence over the narrative of this game, and did you try for any level of environmental storytelling?
Yes, the big measure I was pushing for I called ‘contingent humor’ -- having [the development team] craft contingent responses for the characters so they could respond to things the player might do while testing the limits of the game. Luckily they [the development team] was absolutely game for it, and they did a big pass where we attempted, together, to anticipate all the things the player might do, especially early on, when there’s less you must do and more that you’re just kind of deciding to wander into, and reacting to that -- making you part of the punchline.
What have you learned about making humor work in games?
I’m still chewing on it. The short version is that I think comedic timing, in particular, requires more constraint in-game than players traditionally would be receptive to.
As such, in the cases where we had to do that -- where we wanted to allow you to participate in the joke, but there was some element of timing -- we strove to own the moment. To have a character call it out and acknowledge that [a given game system] is arbitrary and that it’s weird you are constrained, and everyone -- the player and the characters and, by extension, the game makers -- knows that.
It’s well within the tone of the show, thankfully -- with this license in particular there’s a good bit of dry-humping the fourth wall.
Stick of Truth
is heading out the door -- do you want to keep working on similar comedic projects like this going forward?
Definitely. I’m freelance and would happily work with any of the involved parties -- it’s sort of a three-headed beast between Ubisoft, Obsidian and South Park, and all were very welcoming. I really needed to learn more about writing comedy -- I’ve never done it, nothing like what these guys do, and that exposure was very healthy for me.
As I get older, I’m less prone to taking myself seriously on every single beat of every single level.
What was your writing process like? Did you work with Trey and Matt, or the writing team?
To be clear, I didn’t write anything for South Park
-- I sat with Matt, Trey and a number of writers they brought in specifically to support the creation of contingent humor. I got to participate in a healthy handful of intense writing meetings that were focused on solving high-level story problems or reacting to things we were seeing in playtesting and trying to turn those things into a joke.
I received builds pretty regularly, played them thoroughly and offered feedback, either in person or over email. I felt very comfortable working with those guys, and it was almost like living a fantasy, a parallel fantasy for me.
I got started in animation -- that’s what I thought I was going to do, but games grabbed on and didn’t let go. They are some of the most popular animators in the world, and it was amazing to watch them work. Even to be exposed to their unique radiation, I think, led to good mutations.
Wait, how did you get started in animation?
Well, I was building wire frame clay figures in a basement with a super-eight camera with a single-frame feature. I had a lazy Susan that I would divide into balsa wood quadrants, and those would be sets. I would rotate the thing around, switch out the characters -- it was probably incomprehensible garbage, but I was trying to direct something.
If I watched those now, I’m sure I would dissolve into a pool of constituent proteins.
So how did you end up falling into games?
I played all the Sierra stuff, which by itself I enjoyed but didn’t necessarily want to make, and then the weirder stuff started coming out -- things like Darklands
, did you play that? Darklands
was this insane RPG set in medieval Germany, sort of like a proto-Baldur’s Gate
. It’s unlike anything else. So I fell in love with computer RPGs in particular, and then I was an RPG-centric journalist for a long time. Then I got an internship at Surreal Software -- where I was building their desks on the floor, this humble kid trying to learn game design -- and at the same time Psygnosis was paying me to edit their script for Drakan
Ultimately I don’t think much of my work made it in, but that strange split -- that someone would pay me to write, but at the same time I could know nothing
about game design -- made me realize I needed to humble myself to people who understood rules, and so I did that for a long time. And then my break came, at Ion Storm Austin.
Do you ever think about returning to stop motion animation?
It would be fun as a kind of a lark, but no, not stop motion animation specifically. I do frequently envy writers of linear media, because it stands or falls on story alone. There’s a kind of intoxicating fear associated with measuring what you can do in an environment that’s lab-like, right, where it’s just
But as a game player I want the opposite: I want control, I want systems input, I want a lot of breadth, and all of those things are anathema to linear storytelling -- or at the very least, they’re like oil and water.
So I probably won’t go do that, but I might write some things that are linear, without expecting to get paid, just to indulge that impulse. Everybody needs an outlet, and games definitely don’t harness everything that’s in my head. They can’t, and they shouldn’t, so I think it’s healthy to dabble.
So what are you doing when you aren’t working on games?
Being a father. I’m working on my own game project, but really I’m just trying not to suck at fatherhood.