Tobin’s Tale preview: words are weapons

In May 2019, British developer Pete Brisbourne quietly introduced his new project, Tobin’s Tale, on Twitter. Retweeted dozens of times and showered with complimentary replies, Brisbourne’s 23-second video made his idea immediately understandable: a first-person adventure game where the player can ‘throw’ verbs at objects and non-player characters to interact with them.

Lob the word ‘use’ at a window, for example, and it’ll magically swing open. Phrases such as ‘look at’ and ‘talk to’ can also be used to progress through the game, much like the verbs you could select to interact with the 2D worlds of, say, Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle.

“I honestly had no idea that my little idea would gain so much interest,” Brisbourne says of the Twitter reaction to his video. “I ended up feeling humbled and grateful that thousands of strangers took a moment to say, ‘Hey, this is cool.’ It was an amazing injection of support, and since then I’ve printed off more than a few of the responses to remind me, whenever I need to be, that this idea is definitely worth the effort, and to keep going.”

Before Tobin’s Tale, there was Point & Shoot, a 2018 game jam project that owes its existence to a random incident involving, as Brisbourne puts it, “Post-it notes and kitchen appliances.”

Brisbourne’s early Ludum Dare prototype, Point & Shoot.

“In 2018, the theme for Ludum Dare 41 was ‘Combine Two Incompatible Genres’,” Brisbourne explains. “So far, I’d only made 2D entries, and I knew I wanted to try something in 3D this time around, so I settled on an FPS. All that was left to decide was what the second genre should be. I figured point-and-click adventures, traditionally done in 2D, would make for an interesting challenge to combine. I spent the morning doing the typical start to a game jam; scribbling ideas, drinking lots of coffee, talking to myself while gesturing wildly, and panicking. After a whole morning of still not settling on an idea, I ended up throwing a Post-it note at my kitchen kettle. It just so happened the Post-it note had some of the typical adventure games verbs written on it, and that was the start of the idea.”

War of words

Since then, Brisbourne’s been expanding the concept into a larger demo, with Point & Shoot’s detective theme replaced by a medieval-looking fantasy world, while a verb-firing gun is ejected in favour of a crafty fox that can magically conjure words into existence. “As I kept exploring the idea, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the description ‘point-and-shoot’, and these days I prefer ‘point-and-throw’ as a mechanical description,” Brisbourne says. “There are more than enough games in the world about shooting and violence. I want to make a game which is charming, friendly, uplifting, and funny.”

There’s a pleasing physicality to throwing verbs around. Here, the word ‘use’ has just bounced off a wall and caused a door to swing open.

Although Brisbourne’s demo will have just three verbs to choose and throw – “You can do pretty much anything with those three things,” he says – he also has an idea of how he could expand the vocabulary in the future. “I’ve constructed the game so verbs can be easily added and taken away,” he explains. “For example, a few months ago, I was playing around and had it so a new verb, ‘pet’, became available when you were near a dog. It felt normal that if you’re near a dog, a new type of interaction could become available. But then you realise you can throw the ‘pet’ verb at other nearby characters, and that unlocks a whole new world of awkward responses. It made me laugh so much.”

As Tobin’s Tale develops from rough concept to fully formed fantasy adventure, Brisbourne’s been aided on his journey by artists Erin Middendorf and Jean Walter, whose work has helped crystallise the game’s warm, friendly tone – not to mention the look of Tobin, “the loveable, carefree, and crafty thief” obsessed with collecting magical gems. “At the start, I was in the frame of mind that I’d do everything myself, like some sort of indie god machine with 14 hands,” Brisbourne says. “As time’s gone by, I’ve realised how foolish that can be. What I came to realise is, I want to work on something I feel attached to, but also I want to release it.”

You’ll also interact with non-player characters – including dogs – by lobbing words at them.

Achieving the look

One of the immediately striking things about Tobin’s Tale is its likeably low-res aesthetic, which makes it look akin to an early 3D game on, say, the Commodore Amiga. “I knew I wanted to try and create a lo-fi look, but I had no idea how to do it,” Brisbourne says. “So I did what I always do when I don’t know something: I started to search Google. Starting that journey taught me about render textures, which I’d never touched before. Basically, I learnt you could configure your camera in Unity to output to a render texture, but the trick is the render texture is small – maybe 256×256 – so then in C# you stretch that to the size of the screen. Suddenly – ta-da! – you’ve got nice chunky 3D pixely goodness.”

Those chunky pixels did have an unwanted side-effect, however: it made the in-game text – such as dialogue uttered by NPCs – almost impossible to read. “At that point, I had to abandon the render texture approach and use multiple cameras,” says Brisbourne. “The setup I’ve got now is probably massively inefficient but it seems to do the trick. There’s probably a much better way of doing it, I just don’t know what that is yet!”

Brisbourne’s currently hard at work on a Tobin’s Tale demo, which he hopes to have released for free next year.

Heart and soul

A veteran of studios including Gizmondo and Traveller’s Tales, Brisbourne’s earlier work on games like Lego Batman and Lego Indiana Jones have helped hone his design skills, while also encouraging him to “pour his heart and soul” into a project of his own devising. Like so many other solo developers, though, Brisbourne also faces the challenge of fitting Tobin’s Tale around his full-time role at RuneScape studio, Jagex. “Since January, my life has been making games during the day and then coming home and making Tobin’s Tale during the evening and weekends,” Brisbourne says. “Just that loop, repeated for almost a year. I didn’t think it was a problem until the start of October where I think it caught up with me and resulted in some health problems.”

Thankfully, Brisbourne’s still working on Tobin’s Tale after a well-earned rest. It’s clearly a labour of love for him, and it’s easy to see why: done right, its verb-throwing concept could prove as irresistible as the classic LucasArts adventures that inspired it. “There’s still a lot to do, but I’m determined to take everything at a sensible pace,” Brisbourne says. “I’m a big believer that fun and joy can’t come from pressure and stress. It’s important to me that Tobin’s Tale never feels like a burden. It’s a game that will be made with a joyous heart.”

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