You Only Know The Half Of It: The Lost Story Of ‘Q.U.B.E.’
As we all made the move into the New Year, the switch in calendar meant a lot more to Toxic Games; it meant the release of their abstract puzzle game on to Steam. Being their debut title, the team were hoping that Q.U.B.E. was going to pave the way into full time development. They were lucky enough to hustle a lot of the funding they required for Q.U.B.E. from Indie Fund, which is backed by the likes of Jonathan Blow (Braid), 2D Boy (World of Goo) and Kellee Santiago (Journey).
There was a lot at risk – their reputation, their funding money, their entire futures. Luckily, Q.U.B.E. proved to be quite the hit, making back the Indie Fund loan in just four days after the release on Steam.
Critics enjoyed the game’s puzzles and abstract environment, but some said the game felt empty, clearly spoiled by the similarity to Portal. Indeed, the white rooms and puzzle-centric gameplay makes for an easy comparison to the Aperture Science labs. The missing element then, was a bigger personality; a guide or something to accompany the player through the game.
We caught up with the game’s writer, Sam Mottershaw, who revealed that this recurring critique of the game put him in a very frustrating position. Unknown to the majority, a lot of his work on the game’s story had been cut at the last minute. We spoke to him further about his work and ideas on game narrative and also found out what kind of experience Q.U.B.E. should have been.
IGM: Hi Sam! Of course it’s lovely to be able to speak to you. Let’s start from the basics – before Toxic and Q.U.B.E., what were you doing with your life?
Sam: Before I got involved with Toxic I was at university in my second year, doing scriptwriting at Staffordshire. My course was kind of odd because they didn’t really give us any work experience. So I thought to myself, you know, I better get out there and find someone to work with. So I went to a Game Horizon Event, where I ended up meeting Daniel Da Rocha, who is the lead at Toxic, amongst many alcoholic drinks.
IGM: That’s always the way. So, your scriptwriting course presumably covered films, TV and so on?
Sam: Yeah, although I was very interested in doing game scripts, there wasn’t a capacity for it at my university. In fact, there’s barely any courses that cover that side of game design.
IGM: Indeed, we’re still yet to get every aspect of game design out there being taught to students. Hopefully that will come about soon. Where and how did you learn about game narrative then?
Sam: Well I read a lot of reviews and criticisms. I also watch a lot of Zero Punctuation because Yahtzee talks about how he thinks it’s most effective quite often, so I just absorb all of this in. Another one is Extra Credits, they discuss game narrative quite a lot.
IGM: So how did you transfer this knowledge into a position at Toxic?
Sam: Well, it was in February 2011 that I came along and by that time the game was well under way. They were interested in bringing a narrative to the game but their ideas were very vague. The material I was given to work with was basically that the story should be serious and it should be sci-fi. They also had the 1.3 beta version of the game ready to play, so they gave me that and told me to come up with a story, to which my reaction was “Oh Christ!”
IGM: No doubt. So where did you find inspiration? From what did you draw ideas?
Sam: It was quite odd actually because I actually came up with five different concepts to begin with, all of which weren’t used in the end. The main thing, because it was such an abstract environment, was finding something that would suit it. One idea was that you were playing a robot inside a training course. Another was that your character had been miniaturized to fit inside a computer in order to fix it. I guess Tron was a big inspiration when I think about it.
IGM: So how did you whittle it down to the idea that they were happy to use?
Sam: Well, due to spending a lot of time on trains I found I was able to work quite a lot on it. Eventually it just clicked when I got the gist of it down – it made sense to me and they approved of it. Although, there was actually one story line set down which all of a sudden I was asked to change. I can’t remember why exactly, they just told me that from that day onwards we were shifting the focus from what that was to what we ended up working on. Luckily all it required was a few changes to the script and then we moved on to recording.
IGM: Recording? So you originally had voice overs too?
Sam: Yes. They had to be dropped from the game though. When we took it to E3 a lot of the American players couldn’t understand the accents, either because they were quite strong British ones or the audio quality wasn’t quite good enough.
IGM: Interesting. So can you say who did these voice overs?
Sam: Yeah, I can actually. There was a girl called Emily Love. The other was a lecturer from the rest of the team’s university. Emily did one of the characters and, well, it was like an announcer but more like a soundboard which said ‘sector one’ and ‘emergency’, more that type of thing.
IGM: So it was the facility talking?
Sam: Well kind of. Emily’s other character wasn’t really a character it was just telling you information. It didn’t really guide you or anything, it would just say things like “look at that!” Some of the voice overs we were going to use as memories and other communications, though if we return to them it might be changed.
IGM: Obviously all of this was dropped though. So are you looking to use it again in the future? Seems like an awful waste otherwise.
Sam: We’re currently looking at ways to use in all sorts of different manners as its absence was the problem that most reviewers had.
IGM: Yeah for sure. Was that frustrating for you?
Sam: I was tempted to email every reviewer and say “no I did something!” But you know, I can understand that they wanted to get the game done and released by December. You can’t work on a game forever.
IGM: So was it the team who made that decision or did Indie Fund guide you a bit there?
Sam: Indie Fund did tell us to not have too much AAA ambition. To try not to fit absolutely everything in the game and more. I reckon we could have fitted everything we had planned with another three months of work though. They never demanded anything but they made suggestions for us to consider.
IGM: Understood. Out of what you came up with, what actually remains in the game then?
Sam: One thing I remember was when we were preparing for the E3 demo, we were looking for a way of making one of the puzzles have a bit more impact on the player near the beginning. So I suggested having the walls close in on you to give a sense of claustrophobia.
IGM: Yeah, that bit definitely stays in your mind. The whole environment feels quite hostile actually. Is this something you were trying to bring to the game, a sense of danger?
Sam: Yeah, it actually tied in to the characters I had created for the game. One of which was determined to get through anything no matter what and another relied on logic, so I was trying to bring out these characters within the cubes.
IGM: Can you elaborate on these characters? Presumably one of them is the playable character with the gloves – do they have a back story?
Sam: Yes. A very full one in fact, which I still have written down of course. It’s a shame because all of it was going to be delivered in the game but it wasn’t, due to some unfortunate circumstances. I am trying to think ways of describing what the story is like. I guess something between Black Mirror and Moon, seems like the best analogy. So, if we end up doing something in the future then you’ll probably see some Black Mirror references.
IGM: Will we ever find out about these characters and the storyline you had for the game?
Sam: We do want to bring out DLC for the game but we haven’t decided what we want it to include. We asked people in the Steam forums, Facebook and Twitter and all of that, what they would want. The top ones were a level editor and DLC that adds more of a storyline. So if we do end up doing any DLC for Q.U.B.E. we will add that narrative that was originally planned for it. One thing is for sure, one way or another you will see that original narrative for Q.U.B.E.
IGM: Do you reckon we could see that DLC this year?
Sam: I think if we do plan on doing it then you should see it this year. We’ve had a few other things pop up before we can bring our attention around to that though. Our main focus at the moment is working on the Mac and iOS versions which we hope to bring out sometime soon.
IGM: Yeah of course. Well thank you for talking to us and we hope to hear your story some time in the future!