Primordia - Wormwood Studios interview
Then Man the All-Builder stood and took the machines in his hands, and guided them to a great mountaintop. Together they looked upon the world in its beauty. "All this world was made for you, and now unto you all this is given. Keep it, tend it, and make it flourish." And the All-Builder fell silent and passed from the world, and so ended the Primordium."
– Excerpt from the Gospel of Man
If you thought mankind was capable of destroying itself and the planet around him, wait 'til you get a load of what his machines can do in Primordia. The upcoming post-apocalyptic adventure from Wormwood Studios and Wadjet Eye Games tells the relentlessly bleak tale of artificial life (and a whole lot of death) after Homo sapiens. All that's left now – at least in the barren, desolate wasteland outside the city of Metropol – is a cold metallic existence and a desperate struggle for mechanical survival. I recently played through the first couple hours of this nearly-finished game and found what looks to be a very promising retro title steeped in its own rich sci-fi mythology. It's unapologetically dreary, but there's just enough humour sprinkled in to lighten the mood considerably.
Primordia may not be a happy game, but it just might be a hopeful one. After all, when you've hit rock bottom, there's nowhere to go but up. And the bottom is pretty much where the android Horatio Nullbuilt (version 5) and his floating sidekick Crispin find themselves when a hulking robot invades and steals the power core from their home – a permanently malfunctioning vessel called the "UNNIIC" (pronounced "unique", as the alternative would be far less flattering). The craft was already in shambles with repairs going agonizingly slowly, but it had been providing shelter from the acid rain and radioactive sandy dunes all around them. Without its power, however, the robots can't function, leaving only two choices: flee to the nearby city, or seek out their attacker and retrieve their core.
Lesser bots would have chosen the easier path, but Horatio is fiercely independent and deeply mistrusts any idyllic propaganda out of Metropol, the "city of glass and light". Clearly there's some sort of troubled history there, but the player is not privy to such background information at first. In fact, Horatio himself may not be. As "version 5", his memory has been wiped with each upgrade, and it soon becomes apparent that his earlier incarnations have experienced a remarkably turbulent history. An armoured "preacher of humanist creed" who closely guards a bomb as an enduring shrine to man (probably fitting) knows Horatio by another name as a former pupil, while a giant robot operated by malfunctioning smaller bots calls the android "the Destroyer". That can't be good.
But the Horatio we know is a likeable enough sort. He's rather serious, however, focused squarely on the tasks at hand in playing the straight bot to his hovering pal Crispin. Like any good sidekick, Crispin is quick with the wisecracks, his "guilt subroutines" never letting his “boss” (and creator) live down the fact that he was built with "all mouth and no hands". He can fly (having no arms was the compromise for his mag-lev unit), which makes him useful for reaching otherwise inaccessible places. Though he remains onscreen throughout, a Crispin icon is a permanent inventory fixture, so you can use him like any other object. You can also use inventory items on the real Crispin, which can get a little confusing, or click directly on him for a very general hint about your current objective.
Other than Crispin, Primordia's point-and-click gameplay is entirely traditional in the early going, with right-clicks used to observe hotspots and left-clicks to interact. Accessing the inventory at the top of the screen involves one click to get in and another to close out, which feels unnecessarily cumbersome, but the currently selected item does stay visible in the menu bar until used or replaced. Horatio's datapouch stores relevant notes for future use and includes a map that lets you quickly travel between major locations once they've been discovered (in fact, there's no other way to reach them). Some places like a junkyard consist of only a single screen, while others such as the UNNIIC involve various rooms and levels to explore. A few areas surprised me by scrolling, so it's important to walk to screen edges to be sure you aren't missing anything.
As you'd expect in a world built by machines for machines, many of the puzzles involve practical makeshift constructions. I encountered no bizarre leaps of logic, though there was one serious case of pixel hunting. There was also a standalone puzzle that proved to be an unsolvable red herring, which has wisely since been removed (who says good developers don't listen to feedback?). Overcoming obstacles isn't as easy as it might sound, because many of the parts involve sockets, plugs, conduits and the like, so less mechanically-inclined minds may yet find good use for the try-everything-on-everything approach. You'll also need to track down telescope coordinates, answer some multiple-choice quiz questions, and make use of binary code. One puzzle offers an "alternate" solution (really two variations of the same idea) that apparently has consequences farther along, but I didn't play long enough to see how the difference plays out.
Though Primordia was in development long before Wadjet Eye got involved as publisher, there's no mistaking the game as part of the company's stable of retro-styled adventures. The pixel art graphics would have looked right at home in the genre's VGA Golden Age, and while they're nicely designed, this look certainly isn't for everyone two decades after the fact. Even more distinctively, the game's palette consists of only three colours: brown, browner, and brownest. Okay, there are a few other hues sprinkled in, but for the most part the early stages of this game are largely monochromatic. That's entirely intentional, of course. What would you expect from a world ravaged by war, now covered by permanently overcast, stormy skies in a desert completely devoid of life, littered only with the rusted husks of broken vehicles and equipment? It's ugly, but stylishly so, instantly sucking you into the oppressive futuristic setting.
This game will also sound familiar to Wadjet Eye veterans, its lead characters voiced by Detective Bennet and Joey Mallone... err, I mean... Logan Cunningham (Resonance) and Abe Goldfarb (everything Wadjet, but most notably the Blackwell series). The sound quality itself is a little off in places, but the vocal performances are consistently excellent. That includes the various secondary robots. While the two protagonists sound human, the other bots all have blatantly mechanized voiceovers that sound great. The soundtrack and ambient effects I heard were generally understated, suitably supporting the sombre atmosphere without ever dominating the action.
By the end of the preview demo, I'd managed to restore power to the UNNIIC, but had far more questions about Horatio's chip-wiped identity than when I began, and I look forward to continuing the quest for truth about what really happened since the glorious "age of building” when the game releases in December. I may not like the answers, but hopefully somewhere – anywhere – a hopeful ray of light will shine on this gloomy futuristic world of machines.
If you like your sci-fi dark and dreary (think Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, but with jokes), keep an eye out for this one next month (you can even preorder while you wait). In the meantime, let's open up and peer inside the Primordia control room to learn more about the game's creators Victor Pflug (concept / art), Mark Yohalem (story and design), James Spanos (coding), and Nathaniel Chambers (music / audio) – all of whom are human... we think.
Adventure Gamers: The world of Primordia is clearly very different than the one we know. How did it get from here to there?
Mark Yohalem: Well, at the outset, I should note that the world of Primordia isn’t necessarily a future version of our own. Certainly there are lots of things in Primordia that suggest it’s our world—broken down devices that look familiar, mythological references, things like that. But this isn’t like Planet of the Apes or Children of Men or Escape from New York where it’s meant to be a dark look at Earth’s possible future.
So rather than trying to draw a line from our world in 2012 to Primordia’s world, what I can say is that Primordia’s world has suffered from ecological catastrophe, acute shortages of critical resources (including energy sources), and devastating war. All of that is pretty quickly apparent to the player. Beyond that, I don’t want to spoil anything, but, like I said, it’s not like Primordia is a murder mystery where the corpse is Earth.
AG: How many years in the future is this game set? (Hopefully many!)
Mark: As with the last question, I don’t think there’s really an answer here. Some of the technology in Primordia is beyond what we have; some is primitive compared to what we have. I guess the easiest answer is that I don’t think any amount of time could turn our world into Primordia’s.
AG: The preview teased some intriguing background mysteries and hints of potential conflict with the city of Metropol, but it’s still not entirely clear what the game’s story is about. What can you tell us about the adventures awaiting Horatio and Crispin?
Mark: Horatio and Crispin need to get a power source for their airship. As anyone who has watched The Big Lebowski or played Fallout knows, though, finding a spare part for your home is never easy after the apocalypse! And it’s probably no spoiler to say that there’s never been a story where the heroes don’t ultimately make it to the ominous location that’s tempting them (whether it’s a witch’s house made of sweets or an idyllic island awaiting Odysseus’s crew!). Beyond that, though, I don’t want to spoil the particular obstacles, adversaries, and allies they encounter along the way.
I will say that there are three levels the game is operating on: a forward-oriented adventure to get back the power core; a backward-oriented mystery to find out about things that matter to Horatio (like Man and his own past); and a thematic discussion about various competing values (like independence vs. interdependence; mysticism vs. materialism; justice vs. mercy; creation vs. destruction; etc.). These levels interact with each other, of course, and everything ties together in the finale.
AG: It seems like the quest for identity will be essential to Primordia, which is somewhat ironic for a game about robots. How do Horatio’s missing memories factor into the game?
Mark: Compared to, say, Sanitarium or Planescape: Torment, I don’t think Horatio’s memories matter that much, but they are still important. “Primordia” means “beginnings” or “origins” in Latin, and a big part of the game is the importance of origins. In fact, as you’ve seen in the preview build, it’s very important for robots to trace their lineage through “fabrinymics”—hence, Crispin calls himself “Crispin Horatiobuilt.”
You hit the nail on the head noting the irony of identity in a game about robots. One of the interesting things in crafting the story is that certain issues don’t line up perfectly between robots and humans from a moral perspective. To take a trivial example: Horatio built Crispin with certain personality presets and functions and whatnot. There’s nothing wrong with that—a robot has to be built in *some* fashion—but it would probably seem immoral or at least morally questionable to engineer your child to be a certain way.
This fuels one of the big themes in Primordia, namely the extent to which a machine is trapped in the function for which it is built. To give another trivial example: Is the bomb worshiped by Ever-Faithful a holy shrine, or it is just a bomb? There’s a poem called “The Inheritors” that had a strong influence on me in writing the story to Primordia, and in the poem are the following lines:
“Blame the potter, not the ill-shaped clay.
Nothing that is yet chose its own defect.”
The machines and robots of Primordia are both clay *and* potters, and their identities in both roles are critical to the story. And they are all certainly defective, in their own ways.
AG: Apart from Crispin’s wisecracks, Primordia is unapologetically bleak (at least in the early going). Is there a warning in that about the direction mankind is going?
Mark: The setting was driven largely by Vic’s art, but that art fits with the story that I wanted to tell in the game, which was a story of a world in which humans had faded into legend.
As for whether there’s a warning in it, I suppose so. If nothing else, like every post-apocalyptic story, it’s a memento mori (that is, a reminder of the fragility of our own lives). It’s hard to write a post-apocalyptic story without having some kind of warning. After all, the post-apocalyptic genre, in the Western canon at least, starts with the didactic tale of Noah and the Flood. Even the meaning of “post-apocalyptic” almost implies a warning: an “apocalypse” is—from a purely etymological standpoint— inherently an “uncovering” or “revelation,” so in a post-apocalyptic setting something important needs to have been revealed.
But beyond the sort of inherent “treasure life for it is fleeting” message, I don’t think we were trying to send any particular message. I’d certainly like it if people took better care of the environment, didn’t start wars, conserved resources, and so on, but that’s not what Primordia is about.
Instead, the bleakness serves as a test of character. In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, the point isn’t what caused the destruction of the world; rather, it’s the man and the boy’s response to that world. In the same way, Primordia’s world presents a battery of tests, like a qualitative analysis in chemistry, designed to reveal the content of Horatio’s self. His “identity,” as you said earlier.
AG: What are some of the sci-fi influences that helped shape your vision for Primordia?
Victor Pflug: There are a lot of little things that helped shape my vision for Primordia. As a teen, I read a lot of science fiction novels from the '50s through to the late '80s, and I greatly admired the artwork of artists such as Syd Mead, Roger Dean, Brian Froud, Josh Kirby, and H. R. Giger. Watched the hell out of sci-fi movies like Dune, Alien, The Thing, etc.
James Spanos: I always subconsciously wanted Primordia to approach the neo-noir genre. I’ve not affected much content wise; perhaps, if anything, there are some underlying references to my favorite film, Brazil by Terry Gilliam. Perhaps my biggest contribution comes from the fact that I always felt a lot like Crispin: we’re alike in several ways, and Crispin also partly imitates the behavior of Sam Lowry (the main character of Brazil). I’ve always encouraged Mark to write more and focus on certain aspects of Crispin. Not sure if that has been accomplished, but it certainly was attempted.
Mark: Fallout, The Road, A Canticle of Leibowitz by Walter Miller, City by Clifford Simak, WALL-E.
AG: The name Wormwood Studios is probably unfamiliar to most people. Tell us about yourselves.
Vic: Wormwood Studios basically just came about when Mark, James, and I wanted to consolidate our creative and technical personas into one identity that could take credit for the creation of Primordia. That way, when we came to do our next project, we would have some kind of brand name recognition. For myself, I live in Melbourne, Australia and have an art background ranging from aerosol art to game graphics creation, and I’ve tried almost everything else in between at one time or another.
Mark: I’ve been making (or trying to make) games independently since I was about 10 years old—I’m 32 now. Over the past decade, I’ve also worked professionally in the industry for BioWare, TimeGate, and S2 Games, among others. Like Daredevil, I am a lawyer by day. In terms of Primordia, I jumped on board the project when I saw Vic was recruiting a writer; it’s hard to say no to art like his!
Jim: I’m James Spanos, the third wheel of the Wormwood Studios. I used to code my own overambitious adventure games before I joined the cause of Primordia. That kind of gave me the edge and the expertise required to work for a commercial game, though it didn’t exactly start that way. At first, I was rejected, as another coder (a certain Victor Pflug) was already trying to do the job, but I offered my services in case a more complex part of the game would require them. As time went on, I was getting contacted more often, and then Vic and Mark decided to welcome me in the team.
Nathaniel Chambers: I’m based out of New York City. I hang out a lot at local NYC game-developer events, which is how I met Dave Gilbert (head of Wadjet Eye Games). Being a big point-and-click adventure fan, I was really hoping I'd be able to work on a project with him someday, plus he’s a really great guy to hang out with. After much harassment, fun, NYC dev drink nights, and Doctor Who, there was an opening where he needed a composer so I sent him a demo.
I was then brought into the project and told about the game and the world and I absolutely loved it. I started brainstorming immediately. While I’m not technically part of team Wormwood Studios, they said I should still comment on this. I think that says what an awesome and welcoming team they are.
AG: Why an adventure game for your first project? Are you all longtime genre fans?
Jim: I’ve worked on a lot of freeware adventure games, so this isn’t really my first project.
Vic: For me it just seemed a good genre to use my art skills. I had made a couple of very small adventure games using AGS prior to starting Primordia, plus some of my favorite games are point-and-clicks.
Mark: When I came on board, Vic had already started on an adventure game. But that was perfect for me. I’ve been trying to make a graphical adventure for about twenty years, but the art always thwarted me. With Vic at the helm, there was no worry of that! I’ve loved adventure games ever since I played Loom. After that, I consumed basically all of the Sierra/Dynamix/LucasArts games, along with lots of games from lesser companies.
Also, I think we had the misimpression that an adventure game was a small, self-contained project that we could quickly finish. Oops.
AG: What kinds of adventures have inspired you personally over the years?
Jim: I never exactly found myself as a huge fan of the adventure game genre in general, even though all the games I’ve created fit into it. I always found them rather unforgiving. Then I came across what I could possibly name my favorite game, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. Peter Chan’s astounding art, along with the most dark and twisted humor ever to come across my screen, the fantastic trio of Tim Schafer, Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, really topped themselves as developers at the time. I don’t believe any other game does it for me the way this one does. The cult ending always keeps me wondering, too.
Nathaniel: Sam & Max Hit the Road was the first point-and-click I really remember loving when I was a kid, and now as an adult. The Telltale series captures that same feeling (especially The Devil’s Playhouse—it was amazing). My other favorites were Full Throttle and Toonstruck, though I also liked just about anything from LucasArts at the time. More recent games and series I’ve loved are Mass Effect, Portal, Half-Life, The Walking Dead, and Psychonauts, which pretty much sum up everything I love most in gaming: exploration, story, and puzzles. They all really pulled me into the universes with their story, dialog, voice acting (Jennifer Hale is amazing in Mass Effect), sound, and music.
Taking “adventure” a little more broadly than just adventure games, my early musical inspiration came from old Nintendo classics and John Williams film scores, which I'm sure is a pretty common story. I was also really into cartoon music, such as Batman: The Animated Series, Looney Tunes, and Transformers: The Movie (the animated one!). I even put the Batman theme on a recordable tape so I could hear it portably, though I did the same with many video games soundtracks as well.
Mark: Among the big names: Loom, Monkey Island 2, Quest for Glory, Grim Fandango. Of the more obscure: Dragonsphere, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Spider & Web, Anchorhead, and Photopia. Regarding Grim Fandango, while I think it has a lot of problems from a gameplay standpoint, it does a fantastic job of never selling its characters out. You start off thinking that Manny is going to be a typical adventure game loser character who’s the butt of the game’s endless humiliations, but he actually turns out to be suave and successful. I still remember the huge grin I got when he turned his janitorial job at the end of the first chapter into a thriving nightclub by the start of the second. Regarding Dragonsphere and Spider & Web, they just have about the coolest twists ever.
Vic: For me, it’s games like Beneath a Steel Sky, Kyrandia, Lost Secret of the Rainforest, Space Quest IV, and Sam & Max Hit the Road. I really love games with an exploratory bent; being able to quest through a unique, exciting and visually lush game world is what I want out of a game for the most part. Great story and characters help a hell of a lot, too.
AG: Wadjet Eye has shown itself to be a pretty good talent evaluator, so having them support the game is telling. How did that partnership come about?
Vic: About midway into the production of Primordia, Dave Gilbert contacted me and asked if I wanted to sign up to have Wadjet Eye publish the game. Dave had quite a lot to bring to the table, and I decided I’d be a fool if I didn’t join forces with him.
AG: It’s pretty clear that Wadjet Eye has assumed control of the voice acting, but how are the responsibilities split apart from that? Are they pretty hands-off in letting you finish the game as you envisioned?
Vic: I appreciate the question because, somewhat surprisingly, a lot of the coverage we’ve gotten describes Wadjet Eye as the developer, even crediting it with the art and story, which is frustrating for a new indie developer trying to win a reputation! Basically, the original concept, story, writing, art design, graphics and game mechanics, and to a large extent also the music, sound and voiceover direction, is Wormwood Studios.
Being an electronic musician myself, I had naturally wanted to produce the soundtrack for Primordia, but Dave insisted we needed someone who specialized in music, which is how Nathaniel Chambers was brought on board. Mark and I spent a lot of time working with Nathaniel, and I also composed a lot of music for Nathaniel to use as references and convey how I wanted Primordia to sound. To his credit, I think Nathaniel did a bloody fantastic job, despite my overbearing direction in that arena. As for the voice acting, Dave and I had some disagreements over the cast initially, and while I might do things a little differently if I could make Primordia over again, his guys ended up doing an awesome job there too.
That said, Wadjet Eye did bring a lot to the table during the latter half of production, and I daresay Primordia might not be the polished game it is today if it weren’t for Dave cracking the whip and urging us on to greatness. (I'll leave it to the players to decide whether we came close though.)
Mark: On top of the voice acting, you can’t forget—or discount—the significance of Nathaniel, the composer that Wadjet Eye brought on board. He’s done superb work, not just with the music but also with the ambient and active sound effects. But aside from the audio, I don’t think Wadjet Eye really had that much direct effect on the game. The testers had more of an influence, and we should thank Wadjet Eye for putting them together as well. Mostly Dave worked as a facilitator, and did a lot of good work there.
To be sure, there were a few areas where he asked for changes, but when you work as part of a team, you have to accept quite a large amount of compromise. The biggest compromises were between me and Vic. By comparison, Dave asked for very little.
AG: I couldn’t help but notice that the game is rather... what’s the word… oh, right, “brown”. It certainly conveys a devastated, lifeless wasteland effectively, but it’s all so… BROWN. Will the look diversify at all in later stages, or is brown the new red, blue, and yellow? Any fear that people will find the game too depressing visually?
Mark: I do think that games have become too brown, particularly shooters. But when you’re making a game about an inorganic, desolate world, browns, grays, and reds are inherently going to be your palette. And, if anything, I’d say Primordia is more red than brown.
Vic: I don’t really care about current gaming trends very much; I didn't decide on a visual style for Primordia based on what I thought might be popular. I see a lot of games these days with dreadful faded brown dystopian landscapes, perhaps it’s a trend, I've no idea. To me it just feels like they’re bleeding the color from things, and I don’t think that’s really how my art is. I love sepia tones and subtle changes in hue, and use them to draw attention to, or perhaps accentuate the shape and design of my art. It’s been that way for many years, long before I made any video game art. That said, the color palette in Primordia does make some significant shifts as the journey through the game progresses.
I can understand people not liking my graphics, which is perfectly understandable as my art certainly isn't for everyone, but as for depressing? I tend to think even the darkest and most eldritch artwork ever created can never be depressing; if it is done skillfully and shows you something fascinating you’ve never seen before. But that’s just me.
AG: How would you characterize Primordia’s gameplay? As old school as its design, or are there any special “upgrades” (in keeping with the game’s robotic themes) to help set the game apart?
Mark: I would say the gamplay is quite a bit different from old school adventure games. Consistent with how LucasArts changed the genre, we don’t have deaths or dead ends. But unlike LucasArts, we’ve tried to have multiple solutions—of varying success—for most of the puzzles in the game. So you can “fail” a puzzle without dying or cutting yourself off from winning the game. How the game plays out, particularly in the endings, is driven by how well you solved puzzles and the choices you made along the way.
In terms of particular features, there are three I want to mention, the first two relating to the datapouch. Almost immediately in the game, Horatio recovers his datapouch, which lets him fast-travel to locations he’s already discovered. I put this in place because I hate the way adventure games pad their length with tedious backtracking. We had already minimized backtracking for its own sake, but by making it possible for the player to quickly return to old locations, we made it easier to explore and try out different ideas. The datapouch also takes notes for the player. But this isn’t like a quest-log that tells you exactly what to do. Instead, we’ve tried to mimic the things that a player would write down on a notepad (and, indeed, originally the player had to type things in himself). So the notes are full of small details, red herrings, things like that. They act as both a record of your journey and a means of ensuring that we can have puzzles that require information you gathered earlier without creating dead-end scenarios.
The last major feature is the integrated hint system. As a designer, I dread walkthroughs. Once a player loads a walkthrough, he’ll keep going back to it every time he’s stuck. And every time he does that, he’s pulled out of the mood you’ve worked so hard to create. But if you set the difficulty too low, to keep the player from using a walkthrough, you rob the game of its essential character. Our solution was to have Crispin nudge the player if he’s stuck at a particular spot for too long. You can turn these hints off, of course. But because the hints start off fairly gently, I don’t think they deprive the game of challenge. Rather, they just keep the player from banging his head against the wall for too long. (You can also get hints immediately by clicking on Crispin.) Creating this system was a huge amount of trouble from a writing, coding, and testing standpoint, but it winds up reinforcing Crispin’s personality and usefulness and (hopefully) stopping people from using a walkthrough. (It also wound up making Jim hate me, but c’est la vie.)
AG: What’s the status of the game now? Still on track for a December release?
Mark: We’re just doing the final testing and polishing now. Barring a second hurricane hitting New York [where Wadjet Eye is located], we’re still on track for December 5.
AG: Well, I know we’ve got lots of sci-fi lovers here, so don’t let us slow you down any further. Good luck with the home stretch, and thanks very much for taking time to share your thoughts about the game.