Primordia Review

Primordia, Wormwood Studios’ dystopian android adventure (and Wadjet Eye Games’ latest foray into publishing,) is a treacherous game to review. It single-handedly put me off reviewing games for a long time – heck, we received our review copy at launch half a year ago, and I’ve subsequently tried my hand at it every now and then, what with it being bundled both in Indie Royale and Groupees.

This is not to say that Primordia is a bad game. Nothing of the sort. It is unquestionably filled to the brim with artistic merit, passion, and conceptual integrity. Yet it also secretes such familiarity, evokes such an extraordinarily vivid sense of déjà vu, that it is impossible for me, personally, to brush it aside and to merely treat the game as ordinary genre-aware homage.

I am not entirely at fault here. Surely there must be something to the fact that the game feels as if cobbled together from a variety of influences and sources, even right as its remarkably unique audiovisuals are there, staring back at you, as unfalsifiable proof on-screen?

Negotiating this uncanny uncertainty became the defining mode of my struggles with reviewing Primordia. In playing the game, questions of originality, individuality, and singularity began to haunt me: How could this game, so clearly unique, be so deeply indebted?

Introduction

"Same old moon."

“Same old moon.”

As I mention in my introduction, my games writer’s block was rooted in somehow conveying my highly subjective experience of playing through Primordia – all the while appreciating it to the necessary degree. I do have to wonder how other players, and reviewers, did – at the very least, I am not alone in unearthing some of the game’s influences and parallels1 outlined below. The game’s developers have also openly admitted to their influences.

My primary stumbling block, then, was the question: Does it truly matter that Primordia doesn’t quite seem to stand on its own two feet? As video game reviews generally tend to attempt to answer the question, “Should I buy?”, I should flat-out answer that, “yes”, yes I would buy. I think it is important to get that answer out of the way right away.

Audio

Start-up screen

Start-up screen

The game’s unique atmosphere is immediately felt on the game’s start-up screen. Nathaniel Chambers’ soundtrack, produced together with Primordia artist Victor Pflug2, touts an understated style of melodic dark ambient that perfectly captures the game’s (waste)landscape. I quickly came to think of it as a soundtrack to a dystopian Western, combining the styles and sounds of something like Steve Roach‘s Dreamtime Returns (1988), or Vangelis’ Blade Runner score (1982).

The soundtrack, both sentimental and turbulent, provides a backdrop to a society content with its decline: Soft oscillating sine waves, distorted sawtooths – vibrating, undulating, pulsating. Sonic washes and waves support the barely audible melodies with a surprisingly violent undercurrent, with intermittent tribal beats directing the game’s changing cadence:

The highly processed, Moog-like tone of the music means there’s very little out there to compare Chambers’ soundtrack to. Yet the way in which he treats lead sounds to background ambience is not unlike Vangelis’. Where their methods carry some similarities, however, the actual music remains vastly different. Where Vangelis’ music often has an optimism to it – major keys instead of minor – Chambers’ tones are highly committed to Primordia’s decline and decay3.

To be sure: This amazing soundtrack is worth the price of admission alone, and those interested should head for the GOG version of the game, which comes coupled with the soundtrack.

Many familiar Wadjet Eye voices, once again curated by Dave Gilbert, pop up in the voice acting department, with Logan Cunningham returning now for the third consecutive time as the main character, and Abe Goldfarb (Blackwell’s Joey Mallone) phones a track in as his sidekick. Out of the rest of the cast, Nonie Craige turns in an especially great role as MetroMind.

Visuals, Puzzles, and UI

Junk, junk, junk

Junk, junk, junk

In addition to its audio, Primordia’s main claim to fame is undoubtedly its visuals. Much could be said of Victor Pflug’s art direction – a kind of Victorian take on HR Giger – which consists of über-muted colours, a gloomy and sombre atmosphere and, as far as its architecture and design, of curvaceous, alien sights and shapes.

As paintings, as video game art, the graphics are simply titillating. As video game backdrops, heartbreakingly, Pflug’s art is deficient; fetch-quests and pixel-hunts, both integral to Primordia’s gameplay, are severely hampered by his decision to do away with contrast, detail, and brightness.

I just couldn’t see, not on this monitor, not with these eyes! Even the simplest of pixel hunts could have potentially ground my progress to a grinding halt. The game’s hands-off approach (more on this below) to objectives and goals further exacerbated my feelings of aimlessness traversing back and forth in these beautifully-rendered backdrops. One can almost – almost – wax philosophical: Is it not pertinent here that it’s hard to discern what is important and what is not, when the game is effectively set in a world of junk?

Primordia’s designer-writer Mark Yohalem classifies his puzzles into two tiers: Easy puzzles, he says, “give the player stuff to do while still advancing the story at a decent clip”. Difficult ones, then, “give the player a real sense of accomplishment when he passes them”4. Unfortunately, both types of puzzles in Primordia have the capability of stumping and halting a player’s forward-momentum, even if s/he relies on Crispin, who functions as a hint dispenser.

Well, *that* was helpful.

Well, *that* was helpful.

Primordia’s other issues with pacing stem not from difficulty spikes, but rather from inadequate communication from the developers’ side. It demands very much attention, one should say vigilance, on behalf of the player, and will often leave the player to fend all for him- or herself.

Other Wadjet Eye games (Gemini Rue and Resonance, for instance) maintain a relatively high complexity and difficulty level while resorting neither to hand-holding nor simplicity. Primordia, however, seems cruel by design – Yohalem has actually revealed that “two gaming publications … vowed not to run a preview or review of the game” while it contained an early puzzle that was later removed altogether5.

Its intermittent cold-bloodedness aside, Primordia is to be lauded for many challenging, extensive puzzles, some of which come even with alternate solutions and optional routes – even if the game fails to adequately convey that failing here or there never means a dead end (per se). The game also sports a great many optional endings – some slightly better than others, with some more fully formed – and gives the players a series of achievements to unlock based on their handling of the puzzles.

Data pouch

Data pouch

Primordia does exhibit several well-designed UI systems that much alleviate its cruelty. Helpful and interesting notes and titbits, for instance, are stored in the main character’s data pouch (on the left). It’s seldom that a simple set of notes – that aren’t always directly part of the puzzles, but also contain things the player doesn’t always need – can be as helpful as in Primordia.

Map

Map

This pouch also contains a map (on the right) that allows players to teleport from one scene to another, much alleviating the need to backtrack. Both features are effortlessly and naturally integrated into the game’s narrative fabric.

 

Themes and Plot

Like its inspirations, Primordia too deals heavily (and quite heavy-handedly) in concepts and themes such as memory, identity and destiny. Canonical video game treatments of similar subject matter include classics such as Beneath a Steel Sky, Blade Runner, and the text adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging on the one hand, and RPGs such as Fallout or Planescape: Torment on the other; more recent examples would be (the aforementioned) Resonance and Gemini Rue.

Before I sequence into discussing just one parallel between Primordia and its influences, let it be stated once more that its take on dystopian sci-fi is hardly uninteresting: Its world is inhabited only by a lineage of robots, built and designed by each other, their origins – their primordium, I should probably say – shrouded in myth. This myth – now a religion of Man – is passed down only in dusty tomes.

Horatio Nullbuilt, the game’s lead android, is a solitary scavenger content to survive by gathering junk from the wastelands. Players gain access to Horatio just as the all-important power core of his derelict airship, the UNNIIC, is being violently repossessed.

Horatio

Horatio, then, embarks on a monomaniac expedition to regain his core. Make no mistake, however, the first half of Primordia’s story is actually rather ponderous, and meditative – a kind of a slow burner that negotiates its absence of forward-movement by having players actually uncover Horatio’s past versions (now at number 5) as they play. In this way, Primordia’s most important acts and events are already history, and it shrewdly positions the player at the ruin of its own mythos, at the ruin of Horatio’s memory and identity.

Don't you have something better to do?

Don’t you have something better to do?

But do not these questions, of memory, identity, and uncovering the truth, lie at the heart of every game in this register? Primordia’s epiphanies and revelations mirror those of a Beneath a Steel Sky, or a Planescape: Torment; with each new piece to Horatio’s puzzle, Primordia makes it more and more difficult to say discern the original from the borrowed, as both the first and second half of the game bear a striking resemblance, both in structure and in visuals, to that of BASS.

Primordia and Beneath a Steel Sky

It is obviously not the sole purpose of this review to produce an exhaustive comparison of Primordia’s parallels with Beneath a Steel Sky. Primordia is distinctly its own entity, not a mere replica(nt). Yet Horatio’s self-built sarcastic sidekick in Crispin, the game’s entry point in the desert, a corrupt, vertically structured metropolis, a malignant AI etcetera etcetera model Beneath a Steel Sky so closely that the similarities almost haunted me.

These parallels are also not limited to thematics, plot or characterization. Below, you can find a series of pictures that should hopefully illustrate the kind of affinity that Primordia’s end-game exhibits towards Beneath a Steel Sky’s graphical style, locations, layouts, flow and puzzle dynamics:

I felt something here:

And here:

And here:

And most definitely here:

Another consistent parallel – that may not be immediately evident – relates to Beneath a Steel Sky’s notorious tonal inconsistency. In an interview with Eurogamer, BASS designer Charles Cecil famously noted that

The tone of our early games was born from a tension between Dave [Cummins] and I. He wanted to be more flippant with dialogue, while I wanted to be more serious. That was always our vision, to find the middle ground between Sierra’s ridiculously earnest stories and the slapstick comedy of the LucasArts titles but I think our personalities and approaches emphasized the tension.6

Primordia 06The developers of Primordia certainly seem to have taken the Cecil-Cummins method to heart, as Primordia too sacrifices some of its otherwise consistent atmosphere (so meticulously established by its art and audio) for sarcastic one-liners and witty banter. Crispin, Horatio’s self-built sidekick, feels far, far too much like BASS’ (and Blackwell’s, zing!) Joey.

The Horatio-Crispin relationship is in fact the biggest tonal cop-out in an otherwise consistent game. Even then, compared to the tonal disaster that is Beneath a Steel Sky, Yohalem actually does a pretty good job with Primordia’s straight man/stooge shtick.

Conclusion

I’ve never had this much difficulty with reviewing a game. The stars just never did align, with Primordia and I.

Primordia is a most fascinating example of a game’s intertextual, generic position modifying and defining the experience (and the review) of its play. Despite its cut-and-paste approach to themes, characterization and layouts, there’s no denying that Primordia succeeds in touching a wide-ranging set of the binary oppositions (individual-communal, original-lineal, private-shared) that so powerfully define our social existence.

In a roundabout way, it is extremely fitting (or ironic?) that a game about destiny, identity, progress, and lineage should have such a co-dependent identity of its own. If nothing else, Primordia is a curious anomaly: For a game so recombinant to be so artistically coherent and unique is, well, preposterous. Primordia never feels truly derivative, and by all means, it should. It should.

Is it by design? Is it an accident? I don’t know. It takes two to make an accident.

Primordia is available now, via Wadjet Eye Games, GOG and Steam.

  1. http://pc.gamespy.com/pc/primordia/1226826p1.html []
  2. http://www.adventuregamers.com/articles/view/23235/page4 []
  3. Chambers’ Yohalem’s “Dreams of Green” seems to be rather analogous to Vangelis’ “Memories of Green”, though to my astonishment, he later privately confessed that no relationship between the two songs exists []
  4. http://www.rpgcodex.net/content.php?id=8584 []
  5. http://www.rpgcodex.net/forums/index.php?threads/rpg-codex-interview-primordia-point-and-click-adventure-inspired-by-fallout-and-planescape.77497/#post-2350082 []
  6. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/beneath-a-steel-sky-remastered-preview []