Primordia – I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords

Primordia is a game about a sentient robot society inheriting the Earth. Unfortunately, there’s not much left to inherit. And it looks like they’re still working out the kinks of this “society” thing.

It’s lucky that robots don’t need any pesky organic materials to survive, since everything “living” appears to have been wiped out. No humans, animals, insects, or trees are left; what landscape remaining is sand, littered with debris. Instead of lakes of water, there’s lakes of obsidian, the by-product of some war or other. But like I say, robots don’t really need anything like that, as long as they can recharge from a power source.

So what happens when the power runs out?

Primordia is a retro-styled point & click adventure game, in the same vein as the classics from Sierra and LucasArts. The story focuses on one humanoid robot – Horatio Nullbuilt – and a companion he built – Crispin Horatiobuilt. As the game commences, the duo are hanging out in a downed aircraft, trying to get it up and running while generally minding their own business, when a nasty big black robot comes in and steals the ship’s power core (I’m sure the racist undertones were unintentional). Without a power core, the pair have no way to recharge; without a way to recharge, the robots will eventually cease to function, so retrieving the power core (or finding a new one) is paramount.

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Horatio and Crispin.

The setting is compelling, and the atmosphere is immersing. The attention to detail helps flesh out the world created for the game, from things like the patronymic-style of naming robots, to larger concepts like the back-story of the time of the Primordia, and a religion based around “The Book of Man”. Even the post-apocalyptic landscape, bleak as it is, draws you in, as a sort of morbid curiosity to find out what went wrong.

The game is obviously inspired by the cyberpunk adventure game, “Beneath a Steel Sky” – both feature a sarcastic robot sidekick, and a dystopian city run by a malevolent AI. The dialogue and general writing (plot, themes, characterisation) is very well done, a huge step above the average indie (and, in my opinion, many big budget) adventure games. Horatio plays the ‘straight man’ to Crispin’s comic relief, and it works – mostly. While all the voice acting is very good – Horatio is your typical gravel-voiced hero – I found Crispin’s delivery annoying from time to time.

The story focuses on the “here and now” problems of the now-dominant robot society – while it’s obvious something tragic has happened to Earth, the absence of any humans is downplayed. Thematically, it tackles numerous different ideas, and I’ll quote the writer here (taken from this interview on RPG Codex): “independence vs. collectivism (and, relatedly, the nature of freedom and free will); religion vs. materialism; creation vs. destruction; justice vs. mercy; and… decline”.

The game offers a number of different ways to solve puzzles, although a big hint to which is the “best” solution is indicated by the unlockable achievements. For instance, one puzzle features an evangelical robot who questions you on your devotion to The Book of Man and, if you answer all the questions correctly the first time around, you get an achievement. This particular puzzle has an alternate solution which forces you to fetch an item from a different area if you answer the questions incorrectly too many times.

Whilst the developers have gone the extra effort of accommodating these alternate solutions, I found it can be annoying. For example, one early puzzle can be solved in two ways, one solution later providing the opportunity to see different endings and some character back-story. It’s nice to have these hidden subtexts, but I hate the feeling of missing out because I did something wrong right at the start of the game. Sure, it’s an apt metaphor for life, but I like my fantasy games to help me forget the poor choices in my life.

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Uh… I didn’t touch him, I swear.

There are seven endings, with further variations on the endings depending on actions you take during the game. I have to admit, to me, some of the darker endings seem like the “best” ending, given the dark theme of the whole game. Some of the endings seem to be ‘good’, but given the post-apocalyptic scenario, it can only ever be relatively good, and on a small scale. This feeds in to the theme of “independence vs. collectivism” – is it better to adopt an ethically unsound position for the greater good, doing what you can to help the other surviving sentient beings, or is it better to stay true to your values despite your choice possibly being considered selfish? The decision is tempered by the thought that everything will most likely turn to ruin anyway. So then, does the nihilist option make sense, that perhaps this is really the end?

Primordia is developed by Wormwood Studios, comprised of Victor Pflug (a Melbournite!), Mark Yohalem, and James Spanos. Additional help was provided by Wadjet Eye Games, who recruited the composer, Nathaniel Chambers, and the voice actors. A nice addition to the game is an optional “director commentary” mode that enables pop up buttons which, when clicked, give you some insights into the work that went into making the current scene. In some instances. commentary is also triggered immediately after an action occurs on-screen. There are also bloopers from the voice actors, but I feel most of these could have been left out. The commentary is quite good for highlighting particular aspects of the game, or a particular scene, that you might otherwise gloss over. For instance, the composer mentions in one instance that most of the music does not have percussion, since the absence of rhythm diminishes the player’s sense of time passing. Still, the problem with commentary is that you normally don’t hear it until the second play through the game.

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Well, this doesn’t look ominous at all!

The artwork is fantastic , with a “hand painted” style that wouldn’t look out of place hanging on your wall – or, at least, on an album cover. During the developer commentary, the artist claims Roger Dean as an inspiration and, though the world is comprised of metal, everything still has an organic, swept look. I will warn that this game is dark and monotone, but it’s hard to draw the post-apocalypse any other way, really. All of the robots have a distinctive shape, with only two humanoid-shaped robots.

The music is nicely understated, enhancing the atmosphere and providing suitably electronic sounds. You’re not going to be humming the theme song or anything, but then you wouldn’t hum the theme to Schindler’s List… would you? (Not belittling the theme to Schindler’s List in any way, it’s just not what I’d call “catchy” in the way that, say, the Banana Splits theme is.)

The backgrounds have been scaled down from an original high resolution to a more ‘retro’ 320×240, which then gets upscaled to your monitor, giving you those nice chunky pixels. Normally I’m a fan of retro graphics, but for this game I would have enjoyed seeing the original artwork in its high-def glory. There’s also some quirks with how the Adventure Game Studio engine works, such as the sprites having a different pixel density to the backgrounds due to dynamic scaling (it really doesn’t work for pixelart). That said, the actual concept and design is great – the muted palette and unnatural features roll over you like a fog, until you can smell the diesel fumes, feel the sand stinging off your cheeks, and taste the ash in your mouth (or maybe I’m just having a stroke).

Overall, I highly recommend this adventure. The atmosphere emanating from the game will soak into your skin, and while it could hardly be called a happy game, the sarcastic banter between Horatio and Crispin, and indeed the relationships and “humanity” demonstrated by the robots, stops the game spiralling into hopelessness. It’s a game well worth playing.

Primordia is available for purchase from Wadjet Eye Games, Steam, and GOG.com.

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