First Look plus a Q&A with the Developers

By Becky Waxman


This game begins on a desert planet strewn with the debris of human civilization – half buried spaceships, radioactive waste dumps, and the fabled ruins of Metropol, a once-great city. The only remaining sentient beings are robots. Our hero, Horatio, is a Nullbuilt v.5 -- a robot with intuitive creative ability and a gruff, husky voice. Horatio has chosen an isolated existence, living in the hulk of a crashed ship far out in the wasteland. His sole companion is Crispin, a mag-lev bot with an attitude.

More Things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio

Life for Horatio and his sarcastic sidekick changes abruptly when a plundering bot breaks into their engine room and steals its power source. To replace it, the duo must navigate the wastes and overcome multiple obstacles. Their quest becomes a journey into the planet’s troubled history and Horatio’s own past, which he seems unwilling (or unable) to acknowledge.

Most challenges in Primordia use inventory items to fix or create mechanical devices. You must also tinker with the data pouch, figure out access codes, and employ clues to locate new areas to explore. The game features a third person perspective and a point-and-click interface.

Come Unto These Yellow Sands

The environments are off-beat and sinuous – stark exteriors and monochromatic, baroque interiors. As in classic adventure games, the graphics exhibit a pixelated effect. In this alien, post-apocalyptic world, the art style works well. Dissonant, eerie techno music provides background atmosphere.

I played for a couple of hours, and the story grabbed me. I’m already full of questions: what in this desolate planet caused humans to colonize it? What caused the ensuing destruction? Why is the city of Metropol nothing but trouble? Why is the giant robot engulfed in sand? How did bombs turn into sacred artifacts? Will Horatio reconcile with his past?

Primordia releases in December – and when it does, I’m looking forward to finding to some answers!


Here to provide answers about Primordia’s development are Wormwood Studios’ Vic Pflug and Mark Yohalem – as well as Wadjet Eyes’ Dave Gilbert and composer Nathaniel Chambers.


GB: How did you first become interested in creating Primordia?

VIC: For a long time, I focused solely on concept art for other people's games. But it was frustrating doing art for other people and having to conform to their ideas, when I had so many of my own. I started using Chris Jones' AGS engine and made a small adventure game, and came away feeling like I had a lot more to bring to the table than just art.

As I began to build a game world from the ground up, I felt like I had created something special, more than the sum of its parts. Having freedom not only in the art department but also with story, setting, and music was incredibly liberating. I knew at that point I had to try to make a full size, commercial adventure game.


GB: Can you tell us a bit about the development team?

VIC: Wormwood Studios is the core team: me, Mark Yohalem, and James Spanos. My focus is on atmosphere and the creation of unique settings, worlds, and the beings who inhabit them. Mark tells the stories that take place there, provides the narrative and mechanics of the game. James is the man who brings it all together and actually makes it work.

There's also the Wadjet Eye people. In particular, Nathaniel Chambers, who Dave Gilbert, Wadjet Eye’s founder, brought in to create the music and sound design for Primordia, has really brought that aspect of the production up to a level that I felt the game deserved. Then there are the voice actors, and of course Dave provides some editorial suggestions too.

Despite those general roles, we all work very closely and interweave our ideas often, and we all do a little bit of everything.


GB: Horatio, the game's protagonist, plays the “straight man” to Crispin, a wacky mechanical sidekick of his own design. Why did Horatio design a companion whose personality is so unconventional? Why isn’t Crispin more respectful of his creator?

MARK: One of the themes throughout the game is the choices that builder robots make when creating other robots, so it's great that you've homed in on that! All the robots in Primordia have a "fabrinymic" -- a builder-name akin to the patrinymics historically used throughout Scandinavia, and still used in Iceland today (e.g., "Sven Svensson" or "Ingrid Svensdotter). So throughout the game, the player will be able to compare generations of robots and draw conclusions from them.

One thing that a lot of the robots have done -- Horatio included -- is build robots designed to complement their own weaknesses. Horatio's stoic exterior conceals a lot of anger, some of which Horatio doesn't himself understand. So Horatio built Crispin in a way that would help shake the dark moods that sometimes fall on Horatio. In fact, Horatio installed a sarcasm co-processor in Crispin to ensure that his snideness wouldn't interfere with his primary functions!


GB: What is the function of a sidekick (in addition to making snide remarks)? Is writing dialog that establishes the relationship between two robots different than writing dialog for human characters?

MARK: A good sidekick has to complement both the personality and the skill-set of the protagonist. That's true from Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to He-Man and Orko to C-3PO and R2-D2. The complementary skill-set is especially important in a game because a good companion has to be *useful* to the player so that the player has a gameplay attachment as well as a narrative attachment. (Think of the weighted companion cube in Portal.)

Your question about the challenge of writing the dialogue for robots is a good one, but it wasn't an issue with Horatio and Crispin, who relate to each other along fairly ordinary lines. (Part friends, part father-son, part hero-companion.) In other parts of Primordia, writing dialogue for robots was much more challenging. The characters have to be human enough to be relatable, but robot enough to make the setting work. Things become really tricky when you realize that robots don't have developmental childhoods and don't procreate. To some degree we glossed over the implications of that (Crispin is always joking about wanting to hook up with a gynoid), but in the more serous scenes, we tried to maintain that "alienness" that a human-like robot should have. Unusually, I think Primordia is at its best when the characters are in the uncanny valley.


GB: Horatio is voiced by Logan Cunningham (Bastion, Resonance). How did you come to choose Cunningham for the role of Horatio?

DAVE: I met Logan through Sarah Elmaleh, who plays Clarity (a character you meet later in the game). When we were casting the VO for Resonance, our previous game, we needed someone who could do the gruff cop. One thing I noticed about getting "gruff" type voices -- it's very hard to find someone who can do that voice and sound natural at it. And Logan, he's a natural. Not only that, but there's a level of melancholy and wistfulness that just comes naturally to him. When it came time to cast Horatio, I couldn't think of anyone better.

MARK: Casting Horatio was a real challenge, and Dave pulled off a coup with Logan. While we all had a sense of what we wanted Horatio's voice to convey, it was really difficult to articulate that. Logan pretty much got it right on the first try.


GB: Why did you choose a pixel art style that resembles classic adventure games?

VIC: I love the pixellated look. My favourite adventure games are from the early to mid 90s, where the graphics started to look really pretty, but they still had a relatively low resolution. To me, low-res graphics are a medium in their own right: the pixels are like brushstrokes, in a way. Another consideration was expediency; low-res sprites are far easier for me to produce and animate than high-res ones.


GB: Early in the game, the only indications of human presence are the abandoned machines and a desiccated skeleton. Why in Primordia do we see human civilization only as decayed remnants?

MARK: From the outset, Vic wanted to do a game about robots. If we were going to focus on robots, I decided that I wanted humans out of the picture. I think robot stories really get hung up too often on the question whether (or when, or how) they are going to rise up and kill humans. That's not the story I wanted to tell in Primordia. Instead, I was inspired by a poem I've known since childhood called "The Inheritors," which starts like this:

I sing of the race that came to be
After man's brief tyranny
Over all beasts ceased,
And we became a theory
In another species' pre-history;
Endowed, as theories often are,
With false glories and iniquities.
The truth is, we lost our vision.

Primordia is about how the robot inheritors of our world look back at humans, and what they do with their patrimony. Another big theme is the way in which truth is distorted through various lenses (and whether such distortion might be a good thing) -- "false glories and iniquities." Having humans absent means that there isn't a clear "truth" about them; just different "theories," as the poem says.


GB: Why is the background music inside the Unnic so much more melodic than elsewhere? Why did you include an antique phonograph as part of the engine room?

NATHANIEL: I liked the idea that each area had music that was tied to the situation, the characters, and the area itself. In the case of the ship, Horatio (the lead protagonist) finally gets his home working again. Being somewhat of a hermit, Horatio is attached to being in his home because he's comfortable there. With the generator temporarily working, the threat of running out of power is now delayed. So I wanted the scene to be a bit comforting. Horatio's music on the ship is also the theme of Horatio himself and can be heard in certain spots in through game if you listen carefully, though it's fairly different each time. The only other character to really get a reoccurring theme is the villain, but it isn't melodic.

VIC: Everyone should have an antique phonograph somewhere in their home.

MARK: When Vic drew the phonograph, I wanted it to play a song that would be organic to Primordia's world -- in other words, an original piece of music that could have been created by the inhabitants of the game. (I was inspired by the "Increased Chances" song in Full Throttle.) I wrote some lyrics, and Nathaniel and his wonderful singer/songwriter friend Kim Boekbinder put it to music. Like everything else in Primordia, it came out better than I had even imagined it.


GB: Many of the puzzles in the game involve building and using mechanical devices. Did these puzzles spring naturally from the story, or did you work the narrative around the puzzles?

MARK: They sprang naturally from the union of the story and the Wormwood Studios team. James, the coder, is about to get his PhD in electrical engineering. Vic is a serious tinkerer and is constantly building crazy electronic devices. I have no electronic skill, but I build Rube Goldberg devices for killing wasps, repairing doors, and so forth. Since Horatio is naturally drawn to (and skilled in) repairing machinery, we were able to use our own backgrounds to construct these tactile, mechanical puzzles that really worked with the game setting. My favorite example of this is probably an engine rewiring puzzle later in the game, where Vic came up with a way to turn a traditional IQ-type logic puzzle into a plausible mechanical one that fit the setting.


GB: What was the greatest challenge you faced while developing Primordia?

VIC: For me the greatest challenge was creating a vision for Primordia, and then staying true to that vision - believing in my own ideas.


GB: Why did you decide to publish Primordia via Wadjet Eye?

VIC: At its conception Primordia was to be a short freeware game I could use as a stepping stone onto other projects, it was really going to be just a small offering so people would take me a little more seriously when I released my first commercial title. Very early on I brought Mark and James on board, things really took off and Primordia developed into that commercial title. When Dave contacted me about publishing Primordia through WEG, in many ways it was a no-brainer to join forces with him.

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