“What happened to the humans?” is Primordia’s marketing tagline, but it’s not what the game is about. It’s not about us, but rather about how our flaws and greatnesses affect and shape what we will leave behind.
The desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland is a staple of modern fiction, and we know it well enough to understand its basic structure: a lone traveler moves through a barbaric wasteland, scrounging ruins for supplies, meeting bizarre and dangerous people wherever he (it’s nearly always “he”) goes. Familiar sights and symbols will be twisted and changed into grotesque mockeries of their former selves, and our mysterious stranger will show himself to be hard, but fair.
Primordia is aware of its heritage — there is an oblique Canticle For Leibowitz reference in the game’s first hour — but it’s far more concerned with humanity’s ideological fallout than its nuclear fallout.
In some nebulous, post-human future, a robot named Horatio Nullbuilt Version 5 searches through the rubble of the world in a search for useful parts, accompanied by his friend and creation Crispin Horatiobuilt. When their power core is stolen by a massive, wandering hulk, their attempts to get it back require them to journey to the massive city of Metropol, and eventually force them into conflict with that city’s dystopic ruler. Humanity has passed into myth and legend — Horatio carries a book called the Gospel of Man and calls himself a “Humanist” — but most of the robots go about their lives giving no thought to the fate of their progenitors, and it becomes clearly fairly early on that none of the robots are particularly clear about what “Man” even was.
Much of the enjoyment of Primorida is found in exploring the society the robots have constructed, and learning how and why it has gone to pieces. It’s a lot like the first BioShock in this way — it’s telling two stories at once, and the story of the society is frequently far more interesting than that of the protagonist. Horatio’s own story is primarily concerned with overcoming relatively mundane obstacles — opening doors, breaking codes, hunting for batteries. There’s a certain amount of metaphorical effect in this — as the whole game is about trying to reclaim a power source, it could also be seen as about how to gain power in the larger sense. Horatio gains power (both electrical and in the form of influence over others) by solving problems and helping people out, whereas others gain that same power by forcibly taking it from other robots.
Primordia is full of beautiful stories and ideas. The robots’ ruling council includes a robot designed to assist in religious services, apparently just because humans seemed to think that religion was important. The nigh-omniscient judge robot creates two helpers to advise him — Clarity and Charity, programmed to see the law from the perspectives of absolute justice and absolute mercy, respectively. A robot betrays his religious convictions and in penance constructs another robot, which he fills only with the good parts of himself before erasing the corresponding parts of his own brain. The robots curse by saying “BSOD,” which is adorable.
They also behave like thinking machines, rather than just like humans with metal plates — they are not anthropomorphized. Anyone who has ever worked much with computers knows that they follow a bizarrely strict logic which can make them infuriatingly thick, even as they can do many things much faster and better than we can. This leads to complicated machines being brought to their knees by misplaced commas in programming, and Primordia’s robots think very much along these lines.
At one point, a soldier-robot whose platoon was destroyed by a city’s defenses immediately submits himself to that city’s authorities to be punished for damaging their property. He then waits in line for months or years to see the local judge, even though it would be clear to any human being that the judge is not coming out to see him. He waits because he’s been told to wait — he doesn’t have a sense that tells him this is ridiculous, or that he should question the procedure, because he’s a robot, and robots think explicitly in procedures.
Primordia further makes excellent use of unreliable narrators. You learn early that any exposition comes with a political motivation — the “official” story differs from the various stories told by individual citizens. Did this robot choose to be deactivated to save power for the city? Was he cruelly murdered by a would-be tyrant? Or did he willingly enter hibernation, biding his time until he chooses to strike? It reminds us that narratives matter more than the truth, and that how we choose to structure and process historical facts speaks to our own desires and allegiances and preconceptions.
You may have noticed that I’ve spent very little time so far talking about Primordia qua “game.” This is because I’m not sure how best to evaluate it in that regard. The game is full of great fiction and ideas and fascinating characters, but I spent most of my time with the thing frustratedly trying to solve puzzles quickly so that I could get back to them.
Primordia is an adventure game of the old school, much more like Monkey Island than The Walking Dead. The interface is simpler, but the pixel art and structure of the game are deliberately intended to invoke a particular nostalgia. I can’t speak to how well it works in that regard because I didn’t actually play any of those games. Whenever I try now to play Dig or LOOM, I am seized by a deep ambivalence — I love the ideas, and am utterly repulsed by the engine and the minute-to-minute puzzles.
For all that I am supposedly a “smart person” I don’t much like puzzle games. Finishing Myst felt less like a victory than it did like I’d been released from a concentration camp. I do enjoy puzzles of the “here are all the variables — permute to success” variety — the Magic: The Puzzling sections of MTG games or Hero Academy’s challenge modes really do it for me — but adventure games are never quite honest about what all the pieces are. More than once I discovered the solution to a puzzle in Primordia involved some other object hidden far away that I simply hadn’t found yet.
I’m not sure that my wholly subjective dislike for out-of-the-box thinking is a valid criticism of the game or the adventure genre. It’s wholly permissible for it to just be Not My Sort Of Thing, but Primorida’s puzzles felt largely perfunctory. With the exception of one pretty neat computer terminal word puzzle towards the end of the game, I was rarely interested in the puzzles themselves save as obstacles to the next bit of plot or character development.
The smartass thing might be to say something like “why is this even a game when it could have been a novel,” but I understand why it’s a game. Moving through the world of Primordia and uncovering its secrets as an active participant in the world is fascinating, and it longs to be interactive. I want to go back to Metropol again, explore more of its hidden alleyways and get to know its citizens. Moving through the gamespace as some kind of digital flaneur feels exactly right. I quite enjoyed the follow-up graphic novella they put out this month, but while it may have been more internally coherent, it lacked the wonderful sense of discovery that characterizes Primordia because I wasn’t the one making the decisions.
But playing the puzzles of Primordia feels bizarre — I’m never sure why, in the grand sense, I’m doing any of what I’m doing. Perhaps it’s the obsessive hunting through dark corners for useful things that encourages players to find all the wonderful little worldbuilding details. Or, more likely, Primordia was conceived as “let’s make an adventure game with cool pixel art that’s about robots,” and all the fiction came later.
There’s nothing wrong with that at all, and perhaps to an adventure game connoisseur, Primordia is more engaging as a series of puzzles. I don’t know enough to fully appreciate good scotch, either. But my uninitiated self had a walkthrough open by the halfway mark, and never closed it again.
This weird tension between “game” and “story” is one of the most fascinating things about games as a medium. Usually I find the relationship is reversed: I adore Gears of War’s mechanics, but can’t bring myself to give the slightest hint of a damn about the story or characters. Folks like to talk about ludonarrative dissonance — where rules and narrative argue with each other — but this problem is more like ludonarrative compartmentalization: they just don’t have much to do with each other.
So what does this mean for some kind of overall evaluation of Primordia or another game like it? Do you weight certain elements over others? Do you just completely refuse to answer a question like “Is Primordia good?” It feels disingenuous to simply subdivide the two and say “The story is good but the gameplay is mediocre,” because it’s very hard to draw a harsh line between the two.
Regardless, I found Primordia very much worth playing, even as I was frustrated with it at times. I think it’s worth the occasionally annoying puzzles to see the wonderful world and characters within. Primordia is a good piece of science fiction, and a person more patient than I will probably get more out of the “gamier” parts. I’m glad of the time I spent in Primordia, and I’ll happily recommend it to anyone who asks.