Gears Grinding in the Dunes 1

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.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!

One thought on “Gears Grinding in the Dunes

  • Oscar Strik (@qwallath)

    Thanks, Bill! At first I was sort of turned off by other reviews regard­ing the obtuse adven­ture game mechan­ics. I *did* play Monkey Island et al. as a kid, but over the years the mechan­ics haven’t always aged that well. However, you do a great job of sell­ing the story and the world in the game, so now I do look for­ward to play­ing it — just picked it up at the GOG sum­mer sale.

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