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RPG Codex Interview: Primordia, Point-and-Click Adventure Inspired by Fallout and Planescape

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RPG Codex Interview: Primordia, Point-and-Click Adventure Inspired by Fallout and Planescape

Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Wed 31 October 2012, 13:07:46

Tags: Mark Yohalem; Primordia; Wadjet Eye Games; Wormwood Studios

RPG Codex unironically loves Wadjet Eye Games. We even did an interview with Dave Gilbert just a couple of years ago. With such titles as The Shivah, the Blackwell series, Gemini Rue and Resonance, Wadjet Eye proves that independent adventure games can not only be good, but also breathe new life into the genre. That's why we're looking forward to Primordia, an upcoming adventure game published by Wadjet Eye and scheduled for release this December, especially since it is inspired by such classic CRPGs as Fallout and Planescape: Torment.

Although published by Wadjet Eye, the game is being developed by Wormwood Studios. Among other things, it features unique art by Victor Pflug and voice acting by Logan Cunningham, the narrator of Bastion. From my own time with the preview build, those looking for a unique and atmospheric adventure game will find plenty to love with Primordia. With its compelling art direction and its narrative depth inspired by Planescape: Torment, Primordia is definitely one to watch.

In this interview, we chat to Mark Yohalem, Primordia's designer/writer, about the game and its inspirations and features, including its ties to the RPG genre.

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Please introduce Primordia to our readers. What is the game about, what kind of world is it set in, and what character(s) do we get to play as?

Primordia is about a reclusive robot named Horatio who ekes out an existence by scavenging the wastelands around him, with the help of his sarcastic companion Crispin. Horatio's dream is to repair an airship called the UNNIIC (pronounced "unique"), in which he and Crispin live. That goal, and his very survival, is jeopardized when a robot smashes his way into the ship, declares it "forfeit," shoots Horatio, ignominiously throws him out of the ship, and then steals the ship's power core and floats off into the Dunes. Since Horatio and Crispin need electricity to survive, they have to find an alternative power source or recover the one stolen from them.

As you might expect if you've played the original Fallout, things turn out to be less simple than just finding a missing part, though we never veer into the "save the world from the demonlord and his army of orcs" scenario that Fallout has. Rather, I would say that that Primordia has a much more personal story, along the lines of Planescape: Torment.

As for the world of Primordia, it's one populated entirely by robots. These robots have seen better days, and most of them are eccentric if not outright insane. You meet characters ranging from tiny machines the size of bugs to god-like automated factories as big as an entire city. The environments form a post-apocalyptic, post-organic setting: junkpiles, rusting cities; crumbling edifices; giant, buried robots; leaking subway tunnels; and so on.

Aesthetically -- and here I can't speak as well as the game's artist, Victor Pflug -- it's a different kind of post-apocalyptic vision than what you've seen before. Fallout has a sort of 1950s retro-futurism; Bioshock has a 1930s art-deco retro-futurism; things like Mad Max or Terminator just have a kind of industrial-waste / desert futurism. To the extent you can stick a label on this, it's art nouveau mixed with HR Giger motifs (though Giger himself seems inspired by Gaudi, who was arguably part of the art noveau movement). So you have these elaborate, almost organic stylings that are crumbling apart, revealing their inorganic, mechanical core.

This is probably a case where screenshots will do better than my words.​

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Why did you decide to make a game like Primordia, and what inspired its concept?

Victor Pflug came up with the basic idea before I was involved in the project. He's a circuit bender and aspiring roboticist, so he wanted to make a game about robots. He had the visual style in mind -- the broken down machines and rococo environments -- and those, I think, came from his background in mechanical tinkering and mural painting. I know he was also somewhat inspired by Beneath a Steel Sky.

When I came on board, there weren't really characters, or themes, or a story. I started riffing off Vic's art and concepts, and in so doing, I kept coming back to the first stanza of a poem, "The Inheritors," that I read when I was really young:

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.
In the man-pit of night
We fought for light;
And with faith in fission
Lit one blaze too bright.
The world will never see such flames again,
Nor know the dream and worth that was in men.​

Anyway, Vic's basic framework and the poem merged in my mind with the idea of exploring what a post-human robotic world would be like. What would the robots think about humans? How would they use -- and squander? -- the civilization they inherited? Why did human civilization end? How would that affect the robots? One thing that I knew I didn't want is a kind of Terminator / Matrix vision of the future where robots rose up and overthrew humans and now do nothing other than steeple their fingers and cackle about it. So there's no uprising, no overthrow, and no cackling.

In terms of why I wanted to work on an adventure: twenty years ago, when I was 12, I tried to make a graphical adventure game with a friend of mine. We failed. Every couple years since then, I tried again, and failed again. I wouldn't quite say that making a point-and-click was on my bucket list, but it was something I really wanted to do.​

Apart from telling a story, video games often explore a particular theme or set of themes. What are some of the themes you aim to explore with Primordia?

The big ones are: independence vs. collectivism (and, relatedly, the nature of freedom and free will); religion vs. materialism; creation vs. destruction; justice vs. mercy; and -- dare I say it to the Codex -- decline.

Regarding decline: Post-apocalyptic settings are actually pretty common in gaming, but typically games starts at the point where things have bottomed out and are getting better. For example, the hardscrabble towns you see in Fallout have become a fairly advanced nation state by Fallout 2. In Primordia, you're still on the downward slope. While there are ways for the game to end on an optimistic note, it's not like you've saved the world or even arrested its decline. More like there's a small bubble of hope in a tub of water that's rushing down the drain.

Regarding the other themes: Basically, I hate games that take a strong philosophical or political position (like "corporations are evil!") and then just rig the plot to showcase why that position is true. In Primordia, Horatio has certain views on the themes in the game -- he values independence and he religiously venerates Man the All-Builder -- and so, to some extent, the player is going to take Horatio's side. But the other side gets to make its arguments persuasively, and Horatio is shown to be wrong in many ways. I don't think the player is going to come away thinking, "The creators of Primordia rigged the whole thing to show that the ideal lifestyle is to be like Clint Eastwood in Gran Turino, only really religious." We're hoping they come away thinking that they're no easy answers, just hard choices, as players came away from Planescape: Torment.​

Primordia is an adventure game, but it has also been inspired by such RPGs as Fallout and Planescape: Torment. What is it about Primordia that may be attractive to RPG fans?

Well, that depends what you mean by "RPG fans." Primordia shares nothing in common with, say, Nethack. In terms of gameplay, it shares very little with the traditional combat-based / character-progression RPGs (like Wizardry, Might & Magic, or the Gold Box games). An RPG fan who's exclusively into that kind of gameplay isn't going to find any in Primordia.

But in general, I think there's a lot for RPG fans to like. Some fans -- for whom the Codex forums have a pejorative term -- play RPGs for the story; obviously, for those folks, Primordia has a lot to offer: varied characters, rich themes, deep backstory, and a twisting plot. Primordia also uses a menu-based dialogue system that will be familiar to RPG players, and it has a fair amount of choice and consequence -- not as much as a good RPG should, but more than many a bad RPG has in practice.

Also, like a good RPG, Primordia typically offers a few different ways to tackle puzzles. One minor puzzle, for example, requires you to clean the rust off some gears. You can solve this by tricking a character into walking off so that you can steal the oil he's drinking (which can clean the rust), or by having a companion bully a different character into cleaning the rust for you, or by carefully observing the environment to find some rust-eating submarine robots that -- like cleaner fish in a reef -- can pick the gears clean. I would think that this diversity of solutions would appeal to RPG fans, though of course in a good RPG these options would involve stat- and skill-checks, which we don't have.

In terms of why Codexers in particular might like it -- in working on Primordia, I was heavily inspired by PS:T and FO. Those are well-loved here.​

As an aside, apart from Fallout and Planescape: Torment, what are some of your favorite RPGs? Do they also influence Primordia in any way?

That's a kind of "other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" question, since those are far and away my favorites. That said, I really liked Mask of the Betrayer, and Primordia has a series of puzzle where you have to clear a line at a courthouse that is reminiscent of the Coveya Kurg'annis sequence in MotB. Otherwise . . . I guess my love of multiple solutions dates back to escaping the slave pit in Darksun: Shattered Lands, so maybe there's that. Can't think of much else.​

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You mention Primordia will have a party of characters. How is it going to work, gameplay-wise?

From the outset, Crispin is there as a companion. He follows you around, and you can order him to do things (i.e., by using him on things). He also behaves autonomously, floating around, looking at things, commenting on the environment, and generally being sarcastic. In drawing on the floating sidekick archetype, I was thinking of Zzyzzx in Sacrifice, Cedric in King's Quest V, and Orko in He-Man. But most of all -- as I think any Codexer will immediately recognize -- Crispin is inspired by Morte.

Crispin also functions as a built-in hint system. If a player wants, Crispin can give light (and increasingly strong) hints after you've failed to advance for a certain period of time. (The increasingly strong hints follows the concept of the Universal Hint System files from back in the day, where you'd get a general hint, then more and more precise ones.) You can also click on Crispin to have him give you a hint, though if you bug him too often, he'll brush you off and tell you to figure things out for yourself.

I realize that some Codexers may view this as "dumbing down" the game, but I strongly disagree. Having Crispin serve this function lets us to have challenging puzzles without causing less adept players to run for walkthroughs. Once a player opens a walkthrough, you've lost him forever: any time he's stuck for a minute, he'll load it back up, and every time he alt-tabs out of your game, he's ruined the atmosphere you've labored to create. By giving subtle nudges, we can keep the player from leaving the game in frustration. (The alternative, I suppose, would be to have stupidly easy puzzles, but to hell with that.)

Later in the game, a second character joins the party. That character follows you around and autonomously helps with certain obstacles, but -- unlike Crispin -- cannot be ordered to do things. Unlike with Crispin, when you click on this character you get a dialogue sequence kind of like the companion dialogues in MotB or a Bioware game.​

Another feature of Primordia is choices and consequences leading to multiple endings. What kind of choices can we expect to make, and in what ways are they going to lead up to the different endings? Are there going to be multiple routes through the game?

Many -- most, maybe? -- of the puzzles have multiple solutions. When these puzzles relate to a character in the game, the solution you pick tends to have some light consequences in the ending. For example, there is a very religious hermit robot you meet early in the game. If you impress him with your own devotion to the creed, then he plays a small role in one of the endings. If you blunder through his test of faith, though, he gives you a different -- fairly easy -- quest to solve as penance. You can still advance (we have no dead-ends, walking dead, or player death sequences in the game), but he won't be there in that ending I mentioned. There are probably a dozen such consequential choices in the game, i.e., choices that don't radically change the course of the game, but are evident in the endings.

There are also a couple of really big mid-game consequential choices -- their impact is not immediately obvious -- that transform how the finale can play out.

Finally, near the end of the game, there are a couple of consequential choices that determine which endings are available to you. Then -- at the very end -- the way you resolve the final sequence determines what ending you get. I suppose that's choice and consequence, but it's really just ending-selection, which I consider a pretty cheap kind of choice. That said, the endings are really varied, and all beautifully painted by Vic. Since multiple endings are pretty rare in adventure games, the fact that we have around ten different endings (with various permutations) seems like a big deal.

As for multiple paths -- it really depends what you mean. Geographically, the answer is really no. In all likelihood, every player will go through the same rooms, although there are a handful of optional areas. But in terms of how you pass through that geography, the answer is yes. One of the big end-game puzzles involves assembling a code from different fragments (*cough*Bioware*cough*). There are three possible fragments you can get, but -- if you're good enough at code breaking -- you can solve it with only two fragments. Each fragment entails a fairly lengthy line of puzzles, so players' paths can diverge here quite a bit. (In fact, players can solve the game without going into a four-room area containing several puzzles and a complex character interaction.) So there's that.

At the end of the day, though, I don't think adventure games tend to have branching paths, just from an economy standpoint. The exceptions to this are the fantastic Quest for Glory games, which are really adventure-RPG hybrids, and the Indiana Jones games, which stand out in this regard.​

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Tricky puzzles have always been a staple of adventure games. What is your approach to puzzle design in Primordia? How difficult do you want the puzzles to be?

Starting with the last question: To paraphrase an apocryphal Einstein quote: "As hard as possible, but not harder."

To be less glib, there are really two tiers of puzzles in an adventure. You want some puzzles that are relatively easy, in order to give the player stuff to do while still advancing the story at a decent clip. (These include very simple tasks like picking up items, finding obvious hotspots to use them on, combining items in predictable ways, trading one item to an NPC for another, picking dialogue options, etc.) Then you want some puzzles that are quite hard, in order to give the player a real sense of accomplishment when he passes them. With the latter category, the thing you're really hoping for is a "Eureka" moment when the player realizes he's been looking at an obstacle the wrong way and suddenly understands how to overcome it.

Wadjet Eye -- the publisher -- gave us some push-back about having puzzles that were "quite hard," simply because Wadjet Eye has done a great job of bringing in less hardcore players and didn't want to alienate them. But with our integrated hint system, we can keep the difficulty high without making players quit. A tester said something that made me immensely happy came after he passed the first hard-type puzzle in the game: "I think the game just trolled me!" That's a Eureka moment, kind of.

With both types of puzzles, our goal has been to maintain an internal coherence to the world and the characters. Because Horatio collects scrap and repairs machines to survive, it's reasonable for him to vacuum up items and combine them. So that helps keep puzzles from being idiotic from a character standpoint (as they are in, say, The Longest Journey). We also like to use tactile interfaces. So when you need to replace two parts of an emergency generator, you see the generator zoomed in, find the spots the parts slot in, and use them there. You don't just drop them on a hotspot called "emergency generator" and let the game solve it for you.

The nature of the game also lets us have a couple of what everyone derisively calls "Tower of Hanoi" puzzles without breaking logic. For example, at one point Horatio has to rewire an engine. This is a "logic puzzle" (like Tower of Hanoi) but it's also a logical puzzle because, in fact, wiring an engine requires you to connect the wires in a certain way. In designing these puzzles, it helps that the coder (Jim Spanos) is an electrical engineer, Vic is an electronics tinkerer, and I'm a weird person. For example, in a pinch, I once dealt with a wasp infestation by covering my hands with socks, linking up some lengths of PVC piping, putting a T-joint at the end, wadding the holes of the T-joint with ammonia-soaked rags (to cleanse the wasp pheromones), and then smashing the wasp nest with my 15-foot ammonia hammer. In essence, I live in Jane Jensen's world.​

One of Primordia's selling points is its voice acting, featuring Logan Cunningham, the Bastion narrator. How did you get him on board - and how important do you believe voice acting to be in an adventure game?

Wadjet Eye handled most of the voice acting, so they deserve the credit for landing Logan. Vic also found a few excellent voice actors.

I used to think that voice acting was not essential, except to give flavor here and there. But with an adventure game, there's a lot less dialogue than in an RPG, so it's not too burdensome to have it all voiced. That said, bad voice acting ruins a game. I still cringe when I think about the Chinese street merchant in Dreamfall (or was it The Longest Journey?), or really any of the voice acting in European adventure games.​

Primordia features some highly distinctive art. Can you tell us about Victor Pflug, the artist on Primordia, and how you got to cooperate with him on the game?

Well Vic recruited me as a writer-designer, not vice versa, so that's how I got to cooperate with him. He's Australian and he's got a background in traditional art -- oil painting, murals, things like that. I think he also does graffiti. He's been doing pixel art for a long time, too. In fact, before we started collaborating on Primordia, I saw some of his pixel art for Project Zion (a defunct TBS game) on the RPG Codex forum.​

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Primordia is being published by Wadjet Eye Games but developed by Wormwood Studios. What is the size of your company and how did it come about? Is Primordia your first game?

Wormwood is Vic (artist), me (writer/designer), and Jim (coder). There's also a composer and sound guy, Nathaniel Chambers, but he's really a contractor working for Wadjet Eye, even though his role on Primordia is pretty significant. Jim and Vic have both worked on a lot of independent games before. I've worked as a writer on a handful of published games, including Kohan II, Axis & Allies, Heroes of Newerth, and Savage 2. I also worked on Dragon Age: Origins, although I believe that what I wrote for Dragon Age was entirely cut (it was an origin quest involving a barbarian character, and then an encounter with a blind, racist human who didn't realize he was being cared for by an elf). Since I work full-time as a lawyer, I couldn't commit to moving to Edmonton for Bioware, and we parted ways.

Our next intended project is a text-heavy, heavily randomized space opera RPG in the vein of Star Control 2 and Weird Worlds. I've been working on the design to it in a serious way for five years, and off and on since I was 12 or so.​

With such titles as Gemini Rue, Resonance and the Blackwell series, Wadjet Eye Games has become one of the leading indie adventure game studios. How did you get in contact with them, and how would you describe Primordia's place in WEG's existing catalogue?

I think Primordia is different from WEG's existing catalogue. Most of WEG's games take place in the real world, or, in the case of Gemini Rue, a futuristic setting that is still supposed to feel real-worldish. Primordia is much more fantastical. Also -- I say this not having played all of WEG's games, or actually any of them to conclusion -- I think Primordia is a bit more thematic, or, if you're being critical, thematically heavy handed. I don't think it's possible to play Primordia without realizing that it's a game about independence vs. collectivism, religion vs. materialism, etc., whereas you can play the other WEG games purely on a surface level. It's not that they don't have themes, it's just that they're not as important.

In terms of how we linked up, I believe Dave Gilbert, the head of WEG, contacted Vic; maybe vice versa.​

What is your take on the current state of the adventure game genre? Are there any trends that are worrisome to you or that you particularly appreciate?

God, I really don't know. I think the adventure genre is really fragmented: you've got the indie (mostly Adventure Game Studio) crowd, who tend to produce a few well-crafted but fairly short games each year; you've got the European developers, who produce beautiful and long but very flawed games, typically with horrible localization; you've got Telltale's licensed products; and now you've got Kickstarter projects from all the old big-names in the industry. I suppose it's a very exciting time. That said, it's a little worrisome that the current renaissance is largely fueled by recycling existing IPs (Telltale) or resuscitating genre icons (the Kickstarter projects). That smacks of genre decadence to me, but better decadence than death, I guess.

If you'd asked me the same question when we started Primordia, I would have been very negative. I really disliked Dreamfall -- there's a long negative review of it on your forums that pretty much hits everything I would say (though the review's a little strong on the political stuff). [Editor's note: I assume Mark means this review. - CB.] So Dreamfall's critical acclaim was as depressing as when everyone loved Gabriel Knight 2. There's a strong impulse among adventure game fans to praise "games" that are really semi-interactive movies. But adventure games are games, not movies. As movies, they're poorly written, poorly acted, sloppily paced, and hopelessly derivative. As games, they can be sublime -- take Monkey Island 2, Grim Fandango, Quest for Glory, Loom, Space Quest IV. For them to be sublime requires utilizing the game framework, not running away from it.​

Is Primordia still scheduled for this Fall? What are the things still left for you to do before release?

Technically speaking, the last day of Fall is December 20. (Who knew it went so late?) Barring some catastrophe, we will release before then, probably during the first week of December. Substantively, all that's left to do is put in a little bit more voice acting, a few more sound effects, one or two more pieces of music, and a tiny bit of art. That's probably a week's work. After that, it's just a matter of testing and polishing.​

Thank you for your time.

To learn more about the game, you can visit Primordia's official website.

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