Adventure Game Studio (AGS) is an aging engine that is becoming more obsolete as competing development platforms (such as the Unity-based ones) improve on their versatility while being affordable or even freely licensed. Still, developers like Wadjet Eye continue to make use of AGS, if only because it is one of very development tools left that could readily make games with the feel of the Sierra and LucasArts years.
Primordia is perhaps the most skilled use of AGS thus far. Having skilled writers and artists also makes for impressive presentation and storytelling, at least for a game that harks backs to bygone eras.
Primordia takes place in a post-apocalyptic future of Earth, though this is not clear at first. Which region of the world that it takes place in is not clear too, and remains so at the end of the game (though this omission ultimately does not matter).
Humanity is revealed to be no longer around; only sapient and non-sapient machines are left, and they are not much better off without their creators around. The robots have to scrounge, scavenge, and do whatever they could to slow down the dwindling of resources. This slow demise is mainly in part due to their lack of versatility, initiative and/or vision.
The game begins with the introduction of Horatio and his helper robot, Crispin. It is just one day in their very long project to restore the airship that is their place of origin. On that day though, a terse and well-armed robot breached the airship, and took its power core.
Thus begins the duo’s quest to regain their possession. However, along the way, Horatio learns more about his origins and the predicament of other robots.
By the time of this game, Wadjet Eye has already published games that were conceived by people other than Dave Gilbert. In the case of Primordia, the creator is Mark Yohalem, who is actually a lawyer.
The differences between his works and Dave Gilbert are not noticeable at first; they have similar styles in starting their stories, namely beginning with the motivations of the characters first before moving on to the backstory. The differences begin to show later, especially if the player has turned on the commentary by the developers of the game.
For example, Yohalem is notably critical about other games – especially Dreamfall, which is perhaps the adventure game IP with the biggest budget ever at this time of writing. In fact, he has directed some puzzles and story exposition based on his criticisms about Dreamfall.
For better or worse, Yohalem’s experience as a lawyer seeps into this game. There are some logic puzzles where the wording is very precise and there are characters that expound on the legality of the actions carried out by certain characters.
Although lawyer-type characters are not new in video games, there were few that are well-regarded; this is mainly because of how rigid they are, or how scurrilous they are. Incidentally, these characters were made by people who are not exactly knowledgeable about the legal profession, beyond the usual (and often unflattering) stereotypes.
The characters that are lawyerly in this game will not break those stereotypes; these are indeed characters that either rigidly follow the law to the letter or who are opportunistic in its interpretation. On the other hand, Yohalem has intended them to be more serious representations of these archetypes, albeit they will never be believable because they are robots that are subjected to their core programming.
Furthermore, these are characters that are important to the story instead of being the referential jokes and/or the troublesome obstacles that lawyerly characters tend to be in adventure games.
(On a side note, George Stobbart of Broken Sword may be a lawyer, but his profession is rarely a major part of the stories that he is in.)
Most adventure game titles end with just one outcome, mainly due to the commitment to a specific design direction by their creators.
In the case of this game, there are more than half a dozen permutations. Some are similar to each other, but the dissimilarities between the ones that are not variations of each other are considerable. Indeed, they were meant to give the player an impression of choice in how the story would end.
Of course, most of these endings are the sort that involves pressing one of the proverbial buttons that are presented to the player, i.e. the player’s earlier decisions (such as in most of the puzzles with alternative solutions) do not matter much. (There will be more on the puzzles with alternative solutions later.)
However, at least two of the endings require the player to have been careful about limiting damage in a certain early-game scenario. Peculiarly though, this enables endings where Horatio can choose to be quite destructive.
DEDICATED BUTTON FOR CRISPIN:
This article now moves on to gameplay-related matters.
The part of the user interface for bringing up the inventory and recorded data also includes a button that is dedicated to the use of Crispin on things.
However, the button is mostly there to remind the player that Crispin is … there. As Crispin would point out, having no arms means that he will not be of much help in most situations.
CRISPIN IS VERY SLOW:
Unfortunately, Crispin also moves very slowly, despite having a mag-lev hover-unit. Of course, there is an excuse for this (which is implied early on in the game). More importantly, his slowness does not matter much in scenarios where his help is not needed.
HORATIO AND FOLLOWERS NEED TO GET INTO POSITION:
However, there is the matter of initiating actions that make progress through the game. When these actions happen, Horatio and his followers must get into specific spots in the scene. These moments are when Crispin’s slowness becomes tiresome.
NPCS CAN GET UPSET:
Some adventure games have the player character trying to say the right things to an NPC. In these conversations, there are options that are not the correct ones; selecting these options would elicit a denial or refusal from the NPC.
The problem in most of these games is that the NPC would just give the player character a second chance and more, until the correct options are selected. Whimsical games have the excuse of having the NPC be a zany or just outright stupid person. However, games with more serious settings do not have this excuse; if this convenience occurs, it can seem very unbelievable.
Primordia has a serious setting, and there are occasions in which Horatio and his allies must convince other people. However, saying the wrong things can upset or disappoint those NPCs; they will not give the protagonist a second chance. In other words, the solution that involves convincing them is closed off permanently.
Yet, there are alternative solutions to problems that could be solved by convincing someone. Alternative solutions allow the player to make progress, though they could only be pursued after either flubbing the default solution, or by picking certain dialogue options that enable the pursuit of the alternative solutions.
Alternative solutions are a rarity in adventure games, so their inclusion in this game is much commendable. However, the player should not expect most of them to have much of an impact in the story; only one of these scenarios does, specifically for the aforementioned endings.
Perhaps the most interesting technical element of the gameplay is the implementation of sub-windows. These appear when Horatio examines something, allowing the artist of the game to include close-up views of that something. This is also used for puzzle solving; in one case, the programmer implemented a line-tracing mini-game.
This is, of course, not new to anyone that has been playing a lot of adventure games. Sub-windows were in Machinarium, and were used to much greater effect and sophistication in that game.
Still, that the programmer could implement this in an AGS game is no small feat, considering how unstable AGS can get if additional code is added beyond the standard stock.
Some adventure games have puzzles/obstacles where the player character needs to enter a code. Most of these games handle these puzzles in a clumsy manner, namely having the player click on on-screen buttons; this is slow and laborious. This limitation is mainly there because the programmers for the game could not figure out how to incorporate keyboard inputs for the computer versions of the games, or don’t have the willingness to do so.
Fortunately, Primordia is one of those titles that do allow keyboard entry, in addition to having the usual array of on-screen buttons to click on. On the other hand, the player is not told that keyboard entry is possible.
Of course, this feat might not seem like a feat at all; plenty of games feature control inputs via keyboard entry. The point worthy of note here is that this game is made with Adventure Game Studio, which is primitive compared to much more versatile development tools such as (and especially) Unity.
Voice-overs have always been the forte of Wadjet Eye titles; Primordia is one of two games that would very much establish this reputation.
In particular, Dave Gilbert has managed to obtain the services of Logan Cunningham, who has made his mark in the video game field by being the narrator of much-acclaimed Bastion. His performance in this game befits the personality of Horatio, who has a dry wit but is otherwise serious most of the time. Abe Goldfarb, as Crispin, is a wonderful foil to Logan’s character.
There are other notable voice talents and characters of course, such as Sarah Elmaleh, who proves her versatility by voicing Clarity the stern enforcer of law. Indeed, looking at the cast of the game, many characters are voiced by people who have considerable portfolios in voice-acting. Gilbert’s network has certainly grown a lot.
As for Gilbert, he – of course – voices tertiary characters who don’t have names for the sake of cost-effectiveness.
MUSIC & SOUND EFFECTS:
In the year that this game came out in – which was 2012 – Thomas Regin was preoccupied with other things. In the case of Primordia, this is just as well, because Regin’s jazz compositions would not have matched the setting of the game.
Rather, it is Nathaniel Chambers who composed the music and sound effects of the game. That said, Primordia is perhaps the best sounding Wadjet Eye title that I have played.
There is considerable ambient sounds, such as the hisses of vapors escaping piping and the hum of machinery. These are not overpowered by the music too, and in some cases, complement it quite well. For example, the first chapter of the game has sighing winds that go together with the forlorn music.
Being a game with sci-fi settings, one would expect obviously sci-fi sound effects like the zinging of lasers and pew-pew of energy blasters. Fortunately, there are no cheesy sound effects in this game. Rather, the player would hear sounds that are worldlier, such as the crackle of welding. Still, there are some noises that are obviously unbelievable, such as the hum that Crispin makes as he floats around. (By the way, the robots do ascribe to genders.)
AGS titles greatly depend on the caliber of the artists that make the artwork for their backgrounds, foregrounds and sprites. For one, the artists have to make sprites with facings that match the angle of the backgrounds, lest the sprites look out of place.
In the case of this game, little-known Victor Pflug contributed the art for this game. For a little-known artist though, the artwork in Primordia is rather detailed, even after it has been rendered down to a pixelated state to match the intended presentation of the game. The cutscenes are particularly notable for having considerable detail, especially when they show close-ups of the characters.
The sprites do look a bit out of place though, especially since their lighting and shading don’t always match their surroundings in a convincing manner.
Dave Gilbert may not be working full-time anymore, but the production quality of Wadjet Eye titles has not suffered because of that. Rather, the rising profile of his company has allowed him to obtain the services of talented people, quite a number of whom who worked on Primordia. In particular, the implementation of alternative solutions and at least three overarching categories of endings make this adventure game stand out more than most others.