I’m not usually particularly taken with post-apocalyptic narratives, but maybe that’s because, until recently, I’d never played a game from Wadjet Eye. Earlier this year, I played Shardlight, a game that was refreshing in how decidedly human its tale of “life after the bombs fell” is; it was a game not afraid to court and critique the “gritty” hopelessness typical of cataclysm stories with a cast of interesting, complex and vivacious characters that exuded a sense of life even in a lifeless world.
Primordia, in contrast, is a bleak and depressing adventure, much more in line with the usual post-apocalyptic fair (this could be explained an older game than Shardlight, and is developed by Wormwood Studios, with Wadjet publishing). That said, the philosophical and literary underpinnings make it far more interesting than the genre’s standard theme of “the world is garbage and people are the worst.”
First and foremost, there are no people at all in Primordia – it’s a game cast entirely with robots. You play as Horatio Nullbuilt, a stoic, hermit-like ‘bot who lives in a crashed plane in the wastelands with his companion, Crispin Horatiobuilt. For reasons unknown even to Horatio himself, he has a deep-seated loathing of Metropol, a city famed for being a paradise for robots, but he and Crispin are forced to make there way there when a strange assailant steals his power core. As you can probably imagine, Metropol is hardly the paradise it’s been made out to be, and Horatio and Crispin get roped into trying to fix a broken city, learning the mysteries of Horatio’s past in the process.
It’s an interesting story filled with wonderful characters, but like I said before, it’s the subtext that really makes Primordia work. If the name Horatio didn’t give it away, the game draws on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and even though this isn’t the authorial intent, it could even be read as a loose retelling. Horatio Nullbuilt is, of course, Horatio, and he has a similarly stoic, logical disposition to that of Prince Hamlet’s best friend. In Hamlet, Horatio is a minor character that serves as a foil to the prince; Horatio Nullbuilt plays a similar role in relation to the eccentric characters around him, but being the central puts an interesting spin on this idea.
Hamlet, King Claudius, Ophelia, and Polonius all have characters in Primordia that mirror them to some degree, and there’s even a pair of of fools that vaguely resemble Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their antics. I’m not familiar enough with Shakespeare to speak to the thematic connections between Hamlet and Primordia (though that is an article I would love to read), but this game very much has the feel of a Shakespearean tragedy in post-apocalyptic science-fiction dressing.
What I’m much more comfortable addressing is Primordia’s religious theme. It may seem odd that religion plays any part in a game populated entirely with robots, but that’s the point – Primordia cleverly subverts the common sci-fi trope of robots being logical to a fault, and the end result is intriguing.
In Primordia’s world, there’s a sect of robots called themselves Humanists, who worship Man, the All-Builder. The allegory to Christianity here is clear as day: Man, responsible for creating robots in his image, takes the role of God, and is worshipped as such. Horatio is one such Humanist, and so you can read some of their literature among his possessions; the passage is analogous to the Bible’s book of Genesis, albeit from a robot’s perspective, even as it hints at mankind’s violent end, as per the Book of Revelation, which can clearly be seen in the game’s wasteland setting.
So often in fiction, robots are written as logic and reason taken to their zenith, free from the need to believe in or worship a higher power. Horatio’s faith, in contrast, is a core part of his being and, depending on which of the dozen or so endings you choose, it plays a significant role in the outcome of the game. Contrast this to MetroMind, the ruler of Metropol who has outright banned Humanism in the city. She’s something of a pastiche of the logical robot trope, taken to a nihilistic and – ironically – dogmatic extreme.
There’s plenty to read into all of this, but to me it speaks to a fundamental truth about faith: the “truth” is irrelevant; it’s the act of believing that matters. Primordia’s Humanists worship and revere mankind and there’s power in that, even if humanity’s true form, responsible for the destruction of the world, is anything but godly. Does it really matter if God is “real”, in a scientific sense, if your faith is something that supports and uplifts you?
If that all sounds a bit heavy and philosophical, fear not – Primordia has plenty of comic relief and carefree entertainment, too. Crispin is a constant source of joy, whether he’s complaining about not having arms, trying to flirt with another floating robot sidekick, or saving the day. The best part is that you can use Crispin as an item (and often will need to), which means there are lots of great sound bites to find by trying to use him on objects he can’t interact with. When Primordia isn’t being hilarious, it’s being exciting, heartrending, or just downright beautiful, but if you do enjoy that more philosophical bent (as I clearly do), it’s there to be found.
This all takes place within a classic point-and-click adventure game that, depending on your perspective and tolerance of “moon logic”, will either excite or frustrate you. Item-based logic puzzles are plentiful, and though there’s nothing too obtuse, you might want to consider bringing a walkthrough if you’re only here for the story. The user interface shows its age as well, especially compared to Shardlight’s much sleeker design. The process for actually using an item, such a core aspect of a game like this, is unwieldy: you have to open the inventory tab and select your item, which then puts it into the item slot on your top-of-screen status bar; then, finally, you can use it. I know it’s a newer game, but Shardlight’s simplified inventory is a lot more convenient.
Minor UI faults aside, Primordia is a great game. The writing is top-notch, the art and music are beautiful, the puzzles are clever. More importantly, it’s wonderful to see such a thought-provoking, interesting take on a genre as tired as post-apocalypse, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Wormwood Studios and Wadjet Eye will do next.
Edit: Corrected the name of the villain – it's MetroMind, not MegaMind.