Part 1: Wormwood Studios Q&ASPOILERS AHEAD
Wormwood Studios Q&A
Mark Yohalem (Writing/Story Design) was kind enough to join us in the thread and talk about the game.
- The Final Fantasy II reference is a great catch, one I've been waiting for someone to get. It delights me someone did.
- The mailbot is a reference to an adventure game that Primordia's artist liked called Annie Android. (It does look a lot like Balrog from Cave Story!)
- Just noticed the 'Colossal Cave' in the Book of Man. It seems Skyroads and Mystic Towers are also game titles, but I don't know if they're being deliberately referenced there.
The references to Colossal Cave, Mystic Towers, and Skyroads are deliberate. All were games I liked when growing up (particularly Skyroads, which is nearly perfect for what it is). In terms of what "sky roads" means in game -- I try not to insist upon my vision of the lore, since I think players have the right to read into the game what they want. But at least for me, "pav[ing] sky roads" meant, more or less, developing aerial travel. I was partly drawing upon the old English kenning "sea road" (used in Beowulf), which meant a particular route to cross the ocean. I always liked the idea of thinking of a natural domain as a "road" to be crossed by things. (That said, the kenning "whale road" is even cooler.)
- Floating robots (followed by rolling robots) were hugely easier to animate than walking robots, which is one reason why Crispin floats. (The original design for Horatio was floating, too, then rolling, before I browbeat the artist (Victor Pflug) into giving me an android.)
The "original design" that you find in-game was my effort to give him the kind of things that a boy would think are cool on a robot (claws and tank treads) in keeping with Crispin's childishness and his sense of having been robbed of a fun body. Whether subconsciously or coincidentally, it turns out that the description of Crispin's original design corresponds with the initial body that Joey (the sarcastic robot sidekick) has in Beneath a Steel Sky. BASS was a strong inspiration for Vic, but not a significant inspiration for me in writing the characters or coming up with the story. But because the basic setting was something Vic came up with (and it has BASS vibes) and because the art is so reminiscent, everyone assumes that Crispin is a Joey homage. He's in fact an homage to PS:T's Morte, with a bunch of other sidekicks baked in (Orko and Zyzyx are two I commonly mention).
- Was Horatio made humanoid for players to emphasis and/or relate better with?
You're exactly right on the reasons behind making Horatio humanoid. Also, it fits with the "created in Man's image" theme of Humanism.
- It's entirely possible I was subconsciously drawing on Joey. I can say to a certainty it wasn't conscious, but I certainly played the game, and I know of at least one instance where I got a plot element because, after reading the Wikipedia entry on BASS, I realized it was too similar. But I can also say to a certainty that Crispin is heavily based on Morte, so that influence must be stronger.
Oddly enough, in his original concept, Vic wanted the lead character to be sarcastic and the sidekick to be the straight man. So in this case, whatever BASS similarity there is would've come from me, not him.
- That's a funny point about Horatio's note-taking, one I never noticed. If I wanted to try to salvage it, I would point out that Horatio says he has memories that he's lost from prior versions, but I'm not sure a beaten-up datapouch is more reliable, and it's not like he's storing critical data there. So, yeah. . . .
From a gameplay standpoint, we wanted to keep in the old-school style information-gathering puzzles, but we were worried about asking players to write stuff down because if they didn't, they could get in impossible situations. Ironically, negative reviews still claim you have to take notes manually.
- Was that dead guy they found an "android" or actually a dead human they just don't recognize as being a human?
In interviews, I've always said that it's a human that Horatio cannot recognize because he has no idea what humans are, but I suppose the player is entitled to interpret it as an android. I remember seeing a Let's Play on Youtube where the player thought he would be able to take the glass helmet off the mailbot and put it on the "android" to fix it. I hadn't even thought of someone trying to do that, but it's not crazy (and is certainly in character for Horatio, who might try to repair the robot to find out how to get into the dome). Ah well.
- Is there any life left on the planet at all? Any animals? Any plants? Bacteria? Anything at all?
Horatio never comes across any life. The "photovoric microbot" is definitively shown to be a robot, not a moth, in one ending. A character suggests that there is nothing organic left.
- Were Oswald and Cornelius a reference to The Gene Machine?
Nope, just coincidence. I never played the game, and these were characters where Vic drew them off my description, rather than me working with his existing designs.
- Was that a System Shock 2 cybernetic module (abacus) at the bottom of Leo's crate?
I think the answer is yes. I actually only played SS2 a little bit, and so I wouldn't have noticed it myself. But when Victor (the artist) originally sent me the inventory graphic with placeholder names for the items, that one was flagged as a "cybernetic module."
- Out of curiosity, how long did it take you to come up with those logic puzzles, Wormwood studios?
It varied. Coming up with the concept of the puzzles sometimes took some time, but once I had the concept, reducing it to practice wasn't that hard. What often took time was balancing the difficulty. There is a puzzle with the kiosk (I don't think we're there yet -- haven't had time to keep up with the videos) that took me a very long time to get to where people could solve it, though it still seems to stump and frustrate many players. Things like the Oswald and Cornelius one were really easy; it's just based off of a formulaic kind of puzzle administered on the admissions exam for law schools in the U.S.
- I'm getting this weird Sigil/Lady of Pain vibe from Metropol/Metromind. Wormwood, did you get any inspiration from Planescape or is this just a case of using similar tropes for similar themes?
Planescape: Torment was definitely a huge inspiration for Primordia. (Here's an interview talking about it.) The funny thing is, Horatio, Crispin, and Clarity would be the three inspired elements I'd point to initially -- I hadn't thought of Sigil/Lady of Pain. No doubt you're right, though!
- Shells. There is a junkie dimension to them, but probably zombies were the main inspiration. I know, I know!
- Turtle. Yes. Most of the random robots in Metropol are inspired by actual robots or robots from movies. Vic (the artist) has a huge reference set for robots, being an aspiring roboticist himself.
- Scraper. Yeah, he's just the muscle, not much CPU power. I've always put him somewhere between Boxer from Animal Farm and a generic "dragon" henchman (to use the TV Tropes term). I mean, the dude has a really tough job, basically doing a huge share of the repair work in the city, plus the scavenging in the Dunes, plus enforcement work. On the other hand, he does pull an amazingly asshole move when you realize that he cut a hole in the UNNIIC's hull despite there being an existing hole like 20 pixels over that's actually closer to the power core than the one he cut. I mean, what a jerk.
- It was deliberate that you witness Clarity's rigorous enforcement of the law on her little slice of the world (i.e., her island) as a dystopia of its own. (One inspiration for that feel, one that I never mentioned before, is a fantastic scene in the comic book Kingdom Come when Superman visits Gotham City, which is crime-free due to bat-drones that haunt its skies like some Ravenloft nightmare, and Batman boasts something to the effect that Superman always thought Metropolis was great and Gotham a nightmare, but now look who's been proven wrong!) At the same time, though, I am pretty fond of Clarity and have a sympathetic view towards her, perhaps because I was once a law clerk myself.
- Nothing can be done with the record. There was a time where an alternative puzzle solution for fixing the motor was to distract the repairbot by setting up the record to play at the bar, which would attract all the robots to hang out because MetroMind only permitted music during certain holidays. The whole thing was a kind of lame puzzle that would've been hugely difficult to implement well, so we dropped it. Its only real role now is for the cheap exploitative tinge of sadness from reminding the player that the humans who were wiped out included kids.
- Is Metromind possibly inspired by the phrase "At least Mussolini made the trains run on time"?
Yes. Of course, as you allude to, Mussolini didn't actually make the trains run on time. (And neither does MM!)
- The last two scenes to be implemented were the Scraper vs. 187 scene and the Scraper vs. Clarity scene. We had a real pipeline problem in the game in that I lacked the skill in the development engine (AGS) to implement my own scenes, and the coder tended to prefer very precise direction from me. The artist was so swamped with art at that point, he wasn't really engaged in the scene testing.
Ordinarily, the pipeline problem was solved with me testing the hell out of every cutscene (for example, I must've tested 10+ versions of Clarity vs. shells, playing each version a dozen times and writing multi-page-long emails). With the last two scenes, though, I was overwhelmed with handling quality assurance on everything else in the game. No one had reported that the scenes looked crappy, so I assumed they looked good. When I finally got to testing them, there wasn't time to get them great,* so we just pushed them to barely passable. (* The publisher had already locked in a release date at that point.)
Once the game was shipped, we turned to fixing the scenes, but, unfortunately, AGS is very finicky about what you can patch without corrupting saves. One of the things you cannot do is add in sound effects that are keyed to particular frames of animation. The only way to get sound right in the Clarity vs. Scraper scene would be to tie the sounds to animation frames; but that would break every save -- anyone who patched (and Steam would patch them automatically) would have to restart from the beginning.
Ultimately, we did the best we could, but the scene is inexcusably bad. I'm hoping some day to release a patch that fixes all the broken / missing stuff in the game (including an exchange between Clarity and Crispin that got inadvertently removed, which I really liked). But I'm not sure when/if that will happen: the coder is serving a mandatory year in the Greek army (about five months into it), the publisher and his wife (who are good enough AGS coders to fix it) just had a baby, and the artist has sensibly moved on to new projects. So, it would be a matter of me teaching myself enough AGS to do it; not impossible, but probably not the best use of my time.
- What is Zgred a reference to, anyways?
It's all revealed in the developer commentary! (I think I recorded like about 3 hours of it, and then there's the other team members' commentary as well.) The story runs like this: In high school (after my brother had lived for a semester in St. Petersburg), a t-shirt showed up in his hamper that said Zgred. He insisted it was mine, which I rejected out of hand. We eventually came to the uncomfortable notion that someone it had gotten mixed in his stuff months ago when he was in Russia. Somehow when he went to college, the shirt wound up in my drawer, and then I took it to college. Randomly one night I was looking at the label -- I can't say why -- and noticed that, in non-snazzy font, it quite clearly said: 26 Red (a lame brand). Apparently the shirt had just gotten mixed in with his stuff at the gym. But it remained a legendary Slavic artifact, and a running joke.
- That since it was not a "regular" gun using bullets and explosions and the like, it was just silent because of how it worked (how does it work, by the way?
At one stage, the gun was supposed to operate by magnetically accelerating the explosive rounds (Vic's design idea), but I think it wound up being a gas-powered slug thrower. The gun does make noise when Clarity shoots the shells.
- Yeah, I think she (Metromind) got corrupted down the line.
She internalized the publicity about her creation (that an AI controlling the public transportation system was "The Way of the Future" and a huge boon in efficiency). Like many of the other robots, she was unable to engage in critical self-assessment. In fact, possibly only Horus is able to break away from "core logic"; to use a lame Freudian construct, Horus shows a super-ego, while I'm not sure the other characters ever do.
- Wormwood how did you go about the voice acting process? Did you have a team member overseeing it, or was it kind of a hand off project to a recording studio?
This is one area where credit actually goes to Wadjet Eye and not to us. Dave Gilbert (who *is* WEG) handled the recording sessions and presented us with various actors to choose among. The one major exception to this is EFL, who was cast by the artist Victor Pflug. Part of the success of the voice acting, I think, is due to Nathaniel Chambers, the composer/audio guy, who was also a WEG find, although Vic worked closely with him on finding the right filters/approaches.
- In contrast, I don't see the allying ending as quite what it should have been. It would've been interesting if we saw some of this "new Primordium" (though I realize budget constraints probably prevented that.)
A few things:
(1) There is at least some measure of homage to Dragon Warrior's "ally with the Dragon Lord" ending here.
(2) Actually seeing the city turn around would be out of keeping with the tone of the game.
(3) The last line of the scene is spoken only in Horatio's voice. I think one legitimate reading of that is that Horatio won the personality struggle.
(4) One tester, a brilliant and thoughtful though politically radical Russian physicist, insists that this ending is the "good ending" because it's the only one that offers any hope.
- I do rather like how apparent it is that most of the decay is MetroMind's fault.
I'm not sure how well Metropol would've done in any event -- *most* of the decay is humanity's fault. The robots inherit a mostly destroyed world that is more or less without ready power sources.
For what it's worth, as a partial defense of MetroMind, she was aiming at some kind of distributed multi-processor singularity in which she would be able to see a way to save the world. In other words, at T-minus whatever, she said, "I'm not smart enough to see a solution, but no one else is either. The only hope, then, is to make someone smart enough to see a solution. And the only way to do that is for us to become a hive mind." She just never reached critical mass. That said, it probably didn't help that along the way she managed to disabled several of the most powerful processors in the city.
- The drawback...this game is so crushingly nihilistic.
I disagree. I talk about this a little in the commentary track, but to me, there's a distinction between a melancholy work and a depressing one, and the distinction might well be whether it's nihilistic or not (i.e., whether it says that there is no point in what you do or believe). So long as the message of the work is, as Martin Luther said, that one should plant a tree even if the world is coming to an end, then it doesn't matter whether the world comes to an end; the message is still that we should do our best to do what's good. (Luther has many warts; I'm not endorsing him whole-hog, just crediting the thought.**) The intended message of Primordia is that one should keep fixing glitches and and scraping rust and doing the best one can, even if the world can't be saved; we have to make the world as good as we possibly can, even if it's not much of a difference, and hope for the best. Horatio isn't hopeless at the end, even after he's learned the truth about Man. You shouldn't be either!
(Tolkien's Galadriel talks about fighting nobly during "the long defeat"; Poul Anderson's Flandry seeks to stave off the "Long Night" that will inevitably come when civilization finally falls. But neither the characters nor the works they appear in can be called nihilistic or depressing.)
I do think that the game is very melancholy. But I *like* melancholy stories, even though I dislike depressing ones. Hence, aside from a few squeamish moments, I loved the movie The Wrestler, but found Requiem for a Dream unwatchable.
- One of the reasons I wanted the setting (and the story) to be this way is that in post-apocalyptic games (and, to a lesser degree, fiction), the story tends to take place after the world has hit rock bottom and is back on the way up. Here, things are still on a downward path, although maybe the decline is decelerating. (In other words, negative velocity, positive acceleration.)
- The sun? The wind? The rain also implies rivers and hydroelectric power, and if this is actually earth, the moon means the tides are still in motion, even if everything in the sea is dead. I like the game and style but I never understood the power crisis thing, all these power generating technologies are trivially simple compared to stuff like anti-gravity and self-evaluating AI.
I'm not sure anyone has anti-gravity (Crispin uses some sort of a mag-lev system), but this is a fair criticism. That said, Metropol has wind turbines visible when you take the train past the city. There's no evidence of standing water sufficient to do water power, certainly not close enough to Metropol to be viable. Doesn't really address the solar issue, although you don't see much evidence of the sun shining brightly, so maybe there's some issue there.
In my mind all the non-renewable resources were gone and for whatever reason they couldn't find a way to make the renewable ones work. I realize that the first half of this runs into a problem with the diesel generator (!!), but that was really a matter of artistic convenience -- it wouldn't have resonated quite the same way if it were a silent fuel cell or something.
- Why did Metropol decide to attack Urbani anyways? All it did was lead to retaliation. I wonder if it was humans or a machine who decided to kill off the Urbani humans.
As for the last question, absolutely the humans: it's stated a couple of times that Metropolitan humans didn't trust machines with handling military decision-making.
As for their reasons, who knows? It's deliberately opaque. One reading is that they learned of the Thanatos virus and feared it decisively tipped power in Urbani's favor and had to do a first strike. But for all we know, there were Urbanian atrocities that prompted the attack. They also may have assumed (erroneously) that Urbani had no military-decision-making AIs, sine Metropol had none.
-Yeah, I'm aware of the incredible resilience and variety of life -- one of the more interesting examples is how the Chernobyl area thrives with natural life.
I think in general, while we made a reasonable effort to have a patina of scientific plausibility in Primordia, asking the game to make sense scientifically is probably a futile request. It's more a fable than a piece of hard SF, and I'm not sure the total elimination of organic life or the lack of renewable power sources* is the biggest problem. The game is rife with dodginess -- if you push too hard on the timeline, it more or less topples over, which is why everything is left so vague. "Power" in Primordia is symbolic -- it's energy and political authority and physical force. But it's also the lifeblood of robots, and if it were easily renewable, the plot wouldn't much work. Likewise, the world's lifelessness** is thematically important because I didn't want the game to be about averting or undoing ecological calamity. Basically, these themes trumped realism.
* I suppose one explanation could be that the humans hardcoded robots not to be able to build renewable power sources as a Jurassic Park solution to the Matrix problem.
** There's no reason, of course, that the setting has to be lifeless on a bacterial level. Just everything from insects up.