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A Commentary on 'Primordia'

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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2012
I knew after finishing it that Primordia was something special, because it dared to actually bake in philosophy into the very essence of the conflict.

There’s a lot to like about Primordia, especially if you are a fan of point-and-click adventure games. There are many things it does right and the elements that detract from it are the common complaint against the genre. For me a point-and-click adventure game succeeds based off of two primary principles. First, how well does the game manage the common pitfalls of the genre: puzzle obtuseness, progress stifling and time wasting. And secondly, how well does the game present and integrate what its about into what I am doing?


That’s a more nuanced way of describing, ‘do I get stuck a lot’ and ‘is the story any good?’ In both regards Primordia feels like a giant step forward. A number of features improve the experience and allow the story to come more to the forefront with every puzzle having something to do with the world of characters within. There are no puzzles for sake of puzzles. But of all the features Primordia included the most interesting is the developer commentary you can activate in the options menu.
  
The commentary is for a second playthrough as they do contain spoilers for both puzzles and story elements. It isn’t often we get to hear people behind the games talking so candidly and so detailed with regards to the behind-the-scenes of everything in their games. Especially not with regards to the ideas and purpose of their choices. That has been slowly changing in recent months, but it still very uncommon and especially to the degree of detail the Primordia team explained themselves.


They are also not the first game developer to do a commentary for their game. Valve has been doing it for years, but so much of their commentaries are on the design aspects and testing the levels went through. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff is fascinating in its own right, but with Primordia I got an insight into the developer’s way of thinking. Not just with the craft, but down to the core of what the game is about. It was the first time I heard a developer speak and it sounded like an author does when they are explaining their work. They get to the art of the matter.


I knew after finishing it that Primordia was something special, because it dared to actually bake in philosophy into the very essence of the conflict. Characters don’t give lectures on the nature of man, but explain their position with regards to the problems of the world. Not all the characters see the world the same way and likewise don’t see the solutions the same way. But after playing through again with the commentary I realized how much I missed and how much thought went into some of the tiniest details or the classical motifs the game was drawing on.


The religious element is front and center for much of the game. Man having been elevated to a god like figure in the teachings of Humanism. They were from the age of the Primordium and created the first great machines that earned the moniker “Manbuilt.” And even with the various descriptions and visuals of these great machines I never connected them with the motifs of the ancient gods and their battles that affected the mortals just living their lives. The drama that plays out could easily be classified as such as became so obvious once it was pointed out in the commentary. And this was only one such detail.


It is a revelation to have the team go step-by-step over their game. It peals back the curtain a little and allows for a greater appreciation. I recognize that the same level of thought must go into every published game. I know that, but I don’t feel that with every game I play. The level of characterization and world building that goes on here is beyond what I feel is present in most other and let’s be honest AAA titles.


Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics describes the “Six Steps or Art.” It is a bit reductionist, but for basic arguments I find it very useful in understanding how far a creator and a critic are willing or able to go in the creation and criticism of a work respectively. All art has the 6 steps or levels McCloud describes – Idea, Form, Idiom, Structure, Craft and Surface. But how much effort they put into each level doesn’t always seem to be equal. Some games are deeper than others as it were. Most developers only go so far as to perfect their Craft, some delve deeper to fiddle with Structure or even tinker with the Idiom level creating whole new genres. But so few attempt to work and polish every single layer.


I’m not going to pretend that Primordia is the first game I’ve played that does. Several well-regarded games go all the way down to varying degrees of success. Primordia isn’t even the first game that wears its effort to this effect on its sleeve. But thanks to the commentary it is the first game that has made me aware at far down the developers dug down to create such a work.


I don’t think every game should have a commentary. I wouldn’t even know how that would work with certain genres of games. I also get the feeling that many wouldn’t be worth listening to, much like not all movie commentaries are worth listening to. There isn’t always something intelligent to be said about the developer’s game, because the game itself doesn’t have anything to say.


The type of art one enjoys is a reflection of that person. A person has many different desires in the types and genres of media they consume, each reflecting some aspect of themselves. And of course, tastes change over time, as do expectations. The kinesthetic of a game’s controls are enough for some. A visceral first person fireworks show is enough for others. Over the last few years I’ve wanted more from my games. Surface level polish and well-honed craft aren’t enough for me and haven’t been enough for sometime now. I need works that can engage my mind as much as they engage my thumbs. I’m now an adult and I need works that respect me as an adult and not just an adult aged human. I’ve heard that phrase and others like it for a long time, but it isn’t until you have something to latch a saying onto in your own experience that it becomes clear. In essence, I’m finding myself at present craving the type of game that has or can have a developer commentary in the options menu.

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