The Big Idea: Mark Yohalem
Today’s Big Idea is slightly different: It’s about a video game, not a book. Because (and not only because I am currently in the process of writing a video game myself), I figured, what the heck.
So, today writer Mark Yohalem tells you the idea behind Primordia, in which two of mankind’s heirs embark on a quest and learn more than they expected. The game takes place in the science fictional future, but Yohalem’s starting point for the game is rooted in the past, and in a genre not often associated with robots and video games at all.
The story of Primordia is inspired by the opening stanza of “The Inheritors”; my own creative life owes as much to the poet as my game owes to the poem.
I’m pretty sure that when I was a kid, I cared more about made-up worlds than the real world. That’s probably true of everyone, but almost everyone ages out of it. As a result, part of childhood—one of the hardest parts of childhood, for me—was knowing that the people you admired and relied upon and loved were, at best, bemused and, at worst, embarrassed by things that mattered enormously to me.
The exception to the aging-out rule was my great-aunt Virginia. No matter how young I was, it was obvious that she was unusual, more of a character than a real person. Later I understood how hard her life had been: growing up with a severely bipolar sister; married (the first time) to a psychiatrist who threatened to have her diagnosed as crazy and committed; bent by arthritis; stabbed by gout. But she was a magical creature. She had been a dancer, a reporter, a world traveler; she was a socialist; she lived in New York, in the “the Ant Hill,” where she said chocolate flowed from her faucets. It seemed possible. Old friends from China doted on her; with ludicrous, offensive, endearing exaggeration, she insisted that she was the “Empress,” revered for her age. She seemed to speak a great number of languages—Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, at least—but did she really? I don’t know.
She was a poet. But above all else, almost certainly because she had survived by believing in things other than her own world, she accepted with open arms the invented universes that were so important to me. Even when I was in my twenties, writing fantasy novels, and she was in her 90s, slowly dying, she read them, annotated them, reworked sentences, always for the better. To her—a serious writer whose poetry about the horror of Buchenwald was read aloud in Israel, whose works were published in the Nation and the New Republic—there was nothing wrong with stories about wizards and knights and orphans coming of age. She accepted them, and me, and believed in them, and me.
“The Inheritors” is my favorite of her poems. It begins:
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.
When I was a kid, and couldn’t memorize anything to save myself from an exam, I memorized that stanza. And when the amazing artist behind Primordia invited me to craft a story to fit his paintings, “The Inheritors” was at my shoulder.
Primordia is a game about the robots who inherit the world after humanity has become extinct. The game’s Big Idea is that these robots must struggle to make sense of that inheritance, one they were never built to receive. They are purpose-built for purposes that scarcely make sense anymore; endowed with knowledge completely impractical for a post-organic environment; and they cling to a memory of creators they cannot begin to understand.
The game’s protagonist, Horatio, is a Humanist, which is to say, a robot who worships humanity. His Gospel describes Man as the perfect image from which robots were made: “a machine of unbreakable form, endless memory, and absolute logic.” The dramatic irony, of course, is that humans are none of those things: not perfect machines, but fragile, forgetful, fallible animals. Horatio, in his worship, both over- and undervalues humanity. By erasing our flaws, he transforms the wonder of human achievement into something trivial. For a perfect machine to build the things we have built—or that the humans in Primordia’s world have built—is nothing remarkable. For women and men to have done so is extraordinary. Humanism grants Man “false glories” without understanding his “dream and worth.”
What I wanted to do with Primordia, aside from capturing the melancholy and hope of “The Inheritors”—melancholy for humanity; an immigrant’s hope that our inheritors can surpass us—was to tell a story about the relationship between robots and humans that wasn’t about some titanic struggle (Terminator, Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, etc.) or about the “robots among us” (I, Robot; AI, Bicentennial Man, etc.). I wanted to tell a story about the relationship between creators and created, about the departed and the inheritors. I wanted to use robots to tell a story about humans, but I didn’t want the humans around because I didn’t want us to tribally root for humans or self-loathingly root for robots. Instead, trusting the maxim that one creates in his own image, I wanted the robots’ own qualities to tell about humanity.
So, on one level, Primordia is the story of two robots, Horatio and Crispin, who—having been robbed of the power source they rely upon—begin a desperate journey to recover it or find a replacement. On that level, it’s a story about obstacles overcome, about friendship and sacrifice, and so on. It’s a mystery story and a thriller with maybe a dash of horror. On another level, though, Primordia is a story about various robots who—faced with a world not quite fitted to their existence—create their own, fantastical visions of that world. Some believe in the divine; some believe in justice; some believe in progress; some believe in the past; some simply go mad. It is a story that holds up a mirror, or tries to hold up a mirror, to the way we reconcile ourselves to the imperfection of our world.
The way I reconcile myself to it—the way Aunt Virginia gave me—is by telling stories, and I think that Primordia is the best I’ve told. I’m sorry I can’t share it with her, but I’m glad I can share it with you.
Primordia at Wadjeteye Games. Link includes a trailer, a demo and purchase options (including a code for Steam).