Sunday, April 7, 2024

Primordial Muses: Dorothy Remy

It’s harder to write about the living than dead—the dead can’t roll their eyes at you—which is one reason it’s taken me so long to write these reflections on my 80-year-old aunt Dorothy Remy.  She, too, is one of the muses of Primordia: its religious themes, and also a miscellany of elements, ranging from Horatio’s favorite tool to Gimbal Built-by-Lapita’s allusive speech patterns to an Outskirts Station lying beyond the city’s limits.  Easter seemed a good occasion to finally put words on paper (then, as with everything Wormwood Studios-related, it took ten times longer than expected!).

Aunt Dorothy, who lived a long walk from where I grew up in Washington, D.C., was unlike anyone I knew.  For one thing, she and her husband Lynn (a public-interest lawyer and Episcopal minister) were the only really religious people in my life.  For another, she was always willing to listen to you but never willing to humor you.

That was utterly upside down—normally, when I’d ramble on about things like cartoons or fantasy novels or comics or school drama, adults would either try to change the topic or else affirm whatever I was saying without really engaging with it.  (My Aunt Virginia, who I’ve written about previously, was an exception to this rule.)  Such “humoring” is nearly ubiquitous; how often, when a friend voices an opinion we disagree with, or complains about someone else, or describes some bad behavior of his, do we respond with “Well, I can see what you’re saying…” or “I hear you…” or “Wow, I can’t believe that happened to you…”?  But Aunt Dorothy, for all her unfailing kindness and Texas manners, would listen with clear interest, ask probing questions, and then flat-out tell you if you were wrong.

The calm before the water fight

Her capacity to listen—to hear—was partly a product of her character and partly a product of her faith, but it was also a product of her academic training: she was an anthropologist and a professor at the University of the District of Columbia.  I’ve never known any other anthropologists, but for Aunt Dorothy the “study of people” has always been rooted in a profound respect for personhood.  That is to say, the belief that all of us have our own dreams, fears, experiences, goals, hates, loves, lives—our own story, best told in our own voice.  And this was something she always sought to learn for herself firsthand, directly.

In particular, she listened to, gathered, and shared the stories of women: from cloth traders in Ibadan, Nigeria, to meat packers in Baltimore, Maryland, to resident patients in St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C.  She shared such stories in My Troubles Are Going to Have Trouble with Me, in articles, in lectures, and in conversation.  Invited to speak to the country directors of the Peace Corps in 1976 about how to help women’s economic development, Aunt Dorothy (or, rather, Dr. Dorothy Remy, Professor of Urban Studies) concluded with this distillation of her approach: “Sit in the village and listen.  Sit in the urban market and listen.  The women will tell you, if you look at all interested.”

She gathered my stories, too, by listening and by looking—by being—interested.  I was telling stories before I could write them down, and one year as Christmas approached, Aunt Dorothy asked if she could take dictation from me and my brother.  What emerged were near-verbatim, typed version of the stories I’d told her.  My own stories.  My own voice.  Even though it was ostensibly part of a Christmas present to my parents, I kept that booklet like a trophy, like a talisman; I still keep it in the office where I write.  (Its contents are juvenile, to put it mildly.)

It’s a strange transposition of senses and of subject and object, but when you’re heard, the horizons of your vision broaden.  Mine did.  The idea of committing stories to writing took hold.

Aunt Dorothy broadened my horizons quite literally.  When my older brother and I started first grade, she took each of us on a one-on-one subway ride on Washington’s Metro system, all the way to where the train ended, a station past the city limits.  It was a long trip.  On the ride there, she insisted I could count all the way to 100 without messing up; on the way back, she had me count down (I still remember the number of retries it took to get “thirteen” and “thirty” right).  The message seemed clear, even to a five-year-old: “You can go farther.”

D.C. Metro circa 1980s vs. Metropol Subway

She broadened my narrative horizons, too.

As far as I know, Aunt Dorothy never read comics, but she knew I liked the X-Men and Spider-Man.  So, for my birthday a few years later, she canvassed comic book shops for the best, most challenging comic the owners could recommend, and sent me Alan Moore’s Watchmen (a shocking gift from an Episcopalian aunt, to say the least!).  The “arc welder” in Chapter 7 left a lasting impression, and so did Rorschach’s grim determination to “never compromise,” “not even in the face of Armageddon.”  The first tool I decided the grimly determined Horatio should have in Primordia was an arc welder (later reworked into a “plasma torch”), and in some of the game’s endings, he shows the same self-annihilating refusal to compromise with his seemingly indomitable foe—brandishing that very arc welder/plasma torch!

She never read fantasy, either, but she knew I liked Dungeons & Dragons novels and similar pulp.  So, for my birthday, she canvassed bookstores for the best, most challenging fantasy series the clerks could recommend, and sent me Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun.  That tetralogy, too, left its mark on me and Primordia: not just thematically, but also in its conceit of a viewpoint-protagonist who cannot grasp the wreckage of our civilization around him (misidentifying, for example, a photograph presumably of astronaut Alan Shepard as “an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape.  It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner.  The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.”).  Even fifteen years later, I knew Horatio, like Wolfe’s Severian, should suffer this failure of understanding.  So, too, did I draw upon the allusive speech of the Ascian prisoner, Loyal-to-the-Group-of-Seventeen.

In comics and fantasy, too, was the message: “You can go farther.”

But above all, Aunt Dorothy broadened my horizons for telling stories in the games I was designing and writing.  She did it by listening, by being interested, and by teaching.

Starting at around 12, my best friend and I became obsessed with the idea of making a console-style RPG portentously titled Shadow Incarnate.  (We detoured into a similar obsession with making an adventure game, which culminated in Quentin Questor, a sophomoric outing inspired by Hugo WhodunitQQ gets a couple shout-outs in Primordia.)  The story and design were full of jRPG cliches, one of which involved defying the gods, etc., etc.

There was literally no adult in my life who could possibly have any interest in listening to these ideas (not even my Aunt Virginia)… except… except…!

Hours.  Hours upon hours.  That’s how long we spoke on the phone about Shadow Incarnate.  (By this point, my family had moved to Los Angeles, so I couldn’t just walk over to Aunt Dorothy’s house.)  She listened, and she probed.  Why were the heroes fighting their gods?  We talked about the problem of evil in the world; she taught me the word “theodicy.”  She spoke about the role of faith in helping endure and overcome injustice and suffering—while candidly acknowledging the injustice and suffering inflicted by bad faith.  She sent me books.  Scholarly ones.  Reflective ones.  Many reflecting her Christian faith, but others not.  A lot of books.


She didn’t say it was absurd to write a story for a video game.  She didn’t say it was absurd to put religious themes in a video game, or that it would be better to stick to a rescue-the-princess type of story.  Quite the contrary.  But she did say it was absurd not to give the characters—religious, anti-religious, agnostic—a chance to articulate their own beliefs in their own voices.  Not strawmen.  Not caricatures.  People.  With their own dreams, fears, experiences, goals… well, I already gave you the list.  She said it kindly and with impeccable manners.  But she said it firmly.  And I heard: “You can go farther.”

This became the compass that guided my game writing from that day forward.  Characters wouldn’t be mouthpieces for my beliefs (or flattering foils for them, or strawmen for them to knock down).  They would embody and espouse their own beliefs (even ones I disagreed with) with dignity.  That’s how I wrote Horatio, Clarity, Charity, MetroMind, Ever-Faithful, Arbiter… all of them (except Crispin, who largely is just an authorial insert modeled on wisecracking floating sidekicks from He-Man to Planescape: Torment).  And I think that’s part of why religious and non-religious and even anti-religious people, devotees of all political movements (even the most extreme), and players from all around the world have found a personal connection with these characters.

Aunt Dorothy’s own life has been eighty years of going farther: from San Antonio to Michigan to Africa to Washington, D.C. to rural Wyoming (where my Uncle Lynn at was called to serve as a minister); from attending a segregated elementary school to teaching at a historically black university to being arrested while protesting apartheid; from an era when girls were taught home economics to one in which she published on women’s economic development.  And on that far journey, she’s been led by a sense of right and wrong that holds constant wherever she is.  As with Horatio on his own odyssey, faith has been an anchor.

From San Antonio to Michigan

Throughout, she has never stopped listening, learning, and teaching, even in retirement.  In 2019, when I first told her about Strangeland and its allegorical arc, she sent me the family copy of John Bunyan, reminding me of the 150-year chain that leads to you,” a series of unsolicited transfers across generations” by which a book comes to hold not only its own story, but its owners.  Over email and phone calls these days (which she politely reminds me I don’t make often enough), we sometimes discuss my current game, Fallen Gods, and its themes and Norse roots.  She read Icelandic sagas so that she could substantively engage with me on the source material, then recommended a variety of additional sources I look up.  After I talked about my efforts to use Anglo-Saxon-rooted language to give the right “voice” to the game’s writing, she sent me a beautiful translation of The Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter, whose own decades-long goal had been to capture the voice of the original Hebrew text.  Maybe there was something to draw from his work, she said; beauty and wonder, if nothing else.

This was the latest religious book she’s sent me.  The first, back in Shadow Incarnate days, was Liberating the Gospels by John Spong.  Spong’s preface concludes with “gratitude to my family. …  These are the people closest to our hearts, and they are the ones who, in the final analysis, make life as rich and sweet as it is.”  Not everyone gets a good hand in that regard, but Aunt Dorothy was part of the royal flush I was dealt.

To me—beyond the many specific inspirations and the more general influence she had on Primordia—Aunt Dorothy was the muse of listening, learning, and giving true voices to what you write.  She gave me a talisman for protection, a compass for direction, and an unspoken injunction: “You can go farther.”  I hope I never lose them. 

Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Lynn dancing the night away at my wedding (Lynn still collared from officiating)

Monday, February 26, 2024

Marauder Film Purchases Cinematic Rights to Primordia

Early today, Marauder Film exercised its option to purchase the rights to make a cinematic adaptation of Primordia! It’s another major step forward, even if the final destination is still a good ways off.

This journey started five years ago with an email from Bastiaan Koch (head of Marauder Film) to Mark Yohalem (Primordia’s writer/designer) asking about the possibility of adapting Primordia. Bastiaan is a movie-industry veteran with decades of experience on films like Pacific Rim, Rango, and Ready Player One.

Given the overwhelming enthusiasm from co-creators James Spanos (Primordia’s coder) and Victor Pflug (Primordia’s artist)—and after meeting with Bastiaan in person and seeing how enthusiastic he was—Mark got over his uncertainties, and we all signed an option with Marauder Film. It seemed like an impossible dream, but bit by bit, Bastiaan worked to turn that dream into reality. He enlisted Walker McKnight, Winner of the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting award, to write a treatment and then a screenplay, and brought in his team of artists to develop the project’s look.

Over the years of that development process, Bastiaan spent hours talking with each of us about what Primordia meant to us. When he shared Walker’s draft script in January 2023, we each responded in our own style. Mark told Bastiaan about his “Aunt Virginia, whose poem ‘The Inheritors’ was so inspirational for Primordia,” explaining that in another poem, she imagined undergoing a sea-change that would bring new joy to others: “Shape me and shine me into a sea prize / Found by a boy’s / Quick eyes in glad surprise. / Sea, sky and sand, / Let me one day / A small child’s happy summer memory.” Vic invoked the film franchise that inspired his artwork on Primordia: “This is just fantastic in every way. It feels a bit like the sequel to Aliens to me—punchier and more action oriented than the original, but told in the same universe and the same world, with the same vision at its core.” James was simple and direct: “Exciting!”

As you can see from the poster, and as we’ve talked about before, this is a Marauder Film project, not a Wormwood Studios one. Our game is a jumping-off point, but Marauder is not simply making a non-interactive version of Mark’s story with an HD version of Vic’s graphics. Cinema has its own imperatives and strengths, and Bastiaan’s team members have their own distinctive talents as storytellers and artists, even if they don’t have a coder like James!

We hope Marauder Film brings new players to the game we made so many years ago, and it’s fascinating to watch another team explore and build upon our creation. We’ll keep you posted as we learn more.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Goodbye 2023!

Another trip around the sun and another year to be grateful for the players whose enthusiasm keeps us developing and supporting our games. Despite some shenanigans, 2023 was a particularly productive year for both our upcoming role-playing game Fallen Gods and our past adventure games Primordia and Strangeland.

Fallen Gods

Fallen Gods is by far the largest project we’ve ever undertaken. While I had a lot of cRPG development experience from working on Torment: Tides of Numenera and Dragon Age: Origins, helping on Colony Ship, and attempting to make various cRPGs of my own over the years, I really had no idea what I was getting into when I started Fallen Gods back in May 2014.

Numerical measures of a game’s scale can be deceptive (“lies, damned lies, and statistics!”), but they are a useful starting point.

Fallen Gods has about 250 major events (text adventures) each with numerous possible “paths” and resolutions, a level of choice, reactivity, and non-linearity that goes far beyond our prior games (and entails much more writing). On top of that are hundreds of minor events (things like combat encounters, lore discoveries, dungeon flavor, item or follower interactions, and the like).

Each event requires not only text and design, but also graphics and sound. We now have over 250 illustrations, plus things like enemy formations for combat encounters and environmental scenes for minor events. The “intro” node of every event is voiced, which totals over around seven hours of voice over. And the events (and game in general) are full of music, with over 40 tracks thus far.

And setting aside events, there are obviously the hundreds of animated sprites that compose the exploration and combat aspects of the game.

All these numbers continue to tick inexorably upward!

The massive scope of Fallen Gods has been possible primarily thanks to teamwork and time (a decade of development). While some members have come and gone over the years, and some have joined recently, others have been with me from almost the very start. Fallen Gods has an amazing, international crew (spanning four continents), all of them artists in their disciplines.

All the way back in 2014, Daniel Miller and Maciej Bogucki joined the team. Fallen Gods’ amazing pixel art is thanks to Dan, as are some of its illustrations. Dan’s work will be familiar to Wormwood Studios fans, as he did key animations for the Stranger in Strangeland. Maciej’s role doesn’t have an easy label; he’s the sinew of the project: editor, scripter, sounding board, producer, overseer. He pushes all of us to be our best and leads by tireless example.

In 2016, Jamie Campbell and Anders Hedenholm began creating Fallen Gods’ soundscape. Jamie is an amazing voice actor, and his delivery of the narrator’s voice helped guide my writing as the years went on. Anders—fittingly from Sweden—found a way to compose music that feels authentic to the setting, unique, and beautiful. 

A couple years ago, James Spanos—one of my fellow founders of Wormwood Studios and one of the three core creators of Primordia and Strangeland—took over coding from Connor Brennan, who helped launch the project. Since James joined, the game has leaped forward, which is unsurprising because no commercial Wormwood Studios game has ever been finished without his involvement, and his inexhaustible energy was a dynamo of our past projects as well.

Right now we have four active illustrators: Ivan Ulyanov (whose work has appeared in numerous adventure games, including several released by the publisher of Primordia and Strangeland, Wadjet Eye Games); Jan Pospíšil (one of the illustrators of Six Ages, a sequel to one of Fallen Gods’ inspirations, King of Dragon Pass); Gessony Pawlick; and Cleopatra Motzel. Almost a decade ago, Cleo did the knotwork for the runestone that has been the game’s main menu, and recently she jumped back in to create a logo and enhance her earlier work.

The very long development cycle—and uncertain nature of embarking on RPG development—meant that I took a different approach for Fallen Gods in terms of team structure. Primordia and Strangeland were collaborations where no one got paid during development and the three of us shared in the backend royalties. For Fallen Gods, we’ve actually had a budget, which I’ve funded out of the royalties I earn from Primordia and Strangeland. From 2014 on, almost all of my royalties have gone to the Fallen Gods team as part-time contractors. For those curious about the costs of even a shoestring indie RPG, the development cost has been around $80,000 (another number ticking inexorably upwards!), divided between art (45%), coding (25%), production work like scripting, editing, testing, QC (25%), and audio (5%). (Obviously, I don’t pay myself!) 

It’s been a long road, but the end is now in sight! And there’s no one I would rather have taken that journey with than these comrades in arms. I can’t wait for people to see (and play) what we’ve created together!

When is that release going to happen? I anticipate 2024, but I never like to make promises on release dates. Of course, getting the game out is never the end of the road. As James and I have done with Primordia and Strangeland, I’m sure we’ll continue supporting and refining the game for years to come!

Primordia and Strangeland

Thanks to our players’ support, both games continued to sell well in 2023 (Primordia is nearing 340,000 copies sold, and Strangeland is nearing 40,000 copies sold), and we are grateful for the many lovely Steam reviews that were added, which play a critical role in building our community and attracting new fans.

James updated Primordia to the latest version of Adventure Game Studio (as part of James and my 11-year work to make Primordia as great and as accessible to our fans as possible!), ensuring superior compatibility. We also squashed a number of persistent bugs related to achievements and continue to improve the clunky UI. As for Strangeland, the translation crew at Zone of Gamers released an unofficial Russian translation (which we may be able to integrate into an official one), and I’ve been working with Eduardo Moreno Martín (who translated Primordia) on a Spanish translation that I expect will be our last official translation for a while. We still hold out hopes of a Switch port of Strangeland, but there are some coding snags that are blocking it.

* * *

And that’s it! Happy 2024! We’ll have more to share soon!


Saturday, June 24, 2023

Primordial Muses: Pamela Ann Rymer

In my last post about the muses that inspired me in writing and designing Primordia, I talked about my great-aunt Virginia, whose influence on me began when I was a baby. I didn’t meet the second muse, Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, until I was in my 20s.

For lawyers on a certain career path, clerking for a judge serves as a kind of “finishing school” before the actual practice of law begins. It’s seen as a chance to “see how the sausage gets made”; to disabuse oneself of idealistic naivety and learn the practical reality of what wins or loses cases. But for me, clerking was the opposite—it inspired, rather than quashed, idealism. And the reason was Judge Rymer herself, whose tireless service to the law sowed the seed from which Primordia’s  character Clarity sprang, something recognized in one of the very first previews of the game.

The old flip the hair trick!

Pam Rymer was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1941. She graduated from Vassar College in 1961 (two years younger than is typical) and enrolled in Stanford Law School. She eventually became one of its most revered alumni, but at the time she stood out for being one of just a handful of women students.  Even a decade later, only 13% of the student body was female. Then and there, as at other times and other places, being brilliant was no answer to bias. In seeking a job at a major Los Angeles firm, she was told she was truly exceptional among all applicants... but all the same, no exception would be made to the all-male hiring policy. So she went elsewhere, and soon became the first woman law partner at the firm she joined. Joining a client and another partner for lunch at a private club, she was told to take the service elevator; women, after all, could not ride in the members’ elevator. But her will was unbreakable and her commitment to the law unshakeable. She firmly believed that individual grit and determination were what mattered, and in her case, she was right. In 1983 she was appointed as a federal judge and in in 1989 she was elevated to the Court of Appeals. 

Entry to the Ninth Circuit courthouse.

Orange you glad we changed the palette?

When I applied to work for Judge Rymer, she had been on the bench for over twenty years. In my job interview, the first thing she asked about was video games, since my resume included my work for TimeGate and Bioware while in law school. The judge didn’t have kids of her own, but her god-daughter was a gamer, and she was intrigued by the idea that games could have stories. We spent an hour on the subject, which we’d come back to many times over the years.

As I’ll explain, Judge Rymer’s exemplary character and jurisprudence were the biggest source of her influence on Primordia. But her curiosity about my work writing and designing games played an important role, too.

After I worked for Judge Rymer, I spent a second year clerking, this time at the Supreme Court. One day, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had retired but still kept chambers at the Court, invited me to stop by. She had heard from her “friend Pam” that I “designed video games.”

Justice O’Connor wanted to design a video game herself, she said, to help kids learn civics. She felt that we needed games that provoked discussions about law, government, rights, and justice. She allowed that she had never played video games herself, and interrogated me at length on the subject. To my surprise, three years later, she founded iCivics ”with the goal of transforming civic education for every student in America with innovative, truly engaging games and resources.” Any doubts about the commitment of a septuagenarian rancher-turned-jurist becoming a septuagenarian game designer as her last act proved wrong. This was just one more barrier for her to break.

It was Judge Rymer who set in motion the odd series of events that ended with Justice O’Connor’s insistence that games must provoke and engage with our core civic values. That lesson stayed with, and has guided my design and writing on the games I’ve worked on since. It’s one reason why (for better or worse) I stayed with my vision for Primordia’s story and rejected my teammate’s suggestion that we replace its “technical and political” conflicts with a “simple and emotional” “rescue the princess storyline.” 

And beyond this, Judge Rymer directly influenced Primordia’s characters, as well as its locations and puzzles.

One of the game’s most memorable characters is Clarity Arbiterbuilt, “law clerk to Arbiter, judge of Metropol.” Though Clarity was born from many influences (including another judge, Judge Dredd, and Vhailor from Planescape: Torment), the heart of the character came from Judge Rymer.

Let me caveat this right away: Judge Rymer was rightly remembered for being “quick to laugh and to smile” and rightly renowned for her “sense of humor” (described by one judicial colleague as “playful” and another as “wicked”). She was quirky—having pranked a law partner by hiding a live frog in his desk, she eventually came to own a vast collection of frog paraphernalia. She was an avid tennis player and a lover of college football and corndogs. None of these qualities, nor her mentorship of young lawyers, are present in Clarity.

But as one of her closest friends on the bench wrote, “Finding the right answer ... and doing the law correctly were foremost in her mind in every matter.” Justice was the destination to be found; the law, the roadmap to be followed. This “foremost” characteristic is likewise at the heart of Clarity. And while Judge Rymer would never have said “mercy is malware” (as Clarity does), her first real job was working on the presidential campaign in which Barry Goldwater uttered his (in)famous line that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” And as a judge, her sternness in applying the law had yielded the nickname “Penitentiary Pam.”

As much as she revered the law, she also revered the facts. In Primordia, Clarity admonishes Horatio not to “characterize the evidence.” This came straight from Judge Rymer—her clerks were not to argue the facts, let alone shade the facts. We were to study the facts and report them. To those facts, the law was to be applied impartially and implacably. Just as Clarity ultimately concludes that Horatio has no legal claim against Scraper (despite Clarity’s loathing of MetroMind), so too did I watch Judge Rymer refuse to rule against “bad guys” when the facts and the law could not support a claim. Those proven guilty had no reason to expect mercy; but those who had not been proven guilty according to the law and the evidence could be confident in impartial justice.

If Clarity had “strength, indomitable spirit, and an incredible work ethic,” that was because Judge Rymer was her model; if Clarity was a “brilliant jurist and a loyal friend,” that was again because Judge Rymer was her model. These were qualities praised in the judge after she passed away from cancer, having worked to very end in the cause of justice.

For obvious reasons, the experience of serving as a law clerk to Judge Rymer shaped not Clarity but also Clarity’s co-clerk (and sister) Charity, and their dynamic with Metropol’s judge, Arbiter. Arbiter’s casual condescension toward Clarity (and, indeed, MetroMind) had nothing to do with my own experience as a law clerk—but it reflected the experiences Judge Rymer recounted to me of the headwinds she had sailed into as a lawyer.

Horatio appears before Arbiter Manbuilt in the courthouse.

All this is to say that not only key characters in Primordia, but also key story beats (such as the struggle for control of Metropol), key areas (such as the courthouse and Clarity’s island), key puzzles (such as the legal dispute between Oswald and Cornelius), and a core theme (the dialectic among law, mercy, and justice) all owe a debt to Judge Rymer. I couldn’t have created any of those things without the time I spent working with her.

My writing itself also owes a debt to Judge Rymer. She was superb writer who was known for her unparalleled ability to cut to the core of a legal issue and resolve it in a succinct gem of an opinion.” I’ve said before that legal writing influenced my game writing, and vice versa. And she was quite a teacher of legal writing. Over the course of the year, she drilled into us the need to start by reading everything we could, and then distill it down as much as possible. That kind of broad research was key to Primordia (and Strangeland and Fallen Gods). I can’t bring myself to shed ornamentation the way she did. But her lessons about revision, pacing, and punchiness were all things that I used on Primordia (and the games I worked on since).

The judge knew about Primordia while I was writing it. While she had no personal interest in computer games or science fiction (her one speculative-fiction vice was Harry Potter), she was—as one obituary noted—“a tremendous mentor and lifelong friend of her clerks.” So she checked in on my work as a lawyer, my hobby as a writer, and most of all, my daughter (a partial namesake of the judge’s), who had been born just before we started developing Primordia. But, alas, I didn’t tell her about Clarity, Charity, and Arbiter, or about solving legal puzzles and adjudicating science-fictional lawsuits. In a mistake I have made too often, I wanted to show her our game, which I was confident we would finish soon. I knew about the disease my friend was fighting, but I also knew she was indomitable.

She was. But her body was not, and she shed its burden on September 21, 2011. Nevertheless, her soul still fills the world, the law, and the hearts of the myriad lawyers she mentored and inspired. And though she died a year before Primordia was finally complete, her soul fills its world and characters, too.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Primordial Muses: Virginia Mishnun-Hardman

Between dream and deed,
Between thought and thing
Made real on the potter’s wheel,
The abyss is not less
Than between the living and unliving.
- Virginia Mishnun-Hardman, “The Inheritors”

When Primordia turned 10 years old, I mentioned that I wanted to share some retrospective thoughts about making the game. Unfortunately, the press of life, family, work, and Fallen Gods kept me from diving in immediately. But a longtime fan of the game recently asked me where its themes of humanism, post-human inheritors, and dignity and defiance in the face of hopelessness came from. All of us who made the game, including James, Vic, Nathaniel, Dave, the voice actors, drew on our own experiences, and each of us had different muses. I thought it would be nice to talk about mine, and how they inspired the game’s writing and design. 

The first muse I want to talk about is my great aunt, the poet Virginia Mishnun-Hardman

To start with, wherefor and wherefrom Humanism? Well….

Aunt Virginia’s influence on the world, themes, story, and characters of Primordia is something recognized from the very outset, when John Scalzi graciously hosted a “Big Idea” about Primordia on the day of the game’s release. Rather than just repeat that homage, I’d like to expand upon it, both with a bit more biography and with more of her poetry.

Virginia Mishnun was born around the turn of the 20th century and died at the turn of the 21st century. Her home was New York City, the ultimate metropolis, but she found welcome in Mexico City, Rockport, and Tel Aviv. A graduate of Hunter College and Columbia University, she passed through many trades in her life (including dance, reporting, editing, and social work). But she was foremost a poet and an activist. Her cause was humanity—meaning both the collective of our vast, flawed species, and that quality of ours that redeems those flaws. She was an advocate for refugees and the dispossessed (including as an editor of the International Rescue and Relief Committee Bulletin during the Holocaust), for women, for Native Americans, and for workers. Alongside her second husband, J.B.S. Hardman, she worked in the labor movement.

After J.B.’s death in 1968, Virignia wrote the poem “Wait for Me”: “As all our lives you went ahead / To find new lands, / So now I’m briefly left behind once more / While you explore a shore I still can’t see / And I again cry, / ‘Wait—oh wait for me.’” But, by the grace of nature and nature’s god, she lingered not “briefly” but at length, and so was a part of my life for over two decades. It’s thanks to her that I’m a writer, and thanks to her that I wrote Primordia.

As a poet, she published two anthologies (The Inheritors and Bright Winter), and many standalone poems in the United States, Mexico, and Israel. The anti-fascist Spanish poet León Felipe called her “a consolation and a miracle.” The American philosopher and scholar Maxine Greene celebrated Virginia’s “remarkable ability to render torment and isolation into a celebration of human life.” And the novelist and critic Waldo Frank called her “the most living American poet since Hart Crane”—a line of praise that underscores the ephemeral nature of poets’ fame, since, but for that quotation, I wouldn’t know Hart Crane from Ichabod Crane.

My aunt was a fervent, lifelong socialist, but with equal fervor she despised the inhumanity and dishonesty of the Soviet Communists. When Stalin betrayed the cause of anti-fascism and made his pact with Hitler, she saw friends and allies from the labor movement turn on a dime, praising the same Fuhrer they had reviled days earlier. Anyone who has read Orwell knows the socialists’ sense of rage and betrayal at this about-face. As she told me years later, she saw good people hollowed by lies; they became “shells.” They had, she said, turned the poetic language of progress into empty sloganeering. That the USSR later helped demolish the Nazis never changed her view; hers was a socialism that had at its heart the conviction that human beings and human tragedy could never be reduced to “a statistic.” If, in these lessons she taught me, you recognize the roots of MetroMind and the shells that drag themselves through the Underworks, you would not be wrong.

Aunt Virginia’s socialist activism was her entree into science fiction because many science fiction authors of the late 19th and early 20th century used their novels as an extension of their progressive politics. On her bookshelves were first editions of H.G. Wells’s science fiction novels—alongside his socialist writings. So too did she have the science fiction of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others. This is, of course, “respectable” science fiction, so typically bookstores stock such novels on the “Classics” shelf. But to Virginia, that was flat wrong. Respectability and enshrinement were a kind of tomb. Great books are “vital” precisely because they are “alive” and accessible.

It was from this perspective that she embraced, nurtured, sheltered, and encouraged my love of science fiction and fantasy. As is covered in the “Big Idea,” she was the rare adult who taught that “growing up” was a struggle against the loss of imagination rather than, as St. Paul wrote, a process of “put[ting] away childish things.” In her poem “Dreams In Age,” she wrote: “Like water colors / Erased by life’s deluge / Are the dreams of youth.” Her own life’s deluge had been torrential. But she helped shield the watercolors of my youthful dreams.

We told stories together. In one of the lower moments of my childhood, my family had moved across the country, I had left my friends behind, and I was subjected to a teacher who, among other things, forced me to write a letter to my parents apologizing for being stupid and incompetent at English. That same year Aunt Virginia sent me for Christmas a near-mint copy of Bright Winter addressed to “Mark, dear fellow writer.” On the frontispiece she inscribed “a new poem”: “To be hunted.” “... oh, the terror of the / Poet, prey, destroyed again / And again ....” She did, indeed, know how “to render torment and isolation into a celebration of human life.”

Years later, in college, when I told her I had spent months writing a poem about Hector’s death beneath the walls of Troy, only to have my Classics professor dismiss it as worthless, she shot back a short note: “Let us pause to urinate / on the over-lauded laureate.” She knew what she was doing. As she said in “On Learning”: “They say / grief teaches. / But I learn faster / When joy’s the master.”

When I wrote a trio of science fiction stories in 2000, she found the core of each and helped me refine them all. One, “The Skinny Mnemonsyne,” features the first incarnation of the Underworks and its memory-less shells. Another was “New Mansions,” and it established themes I’d later elaborate in Primordia. No doubt inspired by “The Heart of Steel” arc in Batman: The Animated Series, it
s premise is that a faction of humanity seeks to replace flawed politicians and judges with incorruptible robotic doppelgangers (foreshadowing Primordia’s Arbiter, visually modeled off of BTAS’s H.A.R.D.A.C.). The protagonist is the first of these doppelgangers, a war veteran unaware of his own identity and programmed to venerate humanity (like Horatio/Horus). I was stumped by the ending until Virginia observed that, if he had been programmed to venerate humanity, he would destroy himself and the doppelganger scheme to spare mankind its downfall. Thus she sowed the seeds of the Horus’s sacrifice and Autonomous 8’s awakening in my Primordia spin-off story “Fallen.” (Alas, despite Virginia’s best efforts, I don’t think “New Mansions” is a particularly good story….)

The last work of mine that Aunt Virginia edited was a 300-page manuscript of a fantasy novel I sent her in 2001, when she was in her nineties. With a claw-like hand tortured by arthritis and gout, she line edited every page in her shaky script. 
On the first page (a prologue entitled “Upon the Web”), she stuck a Post-It note: “Between us, there is a web without end.” She died just two years later. She was, indeed, a “consolation and a miracle.”

Virginia’s poetry is about love, loss, injustice, war, the Holocaust, violence against women, the act and art of creation, and hope. Her poem “A Visitor From Buchenwald” was published and regularly recited in New York, Rockport, Mexico City, and Tel Aviv, in English and Spanish.

But these respectable themes are embedded in the imagination, energy, and language of science fiction and, in particular, post-apocalyptic science fiction. In “In Time of Testing,” written after the death of her husband J.B. and in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Virginia imagines a post-apocalyptic landscape in which humanity gives way to machines. She tells of “the pizzicato of fat rats scurrying through / The wonderful garbage that was once a world.” And she asks, “Why use men when we can get the answers / from the do-it-themselves dream-proof machines? / After all, the Divine Engine will soon arrive. It was programmed / To appear at the end of the third act, which is where we’re at.” “Play computers? Let the computers play!” When she wrote that poem, first published in John Herling’s Labor Letter in 1970, could she have imagined the unborn grand-nephew who would play computers and let the computers play, and tell the story of robots scurrying through the wonderful garbage that was once a world?

Above all, it was her post-apocalyptic poem “The Inheritors” that shaped Primordia
In the extraordinary essay “Poetry and People” that precedes “The Inheritors” in the collection of the same name, Virginia writes: “Both Dr. Zhivago and Last of the Just enlarge us, make us thrillingly aware of our own dormant capacities for living fully like compassionate humans, even in an inhuman world. They give us confidence that this species need not perish; that it can indeed transform itself, and in the transformation be more human than it yet has been. The overtones that reverberate long after the stories end are those of awful victory, suggesting that the unyielding assertion of individual humanity may be the only possible triumph in the present Twilight of Mankind.” In Primordia, I strove to tell my own story about the “unyielding assertion of individual humanity,” a world in which “the species need not perish” even though it has vanished.

So too is Virginia’s poem set in a world destroyed by war, bereft of humanity, and left to our inheritors, to whom we are merely “a theory ... with false glories and iniquities.”

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.

Anyone who has played Primordia will feel at home in these verses, which helped shape the game’s characters, setting, lore, and themes. At one moment, two figures in “The Inheritors” muse and speculate about the humans’ demise—and, again, those familiar with Primordia’s War of the Four Cities may hear the strains the game echoed. One character says, “One theory holds they had / Machines of such complexity / Only two brothers knew the key / To the whole world’s productivity.” The other answers, “The two were rivals; / Fighting one day, / Each slew the other.” Of the inheritors, we learn they pass “through immensities of galaxies and centuries, / Singing; with one small phrase forever altering / The endlessly unfolding theme / Of which each is briefly dreamer and dream.” Here is the seed of Civitas and its robots singing their eternal harmony. The poem wisely warns: “Greed beat the drum you followed, / Proud and blind into oblivion.”

But while “The Inheritors” had the most influence on Primordia, other poems of hers helped create Horatio, Crispin, and other characters, as well as the setting. As for Horatio, consider, “Memo from Our Fathers”: “For faith / There are no substitutes. / The destroyers are always / Ready to attack. / But the builders know that their task is / To build; / That only when the wilderness within / Is stilled / Will the wilderness without / Move back.” This is, of course, Horatio’s arc: becoming a “builder” rather than a “destroyer,” and achieving this victory over the waste outside of him by first achieving victory over the waste inside of him. For the setting, there is the horrifying “No Last Waltz, A Requiem,” which depicts with nightmarish imagery what it is to destroy a world and leave behind a 
“dead planet.” There is “Two Ways,” which tells of how, “Drowning in the dry sands / Go the acquisitors....” And on the phonograph of Primordia’s UNNIIC, you can hear the song “Dreams of Green,” my homage to Virginia’s “Mimosa Tree”: “Under the green mimosa tree / How green the dream I dream of you.”

Of course, Virginia’s poems were by no means the only, or even the primary, influence on Primordia’s world and story. I drew on my love of games like Planescape: Torment and Fallout, childhood cartoons like The Challenge of the GoBots and He-Man, books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy and City by Clifford Simak, movies like Metropolis and Wall-E, classics from Shakespeare and Milton, as well as countless other inspirations from life and art. Crispin, for instance, is not much different from my own normal snark, subject to James’s prodding and encouragement. Goliath is based on a giant sculpture (“The Awakening”) that I would climb on as a kid. And so on. And of course Vic looked to the wasteland and cityscape of Beneath a Steel Sky, the famous biomechanical style of H.R. Giger, and other influences. Nathaniel filled the world with music drawn from sources like Vangelis and Wendy Carlos. Creating Primordia was truly a team effort, where each of us wove our creativity into a unified whole. Much of our inspiration came from each other.

In her poem “Warnings,” my aunt wrote: “They lack a future / Who befoul the past.” Sometimes, the befoulers of the past manage to drag themselves quite far into the future. But here, as elsewhere, I trust my aunt’s wisdom. Her eyes were always on the future—one eye fearful, one eye hopeful—but she drew from the wealth of the past to face those fears and realize those hopes. She is, for me, part of that wealth. For that and for what it meant for Primordia, I will be forever grateful.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Marauder Films Adapting Primordia

 As I’ve mentioned before, a couple years ago we were approached by Bastiaan Koch of Marauder Film about adapting Primordia into TV or film. Bastiaan is an acclaimed VFX artist able to push the visuals to the next level, and he has had a longstanding interest in post-apocalyptic settings and robots, making him a great match to our game. (Just to hit a few of the highlights: Bastiaan is a VFX Supervisor at FuseFX and a veteran of LucasFilm, and he’s been a part of three Oscar-winning and five Oscar-nominated VFX teams.)

As anyone who has worked in the industry knows, it’s a lot easier to express interest in adapting a game than to actually adapt one, particularly when the game wasn’t trying to be “cinematic” at the outset (the way modern AAA action games are, for instance). But Bastiaan has stuck with the project doggedly—through a pandemic, no less—and, along with others (including Walker McKnight), has put together an initial screenplay and outline for a Primordia movie. Walker is himself the winner of the Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting.

What they’ve crafted is not “Primordia the game in a screenplay format.” Instead, Bastiaan and Walker found the elements of the game that resonated with them most, and as well as the elements that go best in the cinematic medium, and then they added a great deal of themselves and their own vision into the project. That’s how it has to be. The thought of folks creating something out of Primordia without putting their own souls into it would be terrible! A theme of Primordia is humanity’s inheritors taking responsibility for building a new world rather than mechanistically sticking to their programming in a context where it no longer made sense! So too with this: if Marauder manages to pull this off (and so far, Bastiaan has proven indefatigable), they will bring forth a new world of Primordia, rooted in the old one to be sure, but suited to new creators in a new context.

As a jumping off point, here are some thoughts from Bastiaan:

Ultimately, I expect this will be a different story with different dialogue and a different take on the characters and themes than mine, different visuals from Vic’s, different voices from Abe’s, Logan’s, and Sarah’s, different music from Nathaniel’s... and of course none of my puzzles or inventory mischief! But for the reasons above, I see a reworking in a different medium as something different from a sequel or a remake.  Primordia the game will still be the product of my soul (and Vic’s, James’s, and everyone else who poured work into it. For me, this will be the chance to explore that world we created through the eyes of a guest, rather than those of a host!

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Primordia Turns 10

Over the next few days, we will be sharing in various places our reminiscences about developing Primordia. But first, a few numbers:

• 10 years since release

• 3 friends who set out on the adventure of making this game

• 306,105 copies sold

• 17th place, its highest ranking on Steam (September 21, 2015)

• 2582 days in the top 250 on Steam

• 2911 Steam player ratings, 160 player reviews, 187 MetaCritic player ratings

•  completed fan translations (French,  German, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, Turkish, and Russian)

• and only Crispin

• infinite gratitude for you, our fans, who defied the critics, loved our game, and supported us over this decade

It’s been a helluva decade!