Catching up with Primordia developer Mark Yohalem

Mark Yohalem has worked both on his own projects and as an offsite senior or lead writer for BioWare, inXile Entertainment, TimeGate Studios, S2 Games, Nikitova Games, and Affinix Software.  As co-founder of Wormwood Studios with two friends (artist Victor Pflug and programmer James Spanos) in 2010, he developed Primordia, a classical point-and-click adventure game that has sold about a quarter-million copies and was, for years, the highest-rated adventure game on Steam.  The same trio is currently working on Strangeland, which is expected to release soon.

Jeffery Klaehn: Can you think of an example of a puzzle within a point-and-click adventure game that's been widely reviled by critics and relatively ignored in terms of serious analysis?

Mark Yohalem: The truth is that almost no adventure game puzzles, good or bad, get widespread, serious analysis.  (The XYZZY Awards, for interactive fiction, have a Best Puzzle category; the Aggie Awards, for adventure games, do not—but they do have Best Story, Best Writing, Best Character, Best Setting, etc., etc.)  Bad puzzles get glibly ridiculed, good puzzles generally go unmentioned.

I'll give you an example.  One of the most reviled parts of King's Quest III is the mountain path running between Manannan's house and Llewdor countryside.  Using the cursor keys, you have to navigate a narrow path, and if you go off the path, you fall to your death.  (This is what Stair Quest is spoofing.)  Candidly, I found the path really annoying as a kid; I was terrible with it, and died so often I think I quit the game and didn't come back for several months.  So I don't necessarily disagree that it's a bad puzzle / segment in the game.

But the tendency to ascribe it to designer stupidity or malice—without thinking about why Roberta Wiliams and the team might have included it—is wrong.  The path actually plays a very important thematic and mimetic role.

In King's Quest III, the protagonist is Gwydion, a young man who is a servant (slave, really) to an evil wizard named Manannan.  (As it turns out, Gwydion is actually a prince under a spell.)  Manannan forces Gwydion to do endless degrading chores around his house (e.g., emptying his chamber pot), while Manannan goes off on his evil escapades, takes naps, or berates Gwydion.

The early gameplay loop of the game consists of having to do these chores.  Of course, the player (unlike Gwydion) isn't a cowed and ensorcelled servant. The player wants to go on a quest. Thus, there is immediately a gap between player and character —t he player (who can always save and reload) is much less scared than the character. 

How, then, to capture the sense of dread that Gwydion would feel at straying from his chores/prison?

The mountain path, of course! 

The player soon realizes that to win the game, she needs to sneak out of the house, gather tools in the land below, and then get back before Manannan notices Gwydion's absence. But every jaunt out of the house, and every hurry back home, has the cruel mountain path en route. The player's fear in facing that path serves as an emotional approximation of Gwydion's fear.  "God, I really have to try to sneak out again?"

Additionally, the path plays two thematic roles.  Such perilous roads are a routine part of fairy tales and folklore — the one we all know is from Red Riding Hood, but they're all over the place, actually — and so its inclusion in the fairy-tale-based King's Quest franchise is appropriate for that reason alone.  But the road also serves the emphasize the power differential between Manannan (who can teleport to and from the house at his pleasure) and Gwydion (for whom such foot travel poses deadly peril), as well as providing a sharp geographic boundary between the fairly idyllic land of Llewdor (notwithstanding its own monsters and dangers) and the miserable home of Manannan.

Perhaps there would be a cleverer way to achieve all of this than the rage-inducing quasi-mini-game of navigating the path (at a minimum, removing the boulders where you can't see where you're walking).  But that doesn't mean the path is a pure negative that's there for no good reason. 

As Chesterton says, don't tear down the fence before you know why it was put there in the first place.

Author Biographical Summary

Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds PhDs in Communication and Sociology. His research interests include social theory, media, power, public communication, comics, art, pop culture, the creative industries, writing, storytelling, and digital games.  His interviews have been published with the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, the International Journal of Comic Art, First Person Scholar, and other journals.