On seeing screenshots of anything from studio Wadjet Eye Games, you might be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at a relic from the golden age of the graphic adventure, but in reality the company, headed by independent designer Dave Gilbert and run from his apartment in New York, was only founded in 2001.
Gilbert cut his teeth using Adventure Game Studio on Ben Croshaw’s (yes, Yahtzee of Zero Puncuation fame) Reality-on-the-Norm series, before gaining some notoriety with The Shivah, a murder mystery whose protagonist is a Jewish Rabbi having a crisis of faith (a definite first for video games).
Gilbert himself is best known for his charming supernatural detective series Blackwell, a kind of cross between Pippi Longstocking and Randal and Hopkirk Deceased, the fifth part of which, The Blackwell Epiphany will be released this year. However, it was when he turned his hand to production that things really got interesting.
Aiding Joshua Nuernberger’s cyberpunk detective noir Gemini Rue to completion resulted in the company being catapulted into wider acclaim after it was an unexpected indie hit. Gilbert proved he has a peculiar ability to get behind some incredible projects.
The fifth part of the Blackwell series, Epiphanies, will be out this year.
While recognition came with Gemini Rue, Wadjet Eye’s masterpiece undoubtedly came last year in the form of Resonance. Five years in the making by the incredibly talented amateur designer Vince Twelve, the game follows four disparate characters who are bought together following the death of a scientist developing the eponymous new energy source. A brilliant cyber conspiracy drama, with mature themes, sophisticated narrative structure and deep characterisation, Resonance is an often jawdropping experience that will captivate you from beginning to end. The game also features some brilliant and quite original puzzles, which will have you scratching your head as much as their old school counterparts (another hallmark of the studio).
After an epic release like Resonance, a studio might be tempted to bask in its own reflected glory for a while, but not Wadjet Eye and so barely a few months later we see the release of Primordia, co-produced with equally small outfit Wormwood Studios. Featuring a cast of robots in a decrepit dystopian city, Primordia may initially seem to evoke Machinarium, but this is an entirely different kettle of spark plugs.
Although both games are incredibly atmospheric in their use of apocalyptic locales, muted colour palettes and vivid art styles, if Machinarium was an allusive silent movie, then Primordia is a philosophical sci-fi art movie. Protagonist Horatio Nullbuilt v5 (played by Bastion’s Logan Cunningham, a Wadjet Eye regular) is a mystic who lives the life of a scavenger in the wastes with the company of his wise cracking floating sidekick Crispin, but when an evil looking robot steals his power core he’s forced on an uneasy pilgrimage to Metropol, a dystopian metropolis built upon the bones of human civilisation.
A ‘Humanist’, Horatio worships a mythological proto machine god called man. But with human civilisation long gone, and most of the robots now building themselves, man is but a distant memory, distorted into myth, so much so that when Horatio stumbles upon an actual human skeleton in the wastes he dismisses it as a ‘primitive model’.
Of course Primordia is not the first sci-fi to explore the nature of humanity through sentient machines, nor will it be the last, but the way it explores its theme is never short of mesmerising and it helps that the eclectic cast of robotic characters all demonstrate very human (if somewhat exaggerated) traits and foibles. For instance one of the many insane robots Horatio solicits help from is a prophet named Ever Faithful, who speaks in mystical statements with an Old Testament voice and hands out bomblets from an unexploded nuke as holy relics.
Resonance and Primordia are clearly works of a developer at the top of their game, but what’s incredible is the fact that all these projects, the result of different collaborations, all feel like they belong together. Perhaps it’s Wadjet Eye’s stable of talented voice actors or its vivid house visual style, but I prefer to think it is due to a sprinkle of creative alchemy. Whatever the case, this is undoubtedly a studio to watch.