Friday, 9 July 2021

How much PRIMAL is there in PARIAH?

A great deal of time has passed since Jim Parkin ( first suggested I watch  Primal... but now the dust has settled, those 10 episodes are safely beneath my belt and my belly is full I can finally answer the question: how much PRIMAL is there in PARIAH? How much PARIAH is in PRIMAL?

A red-eyed tyrannosaurus roars in the centre of the image. Atop its back sits a bare-chested, long-haired man holding a spear, who looks up towards a yellow sun in a pink sky. the scene is obfuscated by a thin mist, but we can see a tropical palm on the far right and the suggestion of other such trees in hte background.

This is a short post [edit: it was supposed to be a short post] taking a summary overview of Genndy Tartakovsky's animated series PRIMAL, through the lens of my own proto-neolithic psychedelic animist old school RPG, PARIAH. Spoilers abound, you have been warned... scroll down for TL/DR

The series logo, white text on a black background reading "Primal". Above this, in a grey font, the nameof the show's creator, Genndy Tartakovsky

1. Spear and Fang

Initial Impressions

I mean, yeah, obviously I love it... I was a fan of Samurai Jack all those years ago and love the anachronistic combo of humans and dinosaurs... "Spear" is definitely meant to be a Neanderthal, and that's what I was veering away from when I wrote PARIAH... the pariahs are sophisticated people on the brink of the Neolithic revolution, with complex culture and language...

Post-rationalised, Retroactively Rethunk 20-20 Hindsight Opinion

Yes, all that, and the themes of PARIAH might not fully emerge until later... but what is established early on here is a relationship between humans and the wilds that is... equitous. Each side has its strengths and weaknesses but there is a some kind of natural justice at work. Note also that the reptilian Fang is demonstrated as being nurturing and maternal, qualities we (erroneously) neglect to associate with reptiles.

2. River of Snakes

In a clearing of tall grass angry Neanderthal, Spear, roars in a futile efort to get his opposite, the tyranosaur, Fang, to releasethe wildbaor she has held in her jaws. The sky is yellow. and we see the trunk of a great tree in the background

Initial Impressions

I love the boar hunt and the two protagonists going toe-to-toe through the long grass is a brilliant demonstration of their relative strengths and weaknesses, with Fang coming out on top. The titular river of snakes is pure pulp/ sword-and-sorcery, and the outcome of the episode is perfect for setting up the rest of the series.

Post-rationalised, Retroactively Rethunk 20-20 Hindsight Opinion

In PARIAH terms this is all about not just the necessity of bargaining but the actual ability to do it with beasts- Fang demonstrates her ability to rationalise and appreciate that she and Spear are better off in partnership, not as rivals. On the other hand, we really see the animalistic nature in  Spear: his frustrated ground-slaps are pure chimpanzee/gorilla, as re his growls and yelps. 

Pariahs need to navigate a hostile wilderness through bargaining with those that inhabit it- unlike "medieval" or latter-day adventurers, the towns and settlements aren't necessarily their safest bet. So far in PRIMAL we haven't seen any such things- the only other humans we've encountered being Spear's late, lamented family.

Wait up... Spear and Fang have both lost their families... are they not therefore pariahs?

3. A Cold Death

We look down upon a snow-filled gorge in an arctic landscape: a trail of footprints from the bottom of the iamge trace their way to the centre, where the iamge's subject is evident: a woolly mammoth, marching way from us towards the top of the image.

Initial Impressions

Okay, okay... we're going ice age now... this is more Wolfpacks & Winter Snow ( than PARIAH... how is Fang going to hold up in this... ah, with an animal skin! 

The scene where Spear looks into the mammoth's eyes, before flashing back to his child was especially moving, as it suggested a broader belief about life and death. Suggested. Such a lovely thing, and contrasted with Fang's eagerness to just get stuck in to mastodon meat.

Of course this is also meant to foreshadow the later scene with the mammoths, informing us that these great beasts also have beliefs about the nature of life and death (though, crucially, not quite the same as Spear's: the offering of the tusk is enough to forgive the murder of one of their own... would Spear or fang have been quite so accepting?)

Post-rationalised, Retroactively Rethunk 20-20 Hindsight Opinion

By this point I'd become fully invested in the series, and anticipated that this animation might start venturing into unexpected territory... exemplified by how much I had to say about it upon the initial viewing! This fact is also proven by my genuine concern that Fang might not have been able to escape the encounter with the mastodons out alive: I had started to care about the character! The resolution to the mess that Spear and Fang got themselves in tied in nicely to the broader themes, which are starting to cross over with PARIAH... and again, foreshadowed in the final episode
with Spear's bafflement at Mia's moon-worship.

4. Terror Under the Blood Moon

A rocky overhang provides shelter to three ape-like hominids. Behind them the sky is a pinkish-red.

Initial Impressions

Hordes of dromaeosaurs pursuing the heroes to a seemingly dead plain. Primitive ape-men scrabbling for sustenance before the night falls. Initial competence on the part of Spear & Fang superseded by an apparently superior foe. A weird symbiosis between the bats and proto-shelob... any less weird than that of Spear & Fang? Fang's cunning but also loyalty... and the final solution to their dromaeosaur problem... more than 2 bats with one stone, ay?

Post-rationalised, Retroactively Rethunk 20-20 Hindsight Opinion

If we're looking at PRIMAL through PARIAH's lens, then this is the one that most conforms to the "old-school" element (thus far, though subsequent episodes will cause me to revise this opinion). There are serious stone-and-sorcery vibes at play here, and some of the cunning solutions would be worthy of Conan, Cugel or the Grey Mauser.

5. Rage of the Ape-Men

We view the scene from behind Spear's shoulders: the cave-man is bound and suspended far above the floor. Below him 5 hulking, gorilla-like apes sit in a vigil. Four standing stones act as sentinels in the top left of the image.

Initial Impressions

This is the episode where things really start to synergise for me. The ape-sorcerer/priest/shaman is an NPC I frequently deploy in PARIAH games ( I even have a post about it, I think... and apes - both "good" and "bad" have had an important impact the Unlucky Ones campaign. The violence I found especially shocking at times, which has left me asking questions of myself.

Post-rationalised, Retroactively Rethunk 20-20 Hindsight Opinion

This is the first episode in which magic is explicitly demonstrated... or at the very least, pharmaceuticals of supernatural quality. The apes themselves possess a) culture (albeit an especially violent one) but also b) hierarchy, which are here displayed in a negative context (Spear and Fang do not appear to operate within anything larger than a family unit).

In story terms, we really see an affection developing between the two characters (which is exemplified in the follow-up episode): by now have grown beyond co-dependence into a genuine bond, a further development of the core "found family" aspect of PARIAH, but also in keeping with the "emergent" relationship structures that grow out of old-school style play (I'm reaching, I know...)

6. Scent of Prey

A wild dog watches Fang, the tyranosaurus, sleeping, guarded by her vigilant companion, Spear. A fire burns to the far left of the image. The dog has its back t o the viewer: we assume Spear and Fang are unaware of its presence.

Initial Impressions

Hyenas, vultures, scavengers... I love 'em. The armour-plated beetles felt straight out of an OD&D dungeon, and the eventual recovery of Fang was a genuine triumph. Loved it.... also had elements of a mid-season "bottle-episode" vibe somehow...

Post-rationalised, Retroactively Rethunk 20-20 Hindsight Opinion

This feels exactly like the kind of scenario that can emerge in any kind of sandbox game... the party find themselves weakened and in unfamiliar territory. Foes which wouldn't normally cause them issue are taking advantage of their state... if only they can hold out for long enough for (insert one: tank to recover/reinforcements to arrive/ daylight to break and destroy the undead hordes etc.)'s also what I love about sandboxes: stories happening organically,  as a consequence of unexpected encounters.

7. Plague of Madness

The final death rattle of a diseased sauropod: the creature thrusts its ravaged head and neck clear of the lava, the will to survive still raging impotently, though all hope is lost.

Initial Impressions

Rampaging rabid zombie dinosaurs and fields of lava... plus one of the most epic on-screen deaths in the history of animation! 

Post-rationalised, Retroactively Rethunk 20-20 Hindsight Opinion

This was a slightly weird episode in hindsight: I loved it's urgency and the plague was depicted in a really scary way, but it's a bit of a strange fit somehow. Nonetheless, I loved that once again Spear and Fang had to make clever use of the perilous environment to take down a much bigger foe (in true old-school fashion... indeed, in true human fashion!)

On my second watch I was also struck by the solemnity of the creature's death rattle: there's a combination of fear, astonishment and pity on the faces of both the Neanderthal and the dinosaur as they watch the diseased sauropod's final moments... it was rather powerful.

8. Coven of the Damned

Green flames dance about a dark figure, little more than a silhouette but for the green glow emanating from her distended belly. Antlers sprout from her crown.

Initial Impressions

Oh my this was... unexpected... and very, very special!

I didn't like the witches at first (though I loved their leader and the fact she rode a gigantic pterosaur) but the woman who comes to Spear and Fang's aid really makes them sympathetic, and we see the connection between the coven and Spear and Fang in their sense of loss (we don't know, do we, why the witches are without children, even if we learn a little of the loss incurred by Spear & Fang's saviour).

Love how magic is shown here, and the drawing of the circles is a great reference to the earlier, ape-man episode.

Post-rationalised, Retroactively Rethunk 20-20 Hindsight Opinion

Probably the most psychedelic of the lot: time travel and memory exploration are themes I've tried to utilise in pariah entheogenic experiences (both in the realm of Death and Moon... even a Sun realm trip ended up exploring historical and/or maybe future potential civilisations), as well as the afterlife moment. Is heaven/hell an extended DMT trip, the final moment prior to death stretched out into infinity?

The animation sequence where the human man loses his essence to create a a new witch-baby is superb, too: I love the many forms the head-witch takes. So far, this is definitely the ultimate PARIAH-PRIMAL point of synergy.

9. The Night Feeder

The ravage remains of a prehistoric smilodon are splayed across the ground, the aftermath of a brutal attack.

Initial Impressions

Back into the wilderness. Quite a follow-up to their harrowing experience, really! I love how the tension builds in this episode, and goes to show how classic horror ambience can be generated outside of the typical genres (gothic/contemporary/near future). Fang's attempt to shield Spear from theknowledge of this thing is interesting, and leaves me asking many questions of myself. Of course, the manner in which they finally overcome the beast is pure OSR and, on past form, pure PRIMAL!

Post-rationalised, Retroactively Rethunk 20-20 Hindsight Opinion

An invisible dinosaur is a truly terrifying monster to drop into a game, and does make me think that sometimes a simple twist on an established adversary an create all sorts of unexpected outcomes. Something that I think is particularly PARIAH-like here is the fact that part of Fang is aware of what the creature might be doing, but sort of accepts it as a force of nature and simply wants to will it away (or suffer it out), while Spear is curious and wants to poke around.

There are echoes of humanity-as-child-of-nature (exemplified in alter human species by our neotenous characteristics, as I'm sure Eldritch Eternity would remind us...

10. Slave of the Scorpion

A bald-headed woman , Mia, leans against the cliff face, cornered. Iron manacles tether her wrists and a timber brace is bound around her neck.

Initial Impressions

The final piece of the puzzle: not just a modern human, but clearly a Neolithic human, from her Egyptian/ Horn of Africa character design, to the metal clasps on her wrists (not just the materials, but the notion that she comes from a society where some people are bound) to her systematic worship of the heavens. Here we have the perfect end to a series called Primal... the sudden interjection of "civilisation" both good (Mia) and bad (everything else associated with it)!

Ladies and gentleman, the jury has reached their decision!

Post-rationalised, Retroactively Rethunk 20-20 Hindsight Opinion

Just one final thought to add to what's been said before I wrap it all up in a piece of dried sinew and hang it from the sacred tree at the end of my ancestral hunting-tract...

Isn't Mia a classic random encounter? They're minding their own business when an entire other world, hitherto unheard of, suddenly bursts into the scene. I'm partially reminded of the final scene in Apocalypto (future post: how PARIAH is Apocalypto? Problematic because of Gibson and also treatment of Maya culture)... and while we're on the subject of problematic but enjoyable movies, the sail on the Neolithic ship reminded me of the boats in 10,000 BC, which were also manned by slavers...


Let's look at the elements individually...
  • PSYCHEDELIC: monkey steroids, time-travel through memories, witches stealing your snake-essence, purple bat monsters that dwell with giant spiders... 
  • PROTO-NEOLITHIC: initially not until the very end... but we're given a glimpse of something possibly even more advanced, maybe even suggesting Spear &fang's realm is a "lost world".
  • ANIMIST: Magic is real, beliefs in another life abound and animals and humans can engage in some degree of communication... but the spirits are quiet... or, if noisy, evil (episodes 8 and 9)
  • OLD SCHOOL: Yes. Pure Stone & Sorcery with additional notes. The heroes are often put in harm's way, and need to use cunning to get out of the scrapes they fall into. Death is real and permanent, and life is cruel and unpredictable. Running away is always an option, as is bargaining your way out of trouble.
  • SANDBOX: the biggest stretch, because (presumably) the series was written out not randomly rolled... but the feel is very much like a sandbox game: wandering monsters, understated worldbuilding, no lore-dumps, emergent narrative (and emergent character relationships).
I'm still glad I saw it after PARIAH was published, because I might have gone in a slightly different direction... and lots of people have already begun to play PARIAH with Neanderthals as both NPCs and PCs, so there are definite precedents!


How much PRIMAL is there in PARIAH?

A lot.

How much PARIAH is there in PRIMAL?

See above.

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