N8R8s The Talos Principle
Like a giant benevolent alarm clock, a booming voice from the sky wakes you from your slumber. You get up, stretch the sleepies out and start mashing buttons. Quickly, you realize you are some sort of cyborg with the handy ability to go into third-person and sprint like ridiculously fast. Soon, you get to work jamming force fields, redirecting beams of light, and placing boxes on pressure plates. You’re doing all this because… well, you’re not quite sure yet, but Elohim – that godly voice from the sky – sure sounds convincing and He wants you to keep at it! Don’t worry about those highbrow questions like, “Why am I doing this?” or “Where am I?” or “How do I get the kitten from the cover art?” Elohim assures you that so long as you keep solving his puzzles and collecting his sacred Tetris pieces, all questions will be answered and you’ll ascend and live happily in his eternal paradise.
Of course, any puzzle game worth its weight in salt teaches its players never to trust the disembodied voices telling us to engage in repetitive and seemingly pointless tests. Messages scrawled on the walls in Portal gave us the feeling early on that GLaDOS was not as right-minded as she acted. Similarly, The Talos Principle offers messages from previous testers in the form of QR codes, each offering a snippet of insight into the true nature of this beautiful, mysterious world.
I have heard players say that the metaphysical focus of the game comes across as heavy-handed or pretentious. I sometimes got this feeling while reading through the massive amounts of these mixed media artifacts, but the biggest problem with the story wasn’t its haughtiness, but its inability to really surprise me. I found most of the audio logs bland and highly predictable and many of the accessible texts to be embarrassingly cliché. Still, the overarching philosophy of the game blows other thought-heavy games like Bioshock or The Stanley Parable out of the water, which is especially impressive considering The Talos Principle’s much, much grander philosophical scope.While Elohim avoids addressing questions like Why? and How? you are tasked with solving deeper philosophical puzzles in order to answer these questions for yourself. The game’s narrative is constructed with a variety of messages left behind by others in the form of various multimedia. Forum posts, IRCs, emails between researchers and coworkers, philosophical texts, audio logs, and conversations with the mysterious Milton Library Archive allow you to gain understanding and a better sense of what happened to humanity. More importantly, digging through this wide array of information may lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself and that weird thing you call reality.
These minor issues of narrative clumsiness and self-impressedness are washed away by The Talos Principle’s greatest success. These bright moments exist at the intersection of truly good puzzles and truly engaging pieces of narrative. This crossing typically occurs at the end of a string of difficult puzzles – when you’re heading back to the start and are faced with an eerie blinking eye on the computer terminal. Activating the terminal faces you with a choose-your-own adventure style of dialogue with Milton, a peculiar AI with a penchant for socratic dialogue. This is how The Talos Principle gets in your head. Milton questions you and your way of thinking, potentially getting you to doubt the nature of the game, yourself, and the world you live in. These conversations – typically awarded to the player at the end of a gauntlet of difficult puzzles – exemplify The Talos Principle’s capacity for greatness. These are the moments that make this game more than just another first-person puzzler.
The game has some of the nicest environments I have ever seen in a first person game. The graphics aren’t incredibly polished, but it’s easy to forget this with its huge structures and fantastic detail. The architecture is beautiful and the level of explorability is impressive. This is a game you can truly get lost in, if that is your purpose. There are dozens of hidden goodies throughout the worlds – some crafted to add a bit of extra challenge to the game and some just added for plain fun. The puzzles themselves are sectioned off into little cages rather than dispersed throughout the surrounding expansive terrain, which can leave you feeling less like entering the cramped spaces of the puzzles and more like wandering around outside. Undoubtedly, it was intentional to make the prison-like ‘progress’ of solving the puzzles clash with the freedom of exploration.It’s unfortunate that this feeling cannot be sustained throughout all of the game. The puzzles in Talos are increasingly difficult and mentally stimulating and while they typically require forethought, concentration, and finesse, they frequently lack a design that avoids repetitive, meaningless, chore-like tasks that annoy and bore rather than stimulate. Over and over I found myself running back and forth across the level because – even though I’d already figured out the solution to the puzzle – I couldn’t quite place a laser beacon in just the right spot at just the right time. If the game did not have the humorously fast infinite sprint feature, Talos would have felt eternal.
All-in-all, The Talos Principle plays extremely well as a puzzle game. The problems of repetition and tediousness do not heftily detract from the rest of the gameplay but they do make me wonder if the large number of puzzles is warranted. The game asks for a lot from its players in terms of thoughtfulness and open-mindedness, and is therefore not for the stupid. The expansive worlds and huge number of texts give the Talos a vast and open feeling, allowing the player to easily escape when the puzzles get just a bit too tiresome. With so much to read through, it’s unsurprising that some of the texts feel a bit forced or cliché. This problem is easily trumped, however with the beautiful moments in which the puzzles come seamlessly together with the tough philosophical questions. Without these intersections, the game is an excellent first-person puzzler. But with the artful combination of puzzle and paradox, The Talos Principle is a thorough examination of the human, and robot, condition.
The Talos Principle can leave you in a metaphysical crisis. Few games can boast this.