Developed by Croteam. Published by Devolver Digital. Released on December 11, 2014. Available on PC. Review copy provided by the publisher.
While in school, I learned that there are many different ways of thinking about something, but some may be more right than others. So when I stood at a computer terminal in the philosophical puzzler The Talos Principle debating personhood, I had a similar feeling of conversations going around in circles.
The Talos Principle is a game where your mind will do circles. I've known for a while that I don't process information in a step-by-step manner, being able to think ahead and predict what will come next. Whether it was a puzzle set up by the ambiguously benevolent god Elohim or debates with the Milton Library Assistant on the terminals, I circled around, changing my mind frequently -- other times being steadfast in my decision based on a gut feeling.
Playing as an AI unit in a digital world that masqueraded as a Garden of Eden, I was never really certain of what I could trust. Elohim urged me to collect sigils, Tetris-like shapes, by completing increasingly difficult puzzles. In these puzzles, I had to use jammers to open barriers and stop turrets, connectors to link beams to unlock doors, fans to push things into the air, and more. Why am I solving these puzzles? I asked myself. What's the point to all this?
That's not fully answered until the end, but glimpses of the narrative occur through archives of emails and blog posts as well as audio recordings of a researcher. The archives hint at a catastrophic event that dooms humanity. Elohim encourages me to solve puzzles but beware of a tower that will only bring temptation. I must avoid temptation in his garden. It's all very biblical.
But the main point of The Talos Principle is the question: "What makes someone human?"
I reach a terminal and select a command to type. I realize my fingers are not flesh and bone. Had I chosen to play in third-person - the game defaults to first-person, and there's no real need to change it - I would have seen the mechanical body of the main character. Furthermore, the occasional fuzziness or glitching in the walls reminds me that this world is artificial, like this character. The Talos Priniciple is never explicit about what's happening, and it does a wonderful job of implying events occurred. Little bits of narrative in the archives act as a motivator to solve Elohim's puzzles, and I never felt bored by the nonlinear story I slowly uncovered.
Problem-solving in The Talos Principle is paramount to proceeding in the game. If at first you don't succeed, try again -- and boy did I fail time and time again. The beginning equipment you can use to navigate to the sigils is never explained through tutorials. The game does something better; smaller, light puzzles let you easily find the purpose of the jammer, connector, and hexahedron. The puzzles' difficulty increases over time, guiding you toward finding creative ways of using the tools and the environment. For someone like me who is not necessarily a pro at 3D puzzles, I was able to comfortably ease into the first third of The Talos Principle with challenges that hit a sweet spot of being tough but not seemingly impossible. That all changed in the final third of the game, which frequently left me at a loss.
Each puzzle rewards a sigil, which unlock tools for later puzzles and new areas to explore. The screen indicates which sigils unlock the door or equipment, and for the majority of the game, getting stuck on one puzzle doesn't mean progress is at a halt. There are close to 120 puzzles with sigils of different colors and shapes, but there are multiples. When I took too long on a puzzle, Elohim reminded me that I could try again at a later point when the solution just came to me. ("I'll show you, Elohim!" I shouted, stuck in a puzzle for 30 minutes exasperatingly repeating the same failed logic until I left to do a different one and suddenly realized the solution to the one I had been stuck on.) Unfortunately, the puzzles become dramatically more complicated in the final third of the game, when skipping puzzles is no longer a luxury. My favorite part of the game, being able to skip puzzles I didn't understand, was gone. In the hardest puzzles, Elohim's messengers will give hints, but these hints were sometimes vague and a puzzle themselves. Hints are also hard to come by. When I used one and it gave me no help, I felt cheated because the hints are so rare. Having the option to earn additional hints would have made the game much less stressful for me.