So, Talos Principle, then. Or The Talos Principle, I’m not sure what it prefers. A first-person puzzle game, so of course it was going to get compared to Portal. And as I said in the review, I don’t think that’s an entirely fair comparison. Portal was very very good and very very successful and inevitably people want to try to make that lightning strike twice, but Talos Principle doesn’t group so easily with the more obvious imitators like Quantum Conundrum and Q.U.B.E.
I mean, I can’t deny that Talos Principle is also first person and a puzzler. And while there have certainly been first-person games before Portal that were more about puzzles than action, Portal was one of the first to make full use of the 3D space and line-of-sight in the design of the puzzles, where previously a ‘first person puzzler’ merely meant that you stopped moving around every now and again to solve a sliding tile puzzle that was holding a door closed for some reason. Talos Principle also makes full use of the perspective and 3D space when it has you redirect laser beams around the map, requiring you to be able to eyeball the route the laser takes before you place the reflector.
But I’m not arguing that TP takes no influence from Portal at all, it’s only smart to learn from the greats. I’d argue it’s virtually impossible to make a narrative puzzle game in this day and age without being influenced by Portal, consciously or not. But I do think it’s another symptom of gaming having no long-term memory that Portal seems to be the only point of reference people have for the genre of first-person puzzle games. Croteam seem like an old-fashioned bunch, and just as their main IP Serious Sam calls back to retro shooters, Talos Principle takes a range of influences that go all the way back to the earliest days of PC gaming, and a little property called Myst.
Talos Principle has this nice atmosphere of loneliness created firstly (and most obviously) by our being alone, collecting scraps of knowledge on the backstory and ongoing events from scattered documents, logs and plain text communication, and secondly by being surrounded by huge, gorgeous environments that really emphasize the fact that you’re the only living thing for miles around. All of which reminds me of Myst because Myst and games like Myst created a similar atmosphere, albeit largely because of technical limitations. They wanted to show everyone that they were on the cutting edge of pre-rendered PC graphics, and that meant reducing the game to a prolonged sequence of pretty landscapes with no other characters or anything else that might require animation.
It’s like the Silent Hill fog thing – something that wasn’t much more than a way to fudge the parameters that the technology had set for us, but which ended up being such an essential part of the mood it became a signature of the genre. And I suppose I have a certain amount of nostalgia for that particular brand of early-PC-game first-person fudging – click the side of the screen to turn ninety degrees, click the centre to blink ten feet forward – for that unique atmosphere you get from the sense that all the excitement’s either already happened or is going on off-screen and you’re just sweeping up after the fact.
Myst itself I didn’t like much, though. I don’t think it holds up. It doesn’t so much build a world as vaguely tie together some scraps of ones where the polygon counts are low and the puzzles make no sense. But I remember enjoying games like The Journeyman Project, or Labyrinth of Time. I’ll tell you the game Talos Principle reminds me of more than any other, and that’s Zork Nemesis. It was kind of the black sheep of the Zork family, which were mainly fairly light-hearted adventure games taking the whimsical attitude of early text adventures and bringing them into a full-on graphical situation. Nemesis, on the other hand, made the some would say misguided attempt to use the same setting for a serious, dramatic tale about forbidden love, murder, abuse and betrayal. Fun, fun, fun.
But Nemesis was also characterized by very pretty scenery that went back and forth between ruins, grand buildings and industrial areas seemingly at random, an overseeing figure with a spooky voice, and also had a mystery plot you had to piece together as you went along, and that’s mainly why I’m reminded more of it than Portal by Talos Principle. The other reason is that they both virtually embody the word ‘pretentious’.
I think ‘pretentious’ is a word that tends to be overused these days, to the point that it’s starting to lose its meaning. It’s like accusing someone of being ‘elitist’ because they’re smarter, stronger and better-looking than you and there is literally nothing else you can criticize them for. I try not to use the word ‘pretentious’ when what I mean is ‘I didn’t get it’. These games are pretentious in the fairly strict sense of the word: putting on undeserved airs. Zork, having been established as a whimsical fantasy realm that didn’t take itself seriously, was too established in that attitude to be able to suddenly turn around and do something dark, grim, edgy, dark, serious and dark.
And at times Talos Principle was putting on a way higher level of literacy and importance than the bulk of the gameplay warranted. I mean, I still like the story and I like a lot of how it’s presented, but – without wishing to be too spoilery – the plot does end up as what some science fiction circles refer to as ‘a shaggy god story’. The other voices are constantly pushing the grand importance of your task, which is implied to be some ultimate test that will finally reveal you to be the greatest intelligence to have ever walked this land, and then all you end up doing is weighing down buttons and reflecting lasers. Or slotting Tetris blocks into Tetris-block-shaped holes. And when I found one of those documents that seem to be retelling some grand mythical story in a way that was in some way analogous to the current situation, my eyes would start to glaze over.
So that’s the final reason why I think a comparison to Portal is a bit unfair: because Portal is on almost the exact opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to pretension. Here we’ve got gameplay that is intelligent and requires having to spontaneously construct a new understanding of spatial physics, and then we have dialogue that’s mostly wittering about cakes.