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.
Puzzles branch off into rooms from central hubs and are largely confined to the specific room, but The Talos Principle also isn’t afraid to break the rules, though I didn’t catch on for quite a while. In addition to sigils, stars unlock a different door, but they are often in hard to reach places or impossible to see. Thinking literally outside of the box rewards players with gold stars. There’s nothing to imply in the game that this is possible as items cannot be carried through the entryways from puzzles to the hub. While discovering new ideas for yourself is a theme, it’s hard to know when your creative experiments are what the game wants you to do or if you’re just wasting time.
QR codes on the walls indicate there are others here. We question why we must solve the puzzles, but Elohim continues to encourage or chide me. I must get back to the sigils. He affectionately calls me a child, and I remember all the times I asked why solving word problems mattered at all just to have adults remind me that I should do as I’m told. It feels right for this game, having to balance obedience and defiance.
There’s an overlap between humans and machines, for humans have created machines, and many of our problem solving skills are akin to machines. The main difference is that a machine does what a person tells it to. Your computer isn’t going to solve a complicated problem for you unless you tell it to do so. As the Serpent questioned the character on what makes a human human and a machine a machine, questioning why I bother to solve Elohim’s puzzles (to which I have no answer other than I have to in order to progress in the game), I wonder if maybe we’re all “part machine” for our problem-solving skills – or maybe, actually, that’s why we’re able to make machines to do tasks for us. Free will is a bit hard to cover in games as we have to follow already established rules to make progress, and choosing not to participate means not getting anywhere in the game. I don’t think The Talos Principle is able to jump that hurdle, but it provides food for thought at least.
The Talos Principle could be a frustrating game; for the most part, it’s a challenging but pleasing experience. Signs indicate which sigils are in an area, as well as which ones are still up for grabs, so there’s no confusion over where you should go. Calming music promotes a sense of patience. Undercutting the serenity of Elohim’s garden is the tower, which looks much less inviting than the areas Elohim has set up. But what’s more human than curiosity of the unknown?
Despite my occasional frustration of being unable to find the solutions to puzzles, it wasn’t until the climax of the game that the puzzle solving got out of hand. Whereas I felt free to take my time and experiment new ideas in the earlier puzzles, the big final puzzle left me screaming in frustration due to time limits and a harsh penalty of restarting the long puzzle from the very beginning when I got stuck. What was leading to a big revelation was dented by systems that now suddenly penalized me for lengthy trial and error.
Some of the archives left for players to find are also unnecessary. Some are silly chat logs that add nothing to the story, but for the most part the emails and book passages discuss existence and humanity. “The world doesn’t come with a manual,” one email read. “You gotta figure it out for yourself.”
The Talos Principle asks players to reexamine their preconceived notions of sentience and humanity, but I was never properly convinced of how this artificial intelligence could behave in a manner unlike a machine except for the fact that I, an emotional and by all means illogical human, was playing the character. Nonetheless, I was also never really convinced by some philosophical discussions in school, but they are always fun to contemplate.
Bottom line: The feeling of accomplishment from solving The Talos Principle‘s puzzles is almost like a high, and the game does a mostly great job of guiding you in the beginning and then letting you figure things out for yourself. Some hiccups near the end drastically change the pace of problem solving for the worse, but it’s a game that will seriously challenge you to think and to reason.
Recommendation: The Talos Principle is a game for people who love solving puzzles and discussing philosophy. Enjoy games like Portal but want a more serious game? This game is one to check out.[rating=4]