Things that make you go ‘hmmmm’
While playing The Talos Principle, much of my time was spent sitting at my desk, chin in hand, deep in thought. I can only imagine the puzzled look on my face as I considered options, ran scenarios in my head, and generally did a lot more thinking than most games ask of players.
The Talos Principle consists of two largely separate interactions: physics-based puzzles and philosophical discussion. The real strength of the title is that while each could reasonably exist without the other, both elicit the above response in equal measure. The demand that the player really think is the thread that ties the whole game together.
The Talos Principle (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: December 11, 2014
Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit
The meat of The Talos Principle is in the puzzles. Most of these have the same basic goal: find a way to get to the Sigil (a colored tetromino) at the end of each of the small, discrete puzzle rooms. These start out simple, with only a couple of tools available, but eventually become more complex and more devious.
Barring access to the Sigils are energy barriers, automated turrets, and explosive drones. Initially, the main tool to deal with these obstacles is the jammer, which can shut down any electronic devices. Later, connectors are used to manipulate lasers, hexahedra will weigh down pressure plates, fans can push objects, and more.
A lot of the puzzles use these tools in a straightforward manner, but the best ones require the player to discover alternate functions. A jammer can weigh down a pressure plate while deactivating a device remotely. A hexahedron can act as a stepping stone over treacherous terrain. A series of connectors can be arranged to create a recursive loop, activating and deactivating doors continuously. Even the turrets and drones have uses in the right situations. Solving the toughest puzzles requires not only hard logic, but also the ability to consider everything that an object is capable of doing.
The puzzles in The Talos Principle can be downright diabolical. Each of the main Sigils is clearly designated and can be obtained with enough persistence and the right frame of mind, but it goes deeper than just those. There are also optional stars scattered around the environment, some hidden from view and others out in plain sight but difficult to access.
These stars add an entire new level of difficulty to the puzzles. Some require particularly efficient use of tools. Some require the player to quite literally think outside the box, using elements from neighboring puzzle rooms together. Some are not found in the puzzle rooms at all. After more than twenty hours of play time, I was able to obtain all of the main puzzle room Sigils, but I only managed to pick up a little more than half of the stars.
It is a bit of a bummer, since both Sigils and stars act as keys to unlock new areas filled with new puzzles. The main Sigils can lead to one of two different endings, but the stars eventually lead to the sixth floor and presumably a third ending. I desperately want to see what is behind the third door and I know I would not be able to without the help of the community.
Part of the reason I am so intent on seeing all there is to see is that the narrative is thought-provoking, but I feel like I am still missing some pieces of it. In short, the story is about existing as an artificial intelligence in a strange, computer-generated world. The unique thing about The Talos Principle‘s story is that it is delivered through about a half dozen different avenues.
Immediately upon waking, the player is greeted by an almighty voice in the sky calling himself Elohim, who gives commands and promises eternal life. Not long after, the player finds computer terminals, which contain catalogs of old emails, websites, and other text that gives clues to the world’s history. The Milton Library Assistant is a program created to catalog all of that data, but it ends up with its own thoughts and ideas. Scattered about, there are audio recordings from a woman whose importance to the story becomes more apparent over time. Finally, there are QR codes painted on the walls of the puzzle rooms themselves, put there by entities who have passed through previously.
All of those pieces come together to create the world of The Talos Principle, but some are more important than others. Listening to Elohim and following his instructions alone will lead down one path, but the Milton Library Assistant (referred to as the Serpent in some achievements) will challenge those actions, and just about everything else.
Interacting with the Milton Library Assistant is easily the most interesting non-puzzle activity in The Talos Principle. It asks fundamental questions about consciousness, morality, purpose, and the like, and even when it seems like the answer is obvious, it will provide a counter example that brings new perspective to the discussion.
In truth, navigating the dialogue trees of discussion with the Milton Library Assistant can become exhausting after a while. In the same way that a difficult puzzle would stump me for several minutes at a time, I would often carefully consider each question it would pose, and play out how it would react to each of the given responses. It seems to have a clever retort to just about everything and the player does not get to really “fight back” until near the end. Still, there are options to appease or ignore the program altogether, which presumably lead down different narrative paths. The sheer volume of text employed to argue philosophical points is impressive.
Both the puzzles and the philosophical dialogue require deep thought, but one disappointment in The Talos Principle is that the two are not connected in a meaningful way. Sure, the playable character is an artificial intelligence and a lot of the philosophy centers on whether an artificial intelligence can be considered a person. Sure, completing the puzzles means obeying Elohim (at least to a point). One of the ending sequences introduces a new mechanic that is enhanced for those who have been carefully following along. But for the most part, the puzzles and the philosophy are independent of one another.
Though I understand the reasoning behind the decision, it hurts my heart knowing that there will be players who ignore or put off having to think about the topics that writers Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes contributed and instead focus only on the puzzles. Even though the two pieces of the game do not tie together as powerfully as I had hoped, the dichotomy helps to keep The Talos Principle from becoming overwhelming. After spending all available mental energy on logic, it helps to shift gears and think about life.
The Talos Principle has some important things to say, but more thoughtfully, it wants the player to have important things to say as well. Even those who do not bother to think about the philosophical topics can find a smart, sometimes frustratingly difficult puzzler here. It really shines for those open to both.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]