Croteam’s The Talos Principle has an answer to the age-old question of “Why do we play games?” The answer, simple enough to understand, is that “They make us human.” The trick is that The Talos Principle then sets out to prove that point, crafting a first-person puzzler that’s bibilical both in terms of its epic story and 20-plus-hour playtime. The content isn’t religious or preachy (it’s far more passively philosophical), but it does begin with your unnamed robotic protagonist awakening in a garden at the foot of a forbidden Babel-like tower, choosing between the booming instructions of the omnipresent Elohim and the serpentine suggestions of the Milton Library Assistant. Solving puzzles may demonstrate that you have “predictive capability” and “spatial awareness,” but the scattered text and audio logs question whether such feats demonstrate consciousness—and if not, if anything can. The Talos Principle, then, is a Turing test in reverse, with you (a human playing the part of a robot) attempting to convince the game (a robot playing the part of a human) that you are in fact more than a machine.
It’s a brilliant concept, and one that cleanly unites both the narrative choices and the puzzles. Whereas The Stanley Parable didn’t feel enough like a game, Antichamber sometimes came across as too self-aware, and Portal’s serious testing chambers were at odds with its comic antagonist, The Talos Principle presents itself as philosophy in action. Beyond the names of each room (some, like “Above It All,” are more helpful than others, like “The Four Chambers of Flying”), there are no instructions; an early README found on a malfunctioning terminal states only that “The world doesn’t come with a manual; figure it out.” But is Descartes’s assertion, “I think, therefore I am,” enough in a world of advanced A.I.? Or might we concede that given enough time, Watson might also learn to think outside the box in solving these 150-odd puzzles?
Only rarely does The Talos Principle get too ambitious for its own good. For the most part, the puzzles are all fair, and the nonlinear nature of the game rewards those who attempt the more difficult puzzles first with visual demonstrations and hints toward earlier ones (such as noting the various objects that a jamming device can interact with, or illustrating where a hexahedron can be placed). However, some levels are overly large, requiring puzzles not to be solved so much as found in the first place, and a few of the harder meta-challenges require game-breaking platforming skills that feel out of place in this thinking man’s world. (Level A4, I’m looking at you.) Using the connector tool to link various beams of light across a labyrinth of hallways and peepholes is tricky enough; it can feel downright unfair when your solution is off by a few precise degrees or inches, something players of Quantum Conundrum know all too well.
Mostly, however, the ambition pays off, especially in comparison to Tom Jubert’s previous puzzler, The Swapper, which suffered from end-game fatigue. The Talos Principle, like Portal 2, fends off boredom by continuing to introduce new gadgets (levitation-enabling fans, cloning stations) while simultaneously finding creative new twists on old mechanics. It also benefits from more varied scenery; not only are there Roman villas, Egyptian ruins, and Middle Age castles, but there’s a random weather system that sometimes shrouds an area in darkness or dampens it with a light rain. Given how intense some of the puzzles can be, this effect serves as a nice and at times necessary distraction.
It’s also important to note that The Talos Principle understands its audience, and scales its puzzles accordingly. For those who want to dig deeper into the game, there are hidden challenges, some of which involve scanning QR codes or translating hexadecimal codes. The majority of damnable tessellation puzzles can be ignored, brute-forced, or looked up on YouTube. But ultimately, even the more frustrating hours spent with The Talos Principle are worth it. If the onion layers of this game produce tears, they will be the ones of joy. As the game suggests, “Peril and paradise are inextricable,” and without the tricky puzzles, there wouldn’t be nearly as much satisfaction.
Croteam’s The Talos Principle is available now on Steam for Windows, Mac OS X, and SteamOS + Linux.