The Talos Principle is an ambitious game that tries to tackle the sort of subjects that science fiction writers, such as Asimov, have struggled with for years. Can a robot achieve an orgasm? Do Soda Streams feel shame? Would a calculator ever understand the concept of bigotry, and silently judge you for it? While these questions are not directly tackled in favour of more lofty philosophies, The Talos Principle successfully engages you, the player, in contemplating your own humanity.
Your first experience in the game involves awakening on a stone pillar. An arrogant, disembodied voice calling itself Elohim (Hebrew for God) introduces you to your surroundings; classical Roman/Greek architecture inspires a series of puzzle chambers separated from each other by a series of walls and force fields. Elohim encourages you to have faith in him, and spurs you to begin completing puzzles and exploring his world. Despite Elohim’s condescending assertions that he is the creator, questions soon emerge as to whether Elohim has any more influence over the world than you do. This comes into focus as the mysterious “serpent” (otherwise known as the Milton Library Assistant) makes contact with you via the many terminals in the game, who questions your faith in Elohim, and your very existence.
This provides the set up for a plot that goes far deeper than the usual “can a robot feel love?” stories that we’re used to at this point. Although it’s clear that you play as a mechanical being, the idea is that you are discovering your own humanity through a series of abstract puzzles. However, in doing so, you’re also coming to define what makes you, the player, a sentient being. The serpent will often ask you to describe your own humanity, then successfully calls you out on your own logical inconsistencies. The game manages to handle these philosophies with the respect they deserve, and occasionally includes a welcome twist of humour into moments that would otherwise feel rather dry. For the most part, The Talos Principle behaves like a self-serious version of Portal.
Portal remains an obvious comparison due to the first-person perspective and the way in which the self-contained puzzles are slowly layered with more complexity. However, shortly after learning how to navigate the world, the game gives you various hubs through which to access separate puzzles. This gives you the freedom to explore these and to tackle them at your leisure but the option to solve these puzzles at your own pace is a welcome addition. This means that you’re never fully “stuck”, as you can always return to a puzzle later once you’ve cleared your head.
The puzzles themselves are a particular high point of the game, as you would hope in a game that is centred around puzzles. The combination of tools you acquire help to keep them feeling fresh and varied. Jammers will disable force fields and turrets, and refracting rods let you power doors and devices by bouncing onto them coloured beams of light; boxes can be used to press switches or as platforms; fans blow you or any objects you place on them into the air. There’s also a recorder box that records your actions, allowing you to play them back so that you may work alongside a cloned version of yourself. As you can tell, The Talos Principle throws several different tools into the mix, and the rewarding part is figuring how they link up through timing and positioning.
Your reward for each puzzle is a tetromino, which ultimately unlocks further doors and puzzles down the line. These puzzles do become quite challenging towards the middle section of the game, but by the end, you’ll find that you’ve sussed the basic logic and timing required to solve even the trickiest of challenges. Although you’ll be finishing the harder puzzles in the final third of the game with mechanical precision, this doesn’t make the task in front of you feel any less significant. If anything, due to the way the challenges ramp up to this point, you’ll feel empowered.
While some of the solutions to puzzles do repeat themselves at times, the journey itself is usually different. With over 120 puzzles in the game, you’re bound to come across familiar instances, but the game does enough to differentiate them from each other and to stop them from becoming stale.
As with many of the best puzzle games out there, there are mysteries in The Talos Principle that exist outside of the main scope of the game. Hidden stars in some of the levels will unlock secret doors, many of which require you to link what are usually self-contained puzzles together in surprising ways. This is reminiscent of the anti-cube puzzles in Fez, where an extra layer of challenge and intrigue exists, but only for the players who are curious enough to delve more deeply into the game’s hidden systems. There are quite a few Easter eggs to be discovered here, and what the hell is going on with those random buckets of paint?
Ultimately though, the biggest puzzle you’ll be resolving surrounds your existence. Occasionally, the walls will glitch out in intentionally bizarre ways. When you type at a terminal, you’ll notice that your hands are robotic. If you leap out of the map or stray too far from one of the game’s hubs, you’ll reset back at the centre of the map. It’s clear that you’re in some kind of computer simulation, but for what purpose? The mysteries surrounding the plot are, in many ways, even more intriguing than the excellent puzzle design. It also provides commentary on the human condition; the only reason you will want to absorb all of the QR messages and text in the terminals is to satisfy your own curiosity and to understand the world at large.
The lonely atmosphere presented here gives the game a contemplative tone. From the crumbled Greco-Roman ruins of the first world to the untouched sands of the second, The Talos Principle is very much a solitary affair. This blends well with the beautifully crafted, unsullied environments that you will be exploring. The attractiveness of each area caused me, for the first time on my PS4, to save a screenshot of the landscape. The framerate occasionally takes a hit when looking through some intense foliage, making an otherwise smooth experience seem rather jarring in places, but these sparse instances fail to spoil the all-inclusive flow of the game.
Overall, The Talos Principle is an engaging puzzle game that challenges the player on basic logic, but also on the perception of themselves. You will be left asking basic questions that you thought were long since answered such as “How do you define consciousness?”, “Is a frog a person?” and “What is love?”. As someone who missed the original PC release last year, this game was a total and welcome surprise to me, and one which in some way, shape or form, has changed me. That’s a difficult sell in an entertainment product, but one that definitely works.
A Transcendent Experience
A game which forces you to question your own existence through the medium of abstract puzzles.