The Talos Principle Review
Poignant puzzler peacefully ponders philosophy, purpose, and pressure plates
A distinct, unshakeable sense of unease hung over me as I played my way through The Talos Principle. It wasn't the fault of the game, at least not in the conventional sense, and it was far too meta for my brain to accept the possibility that it was intentional. Storytelling? Gameplay? No, despite their efforts to pry open my head and pour in some cold, fresh ideas, they weren't the source. It was Serious Engine 3. As I wandered – or more often, bunny-hopped – through the game's myriad of peaceful gardens, ancient temples and crumbling ruins, I just couldn't shake the feeling – even in such a quiet, contemplative setting – that around the next corner waited a minigun, a horde of headless screaming kamikaze bombers, and a bombastic musical cue or two. Croteam's famous FPS series has been their only notable product for so long that I – and, I suspect, many others – had just assumed it was all they were capable of, and all that their engine would ever be used for. This, then, is my public apology for doubting you, Croteam. I'd send you a cake or something, but considering the number of insufferable comparisons I've seen between The Talos Principle and Portal, you might take that the wrong way.
Oh, I suppose the parallels are there if you really want to look for them. You wake up in an unfamiliar place, solve various first-person puzzles designed to 'test' you at the behest of an unseen voice of questionable allegiance, gradually build suspicions about them, work out what's going on with the help of various clues in your environment, and generally enjoy the pleasant sense that somebody is standing behind you, rubbing your temples with two lumps of cotton wool. Where Portal garbed itself in gallows humour, though, The Talos Principle turns up dressed for a night at the opera. This is a serious, sombre game. Not the usual melodramatic kind of video game seriousness either, 'cause that's at least kind of fun to take the piss out of; this is philosophical sci-fi so high-brow that it's in danger of sustaining a concussion from the tops of doorways.
What I find really elegant about The Talos Principle is how well the opening sequence – brief and simple though it is – communicates what the game is about. The absolute first thing you see in the game is your own robotic arm, shielding you from the sun's rays as you lie in a sun-bleached ruin. You are a machine, supposedly no more alive than Talkie Toaster, and yet you perform a gesture that serves you no practical purpose whatsoever. Are you sentient, then? Do you think and behave as a human would, or merely provide a perfect illusion of such behaviour? If so, surely it no longer matters. Then there's this voice in the clouds, calling himself Elohim, claiming to be your divine creator, and promising you immortality if you complete a multitude of trials. But what could a machine want with eternal life? Again, you show instincts of self-preservation, a wholly biological trait, simply by implicitly accepting his offer. Such is the premise at the centre of The Talos Principle: you are a machine that walks like a man. What does this mean for you? What should you do with your life? Do you follow your assigned purpose? And on a more chilling note... where are all the people?
At first, the story can seem more than a little fragmented. Indeed, between the game's beautiful environments, peaceful music, heavy-handed religious allegory and penchant for throwing seemingly irrelevant scraps of literature at you, it's initially hard not to see The Talos Principle as a game struggling to forcibly pump as many jumbled ideas into the player's head as possible, hoping that enough of them rattle around in there to make it appear all clever and grown-up. Over time, though, the storytelling coalesces into something infinitely more meaningful. Not content with merely posing vague philosophical questions to the ether, the game introduces a character of sorts named Milton, whose purpose is solely to grab you by the scruff of the neck and yell them in your face – figuratively, that is. “What do you think, player? Why do you think that? Have you any idea how inconsistent your ideologies are, you uncultured sack of meat?” An image forms out of a thousand scattered jigsaw pieces – not complete until the very end, but complete enough to let you glimpse the terrible truth, like a hanging bathrobe seen out of the corner of your eye at four in the morning. What initially looks like little more than a clever little puzzler with a bit of pretentious flair thrown in for good measure reveals itself as a genuinely really well-written work of sci-fi. Any game could copy-paste the big questions from the Philosophy 101 course outline and earn a few points from the arty crowd, but The Talos Principle uses its ideas to drive the plot, shape the characters, and ultimately begin to steer your own actions. I dare-say that to people who actually know their Pythagoreanism from their Platonism it probably seems all a bit old-hat, but to totally uninformed idiots like me it's jolly exciting.
It'd just be nice if the exposition was presented as well as it is written. The Talos Principle is a graduate of what I like to call the System Shock 2 school of storytelling: audio logs, text dumps, ghostly apparitions, and let's not forget, an authoritative figure constantly watching over you and occasionally loudly commenting on your progress. It's a good system when your game universe extends well beyond the bounds of what the player is actually doing – as is the case here – but I'm not convinced it's the perfect fit for The Talos Principle. Every puzzle hub has a computer terminal containing a nice varied collection of documents – book extracts, emails, announcements, blog posts from your xenophobic uncle – and while I'll ravenously consume reams of sci-fi flavour text without complaint, it does mean that the storytelling and gameplay have to work in separate rooms to a certain extent, communicating via notes thrown over the wall. There's no sense that the two are integrated or anything; the terminals are just sloppy plot dumps, to be occasionally upended over you like buckets of kitchen swill. Except it's nice swill, I guess.
Oh yeah, there are puzzles. They're pretty good too.
Alright, alright. Elohim is evidently not the most extravagant of deities – as if that wasn't already apparent from the non-biological nature of his solitary subject– since his trials focus less on the whole 'slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra' thing and more on just completing puzzles. Each puzzle grants you a 'sigil', essentially a big three-dimensional Tetris piece that progresses the story: green ones help unlock new worlds, yellows help unlock new puzzle elements, reds – when collected in their entirety – let you finish the story. Technically the game is pretty non-linear, but unless you're the kind of person who intentionally scribbles in the bits of forms labelled 'DO NOT WRITE IN THIS SPACE', you're probably going to end up starting at level A-1 and going from there.
And what a journey you're in for. Strictly speaking there are few (if any) puzzle elements in The Talos Principle that other first-person puzzlers haven't already laid claim to - cubes, buttons, lasers - but I can't think of any that have used them quite so inventively without running out of steam. By my estimate there are around four squintillion puzzles in The Talos Principle, and while it can certainly get a little bit draining towards the end – really, it's a bloody long game – it's impressive how few of them feel like cop-outs. Some work iteratively, giving you a meagre set of tools and providing an ever-mounting set of obstacles as you gain access to more options, while others force you to work economically, using what appear to be an insufficient number of items by cutting as many corners as possible. Others just play with the existing mechanics in new and unexpected ways. They're the kind of puzzles that demand you be completely aware of your surroundings, and even in the small details you can see the game gently pushing you towards this state: the way your goal, the sigil, is always clearly visible to any casual observer, and the way metal grates in the walls are used extensively to let you see the puzzle layout without just letting you run amok.