Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Talos Principle: Probably Worth Playing

What is the difference between a robot and a human being? If you put a person's brain in a mechanical suit, is he or she still a person? What if you replaced the brain with a computer that performed all the necessary functions of the brain, while still retaining that person's memories and personality? What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be a person? At what point does the line between human and artificial intelligence begin to blur?

These are the types of questions that The Talos Principle -- a first-person puzzler by the team behind the Serious Sam series -- explores as the player assumes the role of a nameless robot going through testing chambers in a computer simulation. Guided by the voice of the God-like Elohim, you're instructed to visit all the worlds in his creation and complete each of his tasks so that you can achieve eternal life. All you must do is collect enough sigils hidden away in each chamber, and above all else, stay away from the tower. Do you take it on faith that he'll lead you down the road to eternal life, or do you get inquisitive and try to find out what exactly is at the top of the tower, and what is the real purpose of this world you're in?

The Talos Principle is often compared to Portal, and those comparisons are certainly valid in a general sense. Both games, after all, are first-person puzzlers that have you going through test chambers while a disembodied voice talks to you and everything may not actually be as it seems. The actual puzzle mechanisms are strikingly similar as well, with both games featuring weighted cubes that you place on pressure plates, force field doors, redirecting laser beams, and devices that catapult you (and objects) through the room, among others. If you liked either of the Portal games, then it's a safe bet that you'll probably enjoy The Talos Principle. In some ways, I'd say it's even better than Valve's lauded masterpiece(s), though as usual, I have some issues with it as well.

If it isn't obvious from my posting history, I don't play a lot of puzzle games, and yet I'm frequently disappointed with the quality of puzzles I see in the games I do play. I like puzzles, but I don't typically find games exclusively about puzzles all that interesting. Part of my general apathy, I feel, is because a lot of games don't implement puzzles in ways that really take advantage of the video game medium. Logic puzzles are all well and good, but they don't benefit from being in a video game, and they often feel abstract and unrelated from the world you're in. Pure adventure games can be pretty good most of the time, but even here the puzzles can be a little hit or miss. What I really like is when puzzles are an integral part of the environment, especially when it's in a way that serves a narrative purpose. The Talos Principle hits pretty well on both of these marks.

The game's first-person perspective helps to immerse you in the setting and makes you feel more like you're actually there interacting with all of the tools and elements of each puzzle. The puzzles themselves are heavily integrated with the environments, with you usually having to figure out how to move through a space by considering the relative positioning of signal jammers, laser connectors, boxes, fans, and so on. So, while the puzzles are all about using brain power to deduce the logical solution, they also keep you actively engaged by having you moving around and actually doing things. There's likewise a pretty satisfying level of trial-and-error, with the puzzles designed in such a way that you can try different things, see what works, and progressively work your way to the solution.

The puzzles are all separated into their own self-contained rooms; solve a room's puzzle, and you gain a Tetris piece (called "sigils" by Elohim) that can be used as a literal puzzle piece to unlock doors to other worlds that contain more puzzles. Your goal is, ultimately, to collect all of the sigils, and then you decide whether to take Elohim up on his offer on eternal life, or use the sigils to unlock floors on the massive tower he's forbidden you from entering, and seeing what's up there. 

The game begins with the fewest and simplest mechanisms in play; early puzzles center around signal jammers, which can disable force field doors, patrolling mines, and ballistic turrets. These puzzles tend to involve using the jammer to manipulate the path of mines through doors to create a safe path for yourself (sometimes navigating them into turrets), or else figuring out how to use two jammers to get past three or four obstacles. Shortly thereafter, the game introduces cubes that can block the path of mines (or even be placed on top of mines so you can safely ride them through the room), or be set on pressure plates that activate various things. Sometimes they're used to step up to a higher ledge, or to elevate a jammer or laser connector so it can be aimed over an obstacle.

Laser connectors are the game's bread and butter, used in the vast majority of puzzles to open doors or to power things in the environment. Many rooms have either a red or a blue laser transmitter with multiple receivers spread throughout the room, which require you to position connectors so that you can angle the laser beam around corners or through windows to hit the receiver. Mines serve as mobile obstacles that can break up the laser beam, thus requiring you to use jammers or cubes to block their paths. Sometimes, a room will feature both red and blue lasers, which cancel each other out if their beams cross. Solving the laser puzzles relies heavily on line of sight and trying to visualize the path of the laser beams in your head before you set up the connectors. 

Later puzzles add fans to the mix, which can catapult you through the air over walls, or push you (or cubes, or mines) along the ground, or blow you (or boxes with laser connectors on top) straight up so that they hover in the air. Each fan has a fixed function; you can't move them throughout the room or aim them like you do with laser connectors or signal jammers, but there's still a lot of thought involved in operating them. Like the lasers, the fans come in two parts: the mechanical "transmitter" which is fixed to the environment, and the "receiver" fan blades that you can attach and detach from the fan, moving them from one fan to another, or even making them serve double duty by weighing down pressure plates. 

The final tool in your arsenal is the replay recorder, which enables a type of single-player co-op mechanism. With the recorder, you can record yourself doing things in a room like standing on pressure plates or positioning laser connectors. When you hit play, the device creates a holographic version of you that replays all of your actions in real time, allowing you to work in simultaneous conjunction with your holographic replay, thereby doubling the number of tools at your disposal (since the replay creates holographic duplicates of everything) and the number of actions you can take, as long as you can think ahead and work the timing out. You also unlock a platform that your holographic duplicate can hold over his head to carry you (or a stack of boxes) around the room, useful for getting things up to an inaccessible ledge, especially when combined with vertical fans or even simple jumping.

The puzzle systems are all tremendously impressive; these are clearly well-thought-out puzzles, and the way the different systems interact is particularly clever. Each system on its own is fairly simple, but a typical room combines multiple puzzle elements in a way that requires a lot of outside thinking and active trial-and-error to solve. A typical puzzle room is actually comprised of multiple smaller puzzles: first, it's a matter of unlocking all of the tools you need (which could be anywhere from two to five puzzles you have to do in a certain order), and then you have to assemble all of those tools (again, in the right order) to complete the room. It's a bit like solving puzzles to get the puzzle pieces you need to solve the actual puzzle. Like I mentioned earlier, this allows for a lot of satisfying progression as you work your way through the puzzle sequence and through the actual room; you're constantly engaged in doing something, and everything you do moves you one step closer to your objectives -- you're not just staring at the problem passively working through things in your head until the solution comes to you. 

Just as you experience progression within individual puzzle rooms, so too do you experience progression through the game's puzzle systems. Each of the tools beyond the starting signal jammer requires yellow sigils to unlock, meaning the game progressively evolves as you unlock new technology and start seeing new combinations. And yet, you unlock everything well before the end of the game, and you tend to go hours at a time before unlocking the next tier of technology, which makes a lot of the puzzles feel incredibly similar to one another. There are 99 sigil puzzles in the game, plus 30-40 optional extras, and most of them all use the same combination of mechanics, just in slightly different environments. It's rather impressive how much variety the designers were able to produce with the same basic toolset, but at the same time it can get a bit tedious solving so many same-looking puzzles with the same basic tools for hours at a time. 

The puzzles range from being so easy they practically solve themselves to head-scratchingly nigh-impossible, though most of them strike a good balance between challenge and accessibility. But while the puzzle design is generally laudable, some of them are just a little too obtuse for their own good. The systems and mechanics are all explicitly clear from the moment each one is introduced, and yet a few of the puzzles randomly expect you to do things that have never been established before. I struggled on a good four or five puzzles because I didn't even realize certain things were even possible, and then those obscure, new-found revelations almost never came up again. Some of the puzzles can likewise be pretty frustrating when the game necessarily defies real world logic in order to make the puzzle actually a puzzle, by preventing you from doing something that would be totally plausible in real life, like not letting you crouch at all, or not letting you grab things that seem well within arm's reach, or not letting you jump on certain surfaces. 

There are a ton of boundaries everywhere, but the worlds in The Talos Principle are surprisingly spacious and offer a type of quasi open-world exploration element to it, presenting you with a handful of hubs and allowing you to choose for yourself where to go and what order to tackle the puzzles in. If you find yourself stuck and unable to progress in one puzzle, you can exit the room and try somewhere else. This, in particular, grants the game an incredibly smooth, constant flow since it never forces you to grind to a halt if you get stuck. It's this relative freedom that makes The Talos Principle stand out from a game like Portal, because it makes you feel more in control and leaves you free to discover things for yourself, rather than forcing you to play through the game in a preset way. 

But while I like the more open nature of The Talos Principle, I don't think it's executed very well. There are a ton of hidden things to discover in the environment, most of which add to the game's story and central philosophy (there are ton of amusing easter eggs, as well), which certainly encourages you to explore everywhere that you can, but the environments between puzzles rooms are almost too big and spacious. The hidden discoveries are all relatively small (both in terms of their physical size and their individual impact on the story), and the amount of time and effort it takes to find them is almost more demanding than the rewards are worth. There were times when I got the distinct feeling like I was playing a walking simulator, spending minutes at a time wandering around doing nothing but looking at scenery, which is rarely a good thing in my book. 

The environments look absolutely beautiful, though, and the lighting effects give each world a heavenly feel to it, especially in conjunction with the music. The soundtrack deserves most of the credit for the game's mood and atmosphere; the whole game has a majestic, ethereal feel to it, but you can hear subtle, haunting undertones throughout, while other tracks set up the theme of individual worlds rather nicely. Virgo Serena is a perfect fit for the game's gothic cathedrals; A Land of Great Beauty perfect for the Egyptian desert and pyramids. Some of the tracks, like The Dance of Eternity or The Temple of My Father, sound like they could have come out of some epic fantasy game, while others, like Heavenly Clouds and Do With It As You Will, complement the game's more celestial moments. All of this is to say that, while I'm not a fan of the game's walking simulator vibes, the aesthetic design makes it an almost pleasant, relaxing experience. 

You start the game in Greek ruins, and then move into Egyptian ruins, and then into medieval gothic ruins. The new aesthetic themes are a nice change of pace, but they don't seem to serve much mechanical or even narrative purpose. The puzzle design, for instance, doesn't change to reflect the environments you're in; you're still solving the same basic puzzles, but everything looks a little different now. Sure, you unlock new tiers of technology as you move into the new thematic worlds, but is there any reason laser connectors would be associated with ancient Greece, or holographic replay recorders with ancient Egypt? It's clear that the mechanics were all designed without any regard for the different themes, which were slapped on after the fact because the designers knew people would get sick of staring at the exact same copy/pasted environments for 20 hours. 

That 20 hour playtime is perhaps my biggest criticism. Normally I'd be one to praise longer campaigns for offering more content for your dollar, but The Talos Principle feels a little bloated with unnecessary filler. Part of the appeal with the original Portal was that it cut straight to the bone with its six hour playtime. I criticized Portal 2 for unnecessarily padding its length out to 12 hours, and The Talos Principle pains me even more with its 20+ hour playtime. Does the game really need 99 puzzle rooms if a lot of them feel like only slight variations on a similar theme? They're all good, solid puzzles, but it gets to be a bit tedious and repetitive at times. Do the areas between puzzle rooms really need to be so large and spread out? There's a ton of pretty scenery to look at, and a lot of hidden bonuses to discover, but much of the landscape serves no actual purpose whatsoever, so you often spend a lot of time just wandering around doing nothing. 

The story -- which is rather good in its own right -- is hurt a bit, as well, by having the game stretch itself out so much. There are basically two elements to the story: what's happening in real time in the (apparent) computer simulation, and the backstory that led you to be in the simulation in the first place. As you go through the game's 21 hubs (which comprise the three "worlds"), you find computer terminals where you can read emails, chat logs, blog posts, and historic texts from the real world that slowly piece together the game's backstory. These text logs, along with audio logs from the real world and QR codes from other robots who are asynchronously going through Elohim's puzzle rooms, come to you in random snippets over the ~20 hour playthrough, separated by up to an hour's worth of puzzle-solving and exploration in-between. 

Figuring out the story is a puzzle all of its own, since you have to take all the random information you collect and piece it together yourself. That element is pretty satisfying, since it teases you with the mystery over the course of the entire game while leaving hints and clues to entice you to onward. With everything seeming so random, however, and being so spread out, it's easy to lose context and forget what you've read by the time you make it to the next computer terminal. In the game's defense, it does let you re-read all the computer entries from the menu at any time after you discover them, but the pace at which the story unfolds feels kind of staggered and awkward at times. 

As I alluded in the opening paragraph, the game's subject matter does get you thinking about some deep topics. This happens mostly through direct interaction with Milton, the AI who runs the computer archives whose files you randomly discover on the terminals. Milton's job is to sort, collate, and process all of the data in the archives, a lot of which has been corrupted over time (which is why you only get snippets of random files). He struggles to understand the meaning of the archives, and often finds himself running into contradictions. As a result, he starts to doubt the purpose of Elohim's tasks, and questions his own existence. 

The point of Milton, from a designer's perspective, is to undermine your understanding of life, as well as consciousness, morals, and other characteristics we typically consider exclusive to humanity. He's meant to play devil's advocate with you, asking you questions about your beliefs and philosophies and then poking holes in everything you say with some kind of counter argument. The intention, I suppose, is to demonstrate how much we as humans take for granted, and that our first assumptions aren't always correct, while also showcasing how a computer AI can seem human in its reasoning, but the whole process comes off feeling more annoying than enlightening because of how restrictive the dialogue trees are. 

This is a video game, after all, so we can't realistically expect branching paths for every conceivable thing you could think of, but more often than not, the answer I had in mind simply wasn't present in the list of options, usually because the game forces you to think in terms of absolute binaries (true or false; black or white) when real life doesn't come in absolute binaries. Then, no matter what you pick, Milton will twist your words and use the most senseless logic to make you look like an idiot, with no way to clarify your responses or even to call him out on his own straw men arguments and misrepresentations. The whole thing feels deliberately manipulative, like you're railroaded into acting a certain way in order to expose the flaws in beliefs that you might not even have, but are presumed to, and then ridiculed for it when you had no choice not to.

There's a lot of joy to be had in The Talos Principle, but I don't think it's the grand slam everyone's making it out to be. The puzzles are quite good, but there's no unique, distinguishing mechanic, here; you've likely already seen everything The Talos Principle has to offer in some form or another in some combination of other games. The story has a lot of thought-provoking elements to it, but I don't think it's presented as well as it could have been. It's pretty interesting to go through the game and figure out what's really going on, but the whole thing feels a little too long and a little repetitive at times, which can make everything just a little less poignant than it really could've been. There are a lot of things I really like about this game, but each one of those things I like has a "but" that dings it just enough to prevent me from giving The Talos Principle as enthusiastic of a recommendation as I'd like. 


  1. Fun fact: the word "puzzle" was used 58 times in this article.

  2. Reminds me of Primordia. And the movie Transcendence.

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