In which Croteam answer the question of what they’ve been doing since Serious Sam 3 kinda bombed with one of the most exceptional puzzlers I’ve ever played.
Yes, I get a little bit twitchy throwing around adjectives like “exceptional” two reviews in a row, but the Talos Principle fully deserves it. Infinifactory was great, a worthy successor to SpaceChem, and fully deserving of the glowing review it received a only couple of weeks back, but it’s already been eclipsed in my mind by the Talos Principle. I bought it on Friday evening based largely on the strength of a recommendation in the comments here six or seven months ago (not to mention that 97% Positive rating on Steam), and now it’s Sunday afternoon and I’ve just completed it after mainlining it for eleven hours of my weekend. Games usually don’t grab me like that any more. Hell, even the Witcher 3 required a few days of picking at it before I could fully get into it. This is why I call it exceptional, because quite aside from the quality of the game – which is superb – I literally could not put it down until I’d finished it.
So what’s so great about the Talos Principle? It’s a first-person puzzle game that’s more in the vein of Portal than SpaceChem – less open-ended, and arranged as a series of closed levels with relatively static solutions. You awaken in the middle of a pleasant garden full of crumbling Greek architecture, and are immediately greeted by the booming, bodiless voice of Elohim, who pronounces himself your creator and god. If the Talos Principle were a lesser game it’d save the fact that you are an artificial entity and that the garden is a simulated construct for some shocking twist halfway through, but it’s admirably up-front about that from the get-go – and anyway, starting from the beginning with that information poses far more interesting questions about what precisely you’re doing here. Elohim is in charge of the simulation, and after a few tutorial segments dressed up as “calibration” he bids you enter his temple to find the sigils of his name and thus attain eternal life.
The catch, of course, is that each sigil is locked behind a puzzle of some description. The temple acts as the first hub area of the game with teleporter links to eight levels, each of which contains 3-5 different sigils and puzzles. The puzzles are almost completely walled off from the rest of the level, and there’s usually a forcefield over the entrance that stops you from taking any of the items inside it into other nearby puzzles; each puzzle is tackled as a standalone entity with everything you need to complete it inside the confines of the puzzle itself. The puzzles start off as pretty simple tutorial-level fare demonstrating the most basic components of the game: forcefields, jammers, mines, sentry guns and pressure plates. Forcefields block access to some part of the level (obviously), while sentry guns instantly kill you if you wander too close to them, and the floating mines do much the same except they move around on set patrol paths. The jammer is the core part of these early levels: it’s a portable, targetable device that, when deployed, will disable any of the previous three mechanisms you point it at. The jammer has unlimited range and only requires you to have line of sight to the thing you are trying to jam, and it’s this idea that these early levels hammer into you over and over again: line-of-sight is an incredibly important concept in the maze-like puzzles of the Talos Principle. It also teaches you that some of the usual cheats you might expect to be present don’t work – you cannot, for example, deploy a jammer on one side of a forcefield, move to the other side while it’s disabled and then pick up the jammer again, as your robotic avatar will simply move back to the jammer side to (one assumes) avoid having their hands chopped off as the forcefield reactivates.
The Talos Principle therefore pretty clearly stakes out its territory from the very beginning of the game: there are no shortcuts or kludge solutions to be found within its puzzles, and it expects you to think about what you’re doing instead of just trying random combinations of stuff to brute-force it. This is where it is most similar to something like Portal or Braid, as each puzzle is based around figuring out “the trick” rather than the more open-ended experimentation of Infinifactory. There’s a fair bit of imagination shown with just the basic puzzle components, but after the first couple of areas extra puzzle elements are introduced such as a box (which behaves pretty much exactly as you’d expect a box to) and the laser connectors, around which the vast majority of the rest of the game’s puzzles are based. You use these to bounce laser beams from a source to power up a receiver, which usually does something like turn off a forcefield or power on a fan. One connector can bounce the laser beam to as many valid connecting points as it can see, allowing it to power multiple receivers if necessary, and multiple connectors can be used to bounce the laser around corners. Often you’ll have to use red and blue lasers at once, which is where another cheat is ruled out: you’re not allowed to cross two different laser beams through each other. You have to either route them so that they never touch, or else use one of the boxes/the surrounding terrain to place the connector up high and bounce one laser beam over the other.
The amount of mileage the Talos Principle squeezes out of the laser concept is pretty impressive. Pretty soon you’re using 3-4 connectors to try and route multiple laser beams through tiny doors and windows to get to where it needs to go, or else to place them in a specific sequence so that a forcefield that would otherwise block the beam never turns off. A theme of the later levels is to use a box and a fan to levitate a connector up high so that it has line-of-sight to otherwise unreachable receivers – but you also have to make that connector power the fan itself and it never has LOS to both the source and the fan power supply when it’s on the ground, so you have to figure out how to kickstart the fan without breaking whatever circuit of lasers you’ve set up to progress that far in the puzzle. Most puzzles have you taking down successive forcefields to pick up the components needed to progress further with the solution – and then to use those components it’ll then bring them back and break whatever arrangement you used to get that far, forcing you to think of a new way of configuring them in order to unlock the gate leading to the sigil at the end of the puzzle.
The difficulty doesn’t ramp up that much until you get about halfway into the game, though. For the first few hours – and certainly for the length of the areas you’ll tackle via Elohim’s temple — the puzzles are very light and agreeable 2-3 minute affairs, where you’re still being taught basic game concepts and the solutions are fairly obvious. This gives you some spare brain cycles to soak up the ambience and atmosphere, which is incredible. The opening areas are a gorgeously-designed sprawl of decaying Greco-Roman buildings, while Elohim’s temple is an appropriately awe-inspiring pillared construction. The music is superb – it’s mostly ambient stuff, but it’s incredibly good at getting your brain into the calm, chilled-out state required to tackle Talos’s puzzles, and the stuff that isn’t ambient is curiously ominous considering the pleasant nature of your surroundings. This goes well with Elohim’s constant pronouncements about your activities and progress, which sound very god-like (“And I give unto you these lands” etc. etc.) and also more than a little bit creepy, like Elohim is buying a little too much into his own propaganda. Eventually you finish the first area and you’re given access to two more – an Egyptian-themed area that looks like a re-use of assets from Serious Sam (although I’m not complaining because it still looks great) and a set of Middle Ages castles that you access from a gothic cathedral — plus a gigantic tower stretching into the heavens that Elohim expressly forbids you from climbing.
So of course you try to climb it. You’d try to climb it even without the sinister fundamentalist OS telling you not to, because scattered throughout the various lands are a collection of terminals that give glimpses into the backstory of what’s really going on: it’s the end of the world, and a rather thoughtful take on it to boot. You’re told what Elohim is and what you are in pretty short order, but these terminal snippets tell you why you are. They even go further than that, as the terminal the interface by which the only other inhabitant of the simulation communicates with you; this is an entity called the Milton Library Assistant which puts you through the wringer several times by trying to get you to answer some philosophical questions on whether or not you are a person, while at the same time trying to plant seeds of doubt as to why you’re ostensibly jumping through hoops for Elohim.
It’s here that I thought Talos put its first (and pretty much only) step wrong, as I really didn’t buy into the concept of debating complex philosophical ideas by giving one of four pre-canned responses to a restrictive scenario presented to me by the game’s writers. They aren’t anything more than what you’d be exposed to in the first year of an undergraduate philosophy course, but I think they deserved a slightly more interactive treatment than that which the Talos Principle provides. It’s not bad as such, I just don’t think it stands up very well when put next to the various emails and audiologs from the makers of the simulation that you can sift through at the same time. I found these to be devastatingly effective at explaining the motivation behind your existence, and they function perfectly well as a driver for breaking the bounds of the simulation without some prissy archiving program throwing philosophical strawmen at me.
Still, the Milton Library Assistant serves a thematic purpose even if I thought its practical one was a bit of a dud. The simulation is the Garden of Eden, the various theistic architectural styles you encounter throughout the game reflect the surpremacy of Elohim in this environment, the MLA is the Serpent, and the tower functions as this paradise’s apple as well as a take on the Tower of Babel. Elohim has somewhat less control than God in this scenario, however, as he can’t even see you when you’re inside the tower, where you use the sigils you’ve been picking up all game to unlock access to successively higher levels. You don’t know what lies at the top, but it’s got to be better than Elohim’s offer of eternal life singing his praises1 – and anyway, if you didn’t climb it it’d be an awful waste of all those little tetronimo-shaped sigils.
You do need all of them to get to the top, though, and towards the end of game the difficulty does make a definite swing from “pleasant” towards “taxing”. This is mostly thanks to the introduction of a puzzle component called the Doubler, which records your actions and then creates a double of you (plus any objects you interact with) that you can use to do two things at once. I had awful flashbacks to Braid during these puzzles, as it’s the same sort of time-based fuckery except this time exponentially worse because it’s in 3D. Aside from Doubler puzzles the game never got too difficult to be enjoyable, however; there are some incredibly obtuse puzzles to pick up secret stars that often require some spectacularly lateral thinking, but thankfully these are entirely optional. As with the all best puzzlers the later puzzles in the Talos Principle might look tricky, but they usually require just one logical leap on top of what you’ve done before in order to solve them, and making that leap makes you feel incredibly smart.
And that’s the Talos Principle. It’s a clever puzzler wrapped in some incredible clothing, whose philosophical content would be obnoxious and overbearing if it were presented in anything less than the straightforwardly honest way than it is here2 – it’s not remotely a philosophical masterpiece, for all that its technological themes resonated with me shockingly well, but then I don’t think it’s trying to be. It’s just using the philosophy to tell a great story in a rather non-conventional fashion, and the inclusion of the philosophy makes the conclusion to that story one of the most powerfully satisfying endings to a game that I can remember. If you buy it I can pretty much guarantee you’ll get invested in either the puzzles or the backstory, and if both grab you at the same time then, well, it’s likely that you’ll be unable to put it down just as I was.