The Talos Principle
The Talos Principle is an awful lot like Portal, but that’s alright. Structurally, it’s near identical: an invisible voice of authority compelling the player to complete a series of increasingly difficult “tests” in service of some greater purpose, all the while promising their complicity will be rewarded. Like Portal, these tests take the form of self-contained logic puzzles that involve manipulating and arranging different kinds of objects, from standard props like doors and switches to devices more openly cribbed from Portal, like laser-activated turrets and light-bending prisms.
Also like Portal, the inherent mystery of the game’s premise – what are the tests for and what’s the voice in the sky’s agenda? – is as central to its appeal as the puzzles themselves. The pursuit of this revelation constitutes just one of the many lines of intrigue threaded throughout The Talos Principle’s ambitious narrative, a multi-faceted meta-puzzle in its own right that both justifies the recycling of ideas from its noted influences and offers an enticing interrogation of human nature.
While GLaDOS justified Portal’s convoluted puzzles in the name of scientific experimentation, The Talos Principle’s Elohim presents them as rites of faith, trails prescribed to prove the protagonist’s devotion to his will as the world’s self-declared god. In return, Elohim promises eternal life but, for the most part, unravelling the game’s masterfully conceived puzzles is its own reward. Devious, but always fair, they hide their solutions in plain sight, the key to their understanding written into the architecture of their environments. These puzzles hinge upon the control and traversal of 3D space and thus every structure and piece of terrain is a potential clue, a fact developers Croteam recognise leverage through their economical level design.
Early in the game, it becomes clear that very few elements in the puzzle areas are just for show; if there’s a window in a wall or a raised platform over in a corner somewhere, it’s almost certain you’ll need to use them. In this way, Croteam engenders a sense of trust between the player and the puzzle designer that not only affords them the confidence to tackle the game’s more difficult conundrums, but also – and likely not accidently – mimics the relationship of unquestioned loyalty that Elohim demands of the protagonist.
Whether Elohim is deserving of such trust is one of the game’s chief concerns and is incorporated into a greater debate about faith, consciousness and the philosophical implications of AI that is periodically delivered via terminal screens situated throughout the game’s world. Linked to what is ostensibly an archive of human knowledge and data hastily compiled in the prelude to an apocalypse, the contents of these terminals span a diverse range of formats, from fictional chat room conversations to extracts from William Blake and even an interactive personality test. Uniting them all is a shared advocacy of intellectual doubt - be it of the facts of the universe, our understanding of human psychology or other things we take for granted in everyday life – that not only makes for thoughtful reading but informs the puzzle solving process.
Ritually engaging in this sort of reflection equips the player to see through the kind of assumptions which tend to stymie the problem solving process, especially when it comes to assessing what the game’s tools are capable of. To succeed, players must learn to see these for more than their face value; both electrical jammers and light prisms can unlock doors, for instance, just as fans can be detached and used as weights and boxes can reroute enemies as well as interrupt light beams. It is this marriage between its core activity and its thematic interests which is The Talos Principle’s greatest achievement – lesser games of this ilk tend to deploy elaborate and convoluted narrative exposition as a perfunctory palate cleanser between puzzles, but here the story and action are complementary and co-dependant, each offering a different angle on the same philosophical concepts at the heart of the game’s message.
In this regard, the appropriation of ideas from Portal becomes an important asset, despite initially coming across as a bit uninspired. Civilization, The Talos Principle proposes, operates in a similar way to software development in that the passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next mirrors the gradual refining of a computer programme over the course of many successive versions. In this context, the presence of tried and tested genre tropes can be viewed as a conscious expression of the puzzle game’s own growth as a form and The Talos Principle an erudite demonstration of what it has achieved thus far. So, while Croteam's game is far from the lighting strike of innovation that Portal represented for the genre, it's among the best narrative puzzle games to have emerged since, and in a few respects – particularly its broaching intellectual riddles as captivating as the puzzles themselves – perhaps even bests it.