Official screenshot of The Talos Principle. A robot looks over a snowy fortress of some kind.

The Talos Principle: Worth the Hype?

The Talos Principle is a Portal-styled puzzler! I guess! I really can’t iterate enough how many goddamn puzzles there are! There are tetromino puzzles, laser puzzles, puzzles with bombs, self-cloning puzzles, parkour puzzles, fan puzzles, and most important of all, the puzzle of human existence.

I am a thoughtful and responsible consumer, which is why I had no idea this was a physics puzzle game when I bought it. I had only seen the Steam banner, gleaned the unanimously positive reviews, and read something about philosophy and Jonas Kyratzes, which was enough to loosen the change from my pockets when the game was on sale. But I totally thought it was going to have guns or whatever, the second and more popular of the two types of video game.

No such luck. Some time after the end of humanity by terminal disease, your find yourself in a crumbling labyrinth with knowledge of the human world but no prior memories. You appear to be some kind of android, christened with your Steam profile name (wow! interactive!). A voice in the sky, calling itself Elohim, explains that eternal life can be yours, O robot, so long as you complete a bunch of puzzles forever and then nothing else. Frolic at your leisure in the surrounding worlds — which variously resemble Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Medieval architecture — on the condition you never climb the large, ominous tower at the center of the virtual universe.

Eternal life? Nice try, but I’m suicidal and these are a bunch of uninteresting ruins, so that’s out. Second, anyone with a dilettantish interest in philosophy is going to feel some apprehension about blindly following a character based on Old Testament God (though, to his credit, Elohim is a good guy, if a bit obsessive). Naturally that leaves ascending the forbidden tower as our sole directive. All it will take to get there is three temples’ worth of seven rooms with three to five puzzles each (plus quite a few more if you want the hidden stars and gray sigils), then six more puzzles to unlock the elevator access necessary to climb it.

Puzzles…

This is quite a shock to those of us who showed up for the thought-provoking, philosophy-driven story with probably-guns. Unlike in Portal, our heavenly narrator does not conversationally preside over your progress within each puzzle. Puzzle-solving and story progression are so juxtaposed as to form two opposing types of gameplay. The supplementary texts you find around the levels attempt to justify these and other head-scratching elements — The Talos Project is based on old video game code! Blocky, solid color tetrominos are holy symbols! — but it’s a bandage solution to join together a high-concept narrative with suspiciously generic game design and assets.

The explanation for the puzzle-solving focus is that humans are defined by their tendency to play, build, and solve problems. If anything, however, the experience has taught me more about what it’s like to be a deep-learning AI, trained on several gigabytes worth of useless physics puzzles, and has given me a very good argument for why robots are not programmed to feel boredom or nausea. You will encounter either or both depending on your walking speed.

Gaming-induced motion sickness here is a double-edged sword. On one hand, The Talos Principle is probably best enjoyed in small chunks, and nausea that accumulates over long playtime can help discourage the compulsion to brute-force it in one sitting. On the other hand, nausea.

The problem is individual puzzles use so much space. Instead of laying out all the tools you have to start with, most puzzles stow one item around a corner or down a long passage for no real reason except to make you spend time retrieving it. The amount of backtracking required through regular trial and error makes walking like a normal person an exercise in tedium. So you start to run, but as it turns out, darting around enormous, labyrinthine maps at light speed is one of the fastest ways to convince the human body it’s been poisoned. In fact, I would spend so much time holding the shift key as I ran that my hands would get numb. …Actually, disregard the last couple of paragraphs. I think I might just be dying.

An android looks down over a very busy puzzle labyrinth from a bird's-eye view.
This one gives you a fan for the sole purpose of showing how many stupid walls you just dealt with.

You have to wonder about the pointless excess of the level design. Why are there little unfinished paths and cubbyholes, inaccessible locked gates, and entire ruins with nothing in them? As it turns out, a lot of secrets and Easter eggs are scattered throughout the levels, but they’re hard to purposefully find amongst so much visual garbage. I didn’t realize how much I’d enjoyed the comparative minimalism of the Egypt levels until the screen once again became overcrowded with vegetation. Hastened by the onset of motion sickness, I have little motivation to stick around and investigate on the off chance that this one building actually has something inside it.

Puzzles?

The puzzles themselves are, at their best, inspiring data points representing your progress along the Talos learning curve. There’s admittedly a deep satisfaction in mastering certain tricks and quickly solving puzzles that might have stumped you for hours not so long ago.

…But the process of discovery is not always intuitive and the process of solving not always fun. With so many puzzles in the game, they can range from satisfying to tedious to very tedious. Discovering certain strategies, such as linking connectors to an infinite number of anchor points and the platform jumping mechanic, which I swear to Elohim was never introduced within the game, represented major breakthroughs in my personal journey, but which had to be prompted from outside sources. (Apparently robots can’t reach through a hole in the wall to grab a jammer or a connector that should be easily accessible, but they can jump across large gaps onto high, narrow surfaces with perfect ease. Yeah, okay.)

As a serial indie game player I am an unrepentant user of walkthroughs because My Time Is Important®, and games like this only further solidify my belief that there’s no shame in resorting to a guide almost immediately. For those who are purists, however, The Talos Principle does in fact provide a kosher in-game hint system you can use on up to three of the total four million puzzles. Unlocking it is a simple six-step process:

  1. Find an axe in Temple C. Temple C requires 6 green sigils to open. You can find those in Temple B, which in turn requires 5 green sigils to open from Temple A. So I guess when I said six-step process I meant more like nine, or twenty.
  2. Bring the axe to the temple of your choice. Find the boarded up doorway in that temple and hack it to bits. Enter the Messengers’ abode.
  3. Solve four sigil puzzles to unlock the necessary materials to open the door to the Messenger’s tomb. (Some of you have already gone to a walkthrough by now.)
  4. Connect the lasers as is appropriate.
  5. Have you tried crossing the laser beams?
  6. Solve another sigil puzzle to unlock the Messenger’s tomb.

Congratulations! You now have one (1) hint. Redeem it on any red sigil puzzle (but not green or yellow) for a vague or even useless pointer (“Wits, patience and timing are worth more than plain hastiness,” “Blue must go through the shortcut”). Repeat this entire process to unlock all three! … And yeah, you only get three hints total!

Plasterbrain Android asks for help and gets rebuffed.
If you don’t do all those steps, you will get nothing and like it.

On the bright side, you’ll only be smashing your head against the nearest stone column out of frustration over mechanics and not the soundtrack, repetitive as it may be. The composer is clearly talented and was almost certainly told to hold off until the one cinematic ending to let loose his film-scoring fury, and when he finally gets to unleash his full orchestra it’s fucking nuts, you guys.

Puzzles!

Fortunately, while the relationship the player has with this game begins as AUUGHHHH! resentment, by the end you’ll have gone through so much together that you can’t help but realize… maybe you’re not so different after all. Sure, Talos had that weird phase where she decided just making everything more maze-like was a substitute for genuine difficulty, but she let you cheat through some of the bad puzzles by using a laser source from another location. Me and old Talos are certainly friends — it was just a hard-won friendship with a rocky start.

After bungling through the last set of puzzles in the early hours of the morning and finally reaching the game’s conclusion, the true ending tied things together much more smoothly than I’d expected, situated comfortably between the extremes of eleventh-hour plot twists and “that’s IT? are you KIDDING ME?” I won’t be recommending it to my friends as a must-play, but my time with the The Talos Principle didn’t feel wasted, which is not always the case when you rush through the final puzzles out of exasperation just to see the end of things (a lesson beaten into players of all but the third installment of Professor Layton).

Story

I can imagine that people who came into Talos expecting only a puzzle game had the inverse reaction to mine and were thrown wildly off-guard by the sudden arrival of a god figure and the questions posed by the terminals. But those who enter in search of philosophical stimulation will find only a brief overview of historical viewpoints on what it means to be human. If you’re ever given more than a second’s thought to the nebulous definition of consciousness or the electrochemical nature of the human brain, your video game book club will have nothing new to talk about.

The Talos Principle, not unlike House of Leaves or Infinite Jest, is a widely beloved classic which challenges our beliefs through cursory explorations of philosophy and weird tangents. Posed as such works may seem to welcome healthy discussion, criticizing any of them often opens the floodgates to a sea of angry commenters, ready to refute this perceived slight to their personal intelligence and not realizing the irony therein.

These are “numbers” people. They find safety in highly populated echo chambers and will descend on any dissenters like a ravenous flock to secure their shaky egos. I have no psychological evidence to back this up. I just like saying it. But rest assured that despite their claims critics “just don’t get it,” the topics posed in Talos are conversational starting points rather than detailed observations. When at last the purpose of everything was revealed, my response was, “aw, that’s cute!” Not in a condescending way, mind — that’s just how women describe things that are heartwarming when they have nothing more specific than a vaguely pleasant reaction.

Aside from questions of the human soul and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, there’s not much in The Talos Principle worth debating. The game’s central conceit, whether AI and machines constitute persons, takes place among characters who are machine in name only. All known somatosensory and language problems of robotics have apparently been solved, which makes Talos useless as a theoretical platform for discussions of machine personhood. There’s not much ground to claim robots don’t have human traits in a game whose android protagonist is the direct avatar of the player. Meanwhile in the real world, the question is not yet relevant. We design bots for a particular purpose, and not merely to exist the way they do in this game. There are bots that schedule appointments, bots that fetch data, and buts that roll around and squirt ketchup to the 20th Century Fox theme, but never bots which can do all three depending on how they feel that day.

The story of Talos essentially boils down to the player’s decision of whether or not to climb the Tower. To that end, there’s a weird reach for an allegory to the Garden of Eden once the pessimistic archive assistant is introduced and dubbed “The Serpent” by Elohim. The thing is, Satan led Eve to temptation by preying on her curiosity and doubt. Also, he had a goal in mind, and was generally persuasive about it. The Milton Library Assistant (MLA), as he is officially called, doesn’t think you should blindly follow your so-called god, but he’s not exactly pushing to climb the Tower either, and if you don’t end up striking a deal with him at the end of your dialogues, his end-game turns out to be pretty much nothing. MLA is that technical guy at John Mulaney’s sleepover, and I wanted him to take his goddamn EpiPen and get out of my house.

In cases like this, I do try my best to get on the antisocials’ good side. It usually works in Telltale (I was SO good at Batman Season 2, you guys. I am 360 no-scope at Gotham villain counseling). While I was able to make progress initially, the dialogue choices are all predefined and far from exhaustive. Ultimately Milton insists — no matter what — that your beliefs on consciousness, morals, and personhood are contradictory(!) and that you should change them to conform to how society really is (bear in mind humanity has been extinct for thousands of years, and the characters know this) and figure out why you’re so inconsistent and dumb if you want him to ever like you.

Aside from this being the most low-effort emotional abuse and gaslighting campaign ever, it’s readily apparent that Milton has no motivation for anything except loneliness and boredom. He’s like the worst kind of atheist misdirecting his anger at an absurd universe towards some unwitting Christian kid who goes to his high school. The player doesn’t even start these conversations; the accusatory nonsense arrives from nowhere! Eventually — and this was a first for me — I stopped playing as myself and just picked random options, because who even cares, right? In the end, neither Elohim nor the MLA represented my goals. I had to strike out on my own.

Verdict

The Talos Principle has a fair amount of puzzle content, though that’s not always a good thing. Given the industriousness of indie developers today, there are plenty of games you can get with more story, more unique assets, and more original audio for a fraction of the $39.99 asking price. I hate to list Undertale as an example of anything, but, Undertale. If Talos is on your wishlist right now and you’re hesitant to splurge, I would recommend buying it on sale.

You’ll like The Talos Principle if you:

  1. Enjoy 3D puzzles for their own sake
  2. Can be patient when figuring out solutions to tricky problems or combing large environments for secrets
  3. Don’t have much background in philosophy, but find questions of the conscience and AI to be potentially interesting

But If 3D puzzles aren’t your forte, you can skip Talos without missing a critical text in game development history.

Best parts:

  • Falling through a hole in the floor to a weird hidden chamber where Elohim was having a mental breakdown.
  • Watching my connector-box-fan contraption rise against the desert sun in “Time Flies.”
  • Scaring away a flock of pigeons on the Tower scaffolding.
  • Telling the nasty Milton Library Assistant to get bent.
  • Telling most of the puzzles to also get bent, though that wasn’t a dialogue choice.

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