Croteam has worked on a single franchise for nearly 20 years – the hyperactive retro first-person shooter Serious Sam series, which is characterized by huge environments, swarms of enemies, and really, really big guns. Sam, the protagonist, is a barrel-chested, square-jawed Schwarzenegger-type given to one-liners, sunglasses, and multi-barreled rocket launchers. Typical moment-to-moment gameplay involves mowing down dozens of enemies streaming in while explosions, sprays of blood, and profanity fill the air.
So it is with some surprise that the Croatian developer’s newest game has less in common with Duke Nukem and more in common with Portal. It’s less surprising given the writing involvement of Jonas Kyratzes (The Infinite Ocean, The Sea Will Claim Everything) and Tom Jubert (The Swapper, FTL), though this game is quite unlike either designer’s previous work too. Instead, from the mysterious, omniscient voice-over to the discrete, sequential puzzle rooms, The Talos Principle is immediately reminiscent of Valve’s 2007 masterpiece. While it lacks a single compelling mechanical hook like the portal gun, The Talos Principle carves out a distinct identity for itself with its own intriguing mystery alongside some of the most complex, challenging, and satisfying puzzles ever encountered in a game like this.
The very first thing you see in The Talos Principle is your character’s skeletal, metallic arm blocking out the blinding sun. Sure enough, jump into third-person mode (which is available at any time but doesn’t add to or change the gameplay) and you’ll see that you are a robot, not unlike a less terrifying version of the Terminator’s endoskeleton. Take a few steps, and the booming voice of a god-like figure called ELOHIM fills the world. He informs you that solving these puzzles is the path to eternal life and his unending love. The world is made up of what looks like ancient Greek or Roman ruins, except for the computer terminals scattered around that contain scraps of emails, blog posts, chat logs, and an inquisitive AI named Milton. And then there’s the occasional sight glimpsed out of the corner of your eye of a wall or tree “glitching” out of existence for a split-second. What’s going on here?
The story evolves into something quite fascinating, told through a variety of methods, some conventional and some totally unique. There’s the GLaDOS-esque narrator, ELOHIM, whose disembodied voice jumps in to encourage you to keep going… and discourage you from poking around too much outside of the puzzle rooms. There’s a seemingly sentient “assistant” program you communicate with via computer terminal who pesters you with moral and ethical quandaries through dialogue trees. Quick Response codes painted on the walls throughout the world contain messages from other (previous?) inhabitants. And there are audio logs left by a pivotal character whose tale forms the emotional arc of the entire story.
Discovering the nature of this world and its backstory provides much of the joy of the game, so I will keep things vague. Suffice it to say that the game covers well-worn thematic ground – artificial intelligence, transhumanism, the nature of free will, the afterlife – but does so in an unusually immersive, thoughtful, and affecting way. The very act of puzzle-solving plays a thematically resonant role in the story, as does the inescapable human urge to poke around beyond the set boundaries and explore the greater environment. The story is also uniquely optimistic for modern science fiction, which is so often anchored around fear of technology and progress.
It’s rare for a game to implement philosophical musings in anything but the most superficial way – a Nietzsche quote here, a black and white ethical dilemma there. The Talos Principle not only presents a number of philosophical ideas and quandaries, but forces you to engage with them, pitting you against a feisty AI that pummels you with metaphysical questions, then demands that you defend your answers throughout the game using some of the oddest and most engaging dialogue trees I’ve played through in some time. It also grounds the metaphysics by framing them with scraps of deeply human endeavors – the computer terminals contain conspiracy theorist blog posts, religious texts, meandering chat room logs, and heartfelt emails between family members. The philosophical questions here are not just high-minded fiddle-faddle. They are presented as the result of thousands of years of humanity desperately trying to figure out who we are.
As great as the story is, you’ll be spending the vast majority of your time dealing with the many, many puzzles (around 120 according to the developer), alternating between scratching your head and cursing the gods of spatial reasoning and feeling like the smartest person on the planet. The goal of each area is simply to reach the endpoint and collect a Tetris-like piece, but doing so requires manipulation of force fields, pressure plates, laser beams, and eventually time itself, in increasingly devious and clever ways. Throughout the game’s hub world, you’ll find a number of locks requiring certain numbers of specific Tetris pieces. Unlocking these gives access to more puzzles, either by opening up a new portion of the hub (with portals out to the various worlds, each containing four or five puzzles), or by granting new items required for more advanced puzzles. This format gates your progress until you’ve solved enough easier puzzles to prove that you’re ready for the heavier stuff.
Much of the challenge comes from the fact that you can only carry a single object at a time. These items include jammers (which disable the puzzle element they’re aimed at, so long as they remain stationary), connectors (which redirect colored laser beams that power various aspects of the level), and fans (which, you know, blow things). If these sound mundane, they are, especially compared to a gun that shoots dimensional portals, but each item has a very specific set of behavior and interactions with the others that gets complex fast.
For example, you can use a jammer to shut off a force field, but there’s another force field behind it blocking a blue laser receiver. The second you move the jammer, the first field comes right back online. How will you get past both, while also placing a connector in just the right spot so that the blue laser beam angles around the corner? There is a small window off to the side that might let you angle the laser around the force fields, but only if you can make it to that second connecter situated up on a platform and out of reach. Cue chin-scratching. And that’s one of the straightforward obstacles. Other puzzles require thinking above and beyond the techniques the game has trained you in – angling lasers in bizarre ways, stacking crates floating in mid-air to reach new heights, and so on.Continued on the next page...