“Even the most dedicated philosopher cannot live without his blood.” – The Talos Principle
This is The Talos Principle (TTP), an exploration of philosophy cleverly disguised as an entertaining first person puzzler. The game, created by Serious Sam developers Croteam, takes place in the distant future where you play as a robot tasked with solving puzzles to reach some sort of eternal life. While these puzzles are challenging and the game design is solid, TTP’s true strength lies in the world Croteam has created and the way it tells its story. Puzzle design, the game world, and philosophy are all key parts of what makes The Talos Principle unique and will remain the focus of the review.
The above is the intro and first bit of The Talos Principle. Here the developers practiced a well-documented mentality behind game design in the player’s interaction with the first barrier. To get past it, the player must use the aptly named jammer to open the path. The developers now know that the player can properly use a jammer, and incorporate this fact into the design of later levels. They accomplished this without ever having to actually tell this to the player, which would have decreased immersion. Most of the puzzles in the game follow this sort of design philosophy – introduce a new mechanic and let the player figure out how to use it himself. The puzzles themselves are easy to compare to portal, as the first person puzzler genre is rather small, but I think the correlation is otherwise ineffective (with respect to puzzle design) for two reasons. One being that there isn’t one single mechanic that is used in every puzzle like portal has with the portal gun. This could be good or bad depending on the player, but I see it as a positive as it forces the puzzles to mix and match concepts to remain interesting – something that the developers manage to pull off quite well. Secondly there are a lot of mixing between puzzles, at least in order to get the evasive bonus stars. The player might have to somehow smuggle a jammer out of one puzzle to use it in a different one, for instance. Design like this toys with the players sense of what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman call “implicit rules.” They define an implicit rule through Chutes and Ladders, listing “position the gameboard so that all the players can easily move their pawns from square to square” as an example (Salen & Zimmerman, 133). It’s a rule that is not directly told to the player, but it is understood as required for the game to function. Likewise, every puzzler that a typical player has beaten would suggest that a single puzzle is a contained unit, whose assets are not to be used in a different area. Croteam does a good job of challenging player expectations through this kind of unorthodox design; additionally, TTP builds its game world in an unconventional way.
The Talos Principle takes the Dark Souls path of world building. The game dumps the player, who assumes the role of the robot, Talos, off with little information – that of which is provided by a disembodied voice of God that basically says “I created you, do as I say to achieve eternal life… Oh, and don’t touch my tower.”
The player is left to figure out the rest on his own. This is where the analogue to portal begins to shine. Much like Valve’s hit, TTP hides the story in nooks and crannies, and as Jason Mittel writes in Eludamos, “even the most hardcore ludologist would (hopefully) admit that Portal‘s [and TTP’s] storyworld, characterization, and plot is more than just set dressing on a set of physics puzzles, but that the surprising integration of ludic and narrative experiences is the game’s true genius” (Mittel, 5-13). TTP tells its story in only three ways. The first was seen in video clip, through QR codes of (presumably your) past generations. The second is through archived data files found on computer terminals that are scattered throughout Elohim’s Garden. These files drop hints as to the disappearance of the humans as well as the process of Talos’ creation. The last source of information is from Elohim, but he does not reveal about the outside world.
This lack of information is compounded by the fact that Elohim does not appear to be trustworthy. The doubt begins when the player encounters the “serpent,” a program that lives in the archive terminals. Croteam pull off the biblical parallels extremely well; for example, the exact words Elohim uses to warn Talos of his tower are “But the great tower, there you may not go for in the day that you do, you shall surely die.” Compare this to Genesis 3:1, “For in the day that thou eatest [from the tree of knowledge] thou shalt surely die.” Additionally, the serpent does its job very well, forcing Talos, and by extension the player, to doubt his own beliefs at times.
The game uses the serpent as the means through which it explores philosophy. It constantly challenges Talos’ humanity, which begs the question: Can a robot even be considered a “person? This can be expanded to “What defines a person?” and “What makes the player a person?” The further immersed the player becomes in the game, the more the latter question comes to the forefront. Jamie Madigan writes that “cognitively demanding environment” is critical to immersion, but Croteam goes a step further by making the game itself demanding of brain power; for when the player isn’t trying to solve a puzzle, he is reflecting on these questions – trying to reach an answer that won’t be provided on a silver platter.
The Talos Principle successfully creates an engaging puzzler that not only has a surprisingly good story, but also forces the player to think on a critical level about what defines a person. The experience is rich with content and clever design, forcing the player to question the rules of gameplay as well as his own moral compass.
“Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals.” Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. MIT Press, 2004. Print. Accessed online 2/22/15.
“Playing for Plot in the Lost and Portal Franchises.” Jason Mittel in Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture. 2012, Volume 6 No 1. pp 5-13. Accessed 2/22/15.
“The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games.” Jamie Madigan in The Psychology of Video Games. July 27, 2010. Accessed 2/22/15.
Head Picture by Croteam
Screenshots and video by author from The Talos Principle. Developed by Croteam.