What is an online community? How do information and misinformation inform common beliefs and dogmas? How do those beliefs again inform art? And how does all of this interplay with roles and relationships in the community?
Writers Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes return for story duty in this expansion to The Talos Principle, meaning Road to Gehenna sports another rewarding and masterfully crafted narrative.
That, and the most devious puzzles yet.
(If you haven’t played the original, there might be spoilers below. Check out my review of The Talos Principle and come back after you have played it.)
Hope you enjoy a challenging puzzle
Road to Gehenna knows its intended audience. Its puzzles picks up where The Talos Principle left off, assuming familiarity with the tools at your disposal and their interaction. While there are no new elements to play with, tricks from the original are considered routine in the expansion, and you often have to employ known strategies across larger puzzle areas or even sprawling landscapes.
The secrets are even more elusive this time around, often hiding in plain sight but perplexingly out of reach, and the ultimate reward is access to a bonus world with the most complex and enigmatic puzzles on offer. These are pushed about as far as the mechanics allow, which is something most puzzle games don’t do for fear of losing the audience. In Road to Gehenna, it works, both because it’s an optional part of the game, and because you aren’t really in the intended audience unless you enjoyed the challenging puzzles in the latter part of The Talos Principle.
The expansion reuses assets from the original game, so the environments look familiar. But if you (as I) grew just a bit tired of the aesthetics, don’t fret – the world design is more free this time around, with much more verticality and variation, which greatly improves for the experience.
Welcome to Gehenna
As with The Talos Principle, the puzzles are only half the experience. Just as rewarding – if not more so – is the game’s ruminations on human nature packed into a caustic and brilliant commentary on forum subculture.
The basic premise is this: Through his megalomania, Elohim banished many dissident AIs from his garden. Now that the Process is complete – the world shutting down, as it were – he has come to regret his decision, and sends one of his messengers, Uriel (you), to save them before it is too late.
You are transported to the banished realm, where the other AIs are physically locked away in intricate puzzles with no possibility of escape. By solving the puzzles, you unlock their prisons and free them. But the banished have certainly not been idle in their captivity. Through terminals like those in The Talos Principle, the AIs have created a full-blown online community – Gehenna – reminiscent of early 90s bulletin boards, complete with policies, poetry, artwork, moderator drama, and serial fiction.
The heart of Gehenna is its citizens and their antics. One is preoccupied with studying human behavior based on incomplete and corrupt data in the archives, writing treatises (with humorous misunderstandings) about everything from the purpose of food to whether cats actually exist. Another is writing wonderfully terrible serial fiction, to the enjoyment of others who unironically praise and enjoy the mediocrity. Their roles in the community and relationships with each other is what makes Gehenna feel alive.
The game is excellent at simulating community dynamics in general, and forum subculture in particular. Limited information informs cast-iron opinion, genuinely terrible fiction is perfectly spoofed, and the consistently brilliant writing expertly mimics a self-congratulatory community praising each other’s mediocrity. One can almost feel bad enjoying the cruel mockery.
All in all, Road to Gehenna’s story is more focused and less demanding than that of The Talos Principle. It is not just funny and charming, but also smart – for example, the misunderstandings of the minutiae of human history, society and biology provides a fresh perspective on things we take for granted. The narrative doesn’t mesh as well with the gameplay as in the original game, but I didn’t find that to be a problem for the overall experience.
The clever writing makes Road to Gehenna more than just an excellent map pack. It is a meditation on creativity and community, at times able to lift your eyes from the trees of human psychology to see the forest we live in.
Make no mistake though; the puzzles are the game’s raison d’être, with difficulties ranging from challenging to brutal, particularly the bonus levels. And while the expansion reuses assets from the base game, a bolder world design provides a breath of fresh air.
Road to Gehenna is more of the same, and I mean that positively. If you enjoyed the complexity of the puzzles in the first game and are thirsty for more, Road to Gehenna has you covered.