Behold, child. You are risen from the dust, and you walk in my garden. Hear now my voice, and know that I am your maker, and I am called ELOHIM. Seek me in my temple, if you are worthy.
Thus begins The Talos Principle, with a fatherly, yet commanding voice coming from everywhere and nowhere. The words, more than subtly inspired by Genesis, invite you to start your quest to solve increasingly difficult puzzles, for whichever reason. But it is not just the mechanics what will challenge you; your enigmatic circumstances will also have you befuddled in this philosophically heavy game.
Portal meets Myst
The Talos Principle is in many ways an unexpected and happy surprise. The game’s developer, Croteam, is more or less exclusively known for Serious Sam, a series of decidedly non-serious shooters.1 When working on Serious Sam 4, experiments led to some complicated puzzles, and the developer was inspired to promote them to a separate game. Thankfully, Croteam evidently has a knack for more than just frivolous shooters.
The Talos Principle takes the excellent puzzle design from Portal and the free-roaming and enigmatic mood of Myst, adds a generous helping of philosophy and religious overtones, and tops it off with a sprinkling of Greek and Egyptian myths. There are many mysteries to unpack, but you’re not entirely blind to your circumstances going in. The game starts with a boot sequence and a view of your robotic body as you wake up in some walled garden, and the periodic visual glitching of random objects clearly hint that you’re in some kind of simulation. But why? And what are you? And what is the point of completing all these increasingly difficult puzzles?
With these conundrums, you’re thrown into the task of collecting the tetrominoes (Tetris pieces) at the end of each puzzle, which are used to unlock even more puzzles and worlds. There are no novel mechanics à la portal guns here; the individual puzzle pieces are well established: You have your cubes, pressure plates, and redirectable energy beams like in Portal 2, some timey wimey stuff reminiscent of Braid, and a few other simple tools. The strength of the puzzles lies not in the pieces themselves, but in the ingenuity with which they are assembled.
Simple parts, complex combinations
The Talos Principle has all the hallmarks of great puzzle games: The individual elements and their effects are simple to understand, and the goal is often locked away in plain sight. You know what you have to do, but somehow you’re always left with one less item than you think you can possibly solve it with. There are also larger puzzles where you do not immediately see where you should go or what you need to do, and these will test your spatial reasoning and working memory.
The game contains no formal tutorial; like a child left alone with her toys (and only the occasional admonishing remark from her omnipresent dad), you learn through play. The puzzles start off simple, but the forgivingly low bar belies the complexity to come. Thankfully, the difficulty curve is well tuned, with the basics you learn early on being neatly folded into bigger, more complex solutions later.
Like all good puzzle games, The Talos Principle’s more difficult challenges aren’t simple separable combinations of earlier concepts. You will have to juggle not just the individual pieces you have previously encountered, but also their interaction when combined in new ways. You are often required to think outside the box and challenge your implicit assumptions about how the pieces actually work, and the game, like all great entries in this genre, is highly effective in evoking that special “puzzle high” when you have finally solved a particularly difficult problem.
Challenging in the right way
Demanding as it is, the most challenging aspect of the experience might be to simply stick with the puzzles until you figure them out yourself. Given the attention deficiency and instant-gratification mindset that is allegedly so common today, it can be tempting to resort to online hints and solutions at the first sign of difficulty. I know I am not immune to this myself. But trust me when I say that the game’s consistent ability to produce the memorable “aha!” highs when you have solved a problem completely on your own is more than worth the struggle (and indeed is very much contingent upon it).
Some games are challenging for all the wrong reasons, but fortunately, The Talos Principle is a highly accessible game, and knows exactly what kind of challenges is wants to present – or, more to the point, which it doesn’t. The actual mechanics are very simple, and when you try to use and combine objects you’ll see clearly marked interaction points, freeing you from having to orient them to within a degree or an inch to succeed. And lest you get lost, the game abundantly signposts the locations of the puzzles, their difficulty, and whether they are completed.
While we’re on the topic of accessibility, the Options menu is perhaps the most extensive I have seen. There’s a veritable cornucopia of choices for every conceivable setting, accessibility included. They even have a separate “Motion sickness” menu that collects relevant options from other menu categories, allowing you do adjust everything from head bobbing and walking speed to performance options.
Like Portal, the game’s simple mechanics make it all the more impressive how challenging it is. Unlike Portal, however, you are largely free to jump back and forth between different puzzles. Should you be stuck on a particular devious one, the free-roaming aspect of the game means you can just leave and try another one. The clear segmentation also provides ample opportunity for just popping in for a quick puzzle if that’s your cup of tea. Heck, you don’t even have to complete all puzzles if you don’t want to.
However, this is a game that will definitely reward you for exploring fully, perhaps primarily because you get access to more hidden narrative pieces like text and audio logs. These shed more light on the nature of this weird place and your purpose in it, providing pieces of much needed clarity as you grapple with the game’s deeper layers.
So, what’s actually going on?
See, part of what makes The Talos Principle so memorable is the narrative puzzle parallel to the mechanical one. Even without a story to tie the puzzles together it would be a perfectly good, if somewhat sterile, puzzle game. Thankfully, though, there are other layers to unravel. Getting to the bottom of the god-like voice in the sky, the strange puzzle simulation, and your place in all of this is engaging in its own right, and rewards you with that same “puzzle high” as you discover ever more clues and start connecting the dots.
Yet through this process, you are faced with deep philosophical and existential conundrums. What does it mean to be a person? What is the nature of consciousness? You will have to face questions like these, answer as best you can, and face the inconsistencies in your reasoning.
Apart from directly challenging you philosophically, the game also weaves a carpet of contemplative observations on themes like faith, the relationship between humanity and technology, and the inescapable materiality of life. To its great credit, it manages to do this with a self-awareness that precludes a feeling of pretentiousness.
I am also delighted by the soundtrack, which masterfully supports even the deeper themes of the game. It doesn’t merely add to the atmosphere; it underpins everything this game is, down to its philosophical roots. The music is simultaneously sacral and mechanical, hopeful and melancholy, sad and exciting. Wistful boy sopranos, pianos, classical guitars, mighty choirs and other organic sounds mixes with synths and mechanical noises to add tension to everything you do in the game, and the soundscape strikes just the right balance between staying in the background and driving suspense.
The music carries a narrative of its own, elegantly merging with the rest of the game and its themes. It is, in many ways, one of the best game soundtracks I have experienced – not because of memorable tunes, but rather its ability to convey a story both by itself and as part of the larger setting of the game.
The Talos Principle is an excellent brain-teaser. The wide variety of challenging puzzles makes it a joy to play. The quality of its puzzle designs approach those of Portal, and while it might lack Portal’s distinct character, it certainly has personality despite its sterile and desolate environments.
For this, it can thank its philosophical foundation and intriguing breadcrumb-trail narrative. The game has you complete seemingly pointless tasks with no certain knowledge of the grand scheme of things, all the while making you reflect on that same aspect of the nature of humanity, and much more.
The Talos Principle is smart, but not punishing; intellectual, but not pretentious; philosophical, yet not feeling like a lecture.
I’d enjoy the puzzles without the story, the story without the puzzles, and the soundtrack without either. Together, they all pull in the same direction, interweaving to create a compelling, multi-layered puzzle game that is more than the sum of its parts.
The Talos Principle is a multi-layered puzzle game with excellent atmosphere and great puzzle design.
Try saying that quickly.↩