Hands On: The Talos Principle

The Talos Principle is a very clever, very calm creation. Which is a surprising new direction from Croteam, who have previously given us the splendid madcap frenzy of Serious Sam shooters. While clearly sharing the same fast-paced twitchy controls of the Serious Engine, and a similar design ethic of ruined civilisations, beyond this Talos is dramatically different. It’s a captivating first-person puzzle game, more influenced by Portal than Doom, with an intricate back-story questioning the nature of consciousness and personhood told through fascinating interactions with an AI. I’ve had a play of its first, extensive chapter.

The puzzles, at least in the earlier stages I’ve played through in some near-complete preview code, consist of familiar concepts played out in an unfamiliar way. Each level, played in first-person, takes place in the larger context of a sprawling world of ruins, with you seeking goals of floating puzzle pieces – Tetris-like blocks used to open access to new areas. To achieve this, at first you negotiate your way around fizzing blue barriers and combative drones (you don’t fight back – this is all about the puzzling), intuiting the correct placing of “jammers” to find pathways.

Soon “connectors” appear, which let you redirect coloured beams to locks that open barriers, which combined with jammers allow things to become far more elaborate. Blocks become a factor too, with a rather Portal-esque gag of calling them Hexahedrons, with more elements to appear as the game progresses.

None of it is anything we haven’t seen before, although more likely from a top-down perspective, but it’s all implemented superbly well. Puzzles range from pleasingly intuitive to brain-scrambling, and the nippiness of the Serious Engine, while always taking some getting used to after playing anything else, quickly becomes a boon to rapid dashing about as inspiration strikes.

This decent puzzle game wouldn’t stand out as much during these early stages if it weren’t for the writing. There are few writers in this industry whose work I can spot without noticing their credit, but Tom Jubert is an exception. I had no doubt his fingers were in part responsible for a deeply sophisticated exploration of metaphysics and intelligence. Here he’s co-writing with Jonas Kyratzes, and the result is refreshing and interesting.

From the start you are directed by an omnipotent voice, explaining the world, and suggesting that if you’re able to complete the puzzles he says he’s crafted, then he will reveal to you the secrets of eternal life. Hmmmm. Soon after you find a clunky old computer terminal, stood on some sort of pedestal, that asks you to take a personality test – specifically, a test to see if you have a personality, if you are a person. A question that becomes more pertinent when you notice that your fingers on the keyboard of the computer look particularly robotic.

Consoles are found about the games’ zones, which offer fragments of writings, emails, comments threads, essays, and so on, seeming to be part of the fractured remains of an “Archive” of as-yet unrevealed purposes. And while, yes, that does mean this is another game that tells a large chunk of its story through a slight variant on scattered diary pages, I’ve rarely found it as effective and worth reading as what I’ve played so far. Discussions between researchers into the complexities of metaphysics feel human and engrossing, while more personal bits of writing, and academic literature on ontological philosophy over the last few thousand years, flesh out a story that’s entirely yours to piece together.

And yes, the fact that within this highbrow musing you’re being asked to collect giant floating puzzle pieces from contrived challenges is very much a conscious part of this tale. It has its cake and eats it, and knows it’s delicious.

I also have to note just how amazing the Serious Engine looks here. Glances can appear photorealistic, and its crisp, clean edges and luscious skies and scenery are often outstanding. Along with subtle and smart use of sound (chirping crickets is an oddly effective way of providing a more realistic ambience), as well as the joyful “BEEP BOOP!” of the terminals when they want to talk to you, there’s a lovely sense of place here, beyond what you’d expect in what might otherwise feel a contrived puzzle game.

Most outstanding so far, however, is how well those contrivances are played. Not only are the puzzles quickly smart and tough (they perhaps take a little too long to get properly tricky), but their context is splendidly justified in an intriguing narrative.

Having only played the first segment of at least four (it rather disguises in which direction things are heading) I obviously can’t make a call on how well it will all play out. But of what I’ve played so far, this looks like it could be pretty special. I hope it can sustain it.

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  1. Premium User Badge

    amateurviking says:

    Ooooh. Sounds lovely.

  2. Melody says:

    A more effective preview would have been as follows:

    You don’t need other words.

    In all seriousness though, John, have you played Sigils of Elohim, the free puzzle-based prologue that is supposed to unlock stuff in the Talos Principle? Do you know what kind of stuff it will unlock, and if the puzzles have anything to do with those of the full game?
    (As for myself, I found the puzzles ok but unremarkable, and was obviously disappointed by the lack of hints about the plot)

    • Barfo says:

      I played all the way through the PAX prime demo of this two months ago, and when it came out i also played the Sigils of Elohim adver-game and finished it (unless theyve added anything new since it came out – ive noticed steam from time to time DLing patches). At least in the demo it seems the main activity of the game is first person puzzles (in the Portal et al. style) the goal/reward for which is to gain one of those tetrominoes. Once you collect enough you can then slot them together in a tile-laying mini-game as a keycard that get you through a door (and into the next garden of puzzles presumably but of course the pax demo ended at this point).

      This tile-laying minigame using tetrominoes seems to be the section of the game that they repackaged as Sigils of Elohim. Based on only what SoE says when you earn an unlock it sounds like mainly optional customization stuff.

      I agree with you the tile laying minigame is not particularly remarkable (its very well-worn territory). It certainly doesn’t really hold up when you mainline it for 32 straight puzzles like in Sigils of Elohim. Luckily, the first person puzzle stuff to me was very engaging (and John seems to agree).

  3. Ditocoaf says:

    Tom Jubert with Jonas Kyratzes??? HOLY SHIT. And in a first-person puzzler, to boot! I can’t wait!

  4. Chuckleluck says:

    Looks cool and all, but I can’t read the title without thinking of Skyrim.

  5. FreeTom says:

    “A frog is conscious”
    Hmm, that was accepted too easily. Prove it.

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      First we must establish the concept of “proof”.

      • tumbleworld says:

        … and also properly define “conscious”. Which would be a nice first.

        • FreeTom says:

          Oh fuck, this is getting more philopohical than I was aiming for.

          Accepting dictionary definitions of all applicable terms as being as near as makes no difference, I’m not convinced creatures with such simple brains as frogs are self-aware.

          Dogs and stuff, yes. Most mammals, in fact. But just being an animal as opposed to a plant is not enough.

          • Nevard says:

            Well I mean, the dictionary definition I get as the first google result is “aware of and responding to one’s surroundings”, which frogs unquestionably are by virtue of being able to: 1) detect flies which are not always present in the environment and 2) eat them.
            That demonstrates both awareness (ability to detect changes) and responsiveness (ability to react to said changes).

            Consciousness is not a difficult thing to prove, if you don’t want to be philosophical. There’s no listed requirement for thought or reasoning in that definition, so nothing that is difficult to establish without being a frog.

            The scientific debate about animal consciousness is more often about feelings and ability to reason, rather than the dictionary definition you apparently want to discuss, so would tread into the realms of philosophy, as we have no singular definition of what it means to be a thinking, reasoning being, nor any particularly strong tests to establish if you apply.
            If you want to be deeper than “sees fly, eats it, therefore conscious” then philosophising is a necessary evil. At this point you are treading into territory that is difficult to cross if you aren’t actually a frog yourself (at which point it becomes hard to get your point across to any human readers).

            Consciousness as in being aware has an easy and easily proved definition, but consciousness as in being aware that you are aware has a very wobbly one, one which I imagine would require several theses rather than a short first person puzzle game to prove in any satisfying fashion.

          • ThornEel says:

            Conscious and self-aware are two very different things. Apart from humans, very few animals have any degree of self-awareness, most of them being among the apes. And even then, it is in a limited form (one of the exercises is, for example, being able to recognise their image as themselves in a mirror).
            Beyond that, humans are unique in having a language – there is no such thing as “animal language”, they are using codes with invariant meaning, akin to the highway code. Language is (imperfectly) interpreted, but on the other hand, it can describe anything instead of only a few predetermined meanings. It can also describe concepts (like death), something no other animal can. Another point is that language is entirely taught while animal codes are mostly innate, instinct-driven.

            So self-awareness is nearly the privilege of humans. Depending on how you define it, self-consciousness probably is entirely. Some name the particular form of intelligence(s) that separate humans from any other known beings as “sapience” – and not “sentience”, which means “being aware of one’s surroundings”, which most animals with a central nervous system seem to be. Whether beings without one (like insects) are is up to debate.

  6. Messofanego says:

    “chirping crickets is an oddly effective way of providing a more realistic ambience”

    Pretty much the standard for any Japanese media especially anime (Evangelion has loads of it).

    Hearing this game has deeper themes has me interested.

    • Premium User Badge

      alms says:

      AFAIK that’s not crickets, it’s cicadas, and in animes it’s pretty much the telltale it’s late summer or very hot.

      However, the fact you hear them all the time in NGE is not just a random accident of sound design.

  7. goalcam says:

    This seems suspiciously similar to The Witness.

  8. Premium User Badge

    alms says:

    FPP written by Kyratzes, sounds like something I could enjoy playing.

  9. Pepper26 says:

    if you had looked in the controls, you can enable third person and see that yes, you are a robot.