Wot I Think: The Talos Principle

Croteam’s The Talos Principle has a combination of neatly designed puzzles and philosophical pondering. It tickled my brainbuds and got inside my head in that way which sees you drawing diagrams of levels while on the tube or puzzling them out as you lie in bed pretending sleep might turn up at any moment. It’s one of my favourite games from 2014.

The game breaks neatly into two parts: there’s the Portal-esque first person puzzle element where you figure out how to reach and collect tetromino puzzle pieces which are used to advance you through the world; there’s also a philosophical/existential aspect which gradually feeds you scraps of text from a corrupted archive and asks you to consider things like the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human.

I’ll talk about the puzzles first.

The game world is divided into zones. If it was the Crystal Maze they would probably be Mediterranean, Desert, Ecclesiastical and Big Hulking Tower. Each zone contains a number of doors which take you through to mini hubs where you access the puzzles themselves. The tower is slightly different but we’ll get to that later.

The most useful of all the tetrominos

In each puzzle you need to pick up a floating tetromino piece, gated off in a hard-to-reach location and protected by an assortment of deadly sentry guns, patrolling jerks sensor orbs, forcefield gates, locked doors and so on. At your disposal you have a small toolkit. There are crystals which let you redirect laser beams, pressure plates which switch off forcefields, fans and signal jammers. Later you’ll get access to more complex tools like recording devices and persistent platforms you can carry around using clones.

The obvious comparison, as I mentioned earlier, is Portal but Talos also invokes other puzzlers – the recording mechanic has a lot of P.B. Winterbottom about it, for example.

The Talos Principle’s puzzles are great. They start off pretty simple so I whooshed through most of the first zone without any level causing particular head-scratching. Getting into the second world they began to feel meatier and you’ll start needing to chip away at problems, experimenting with different ways of thinking and sometimes even leaving the level completely so you can come back later with a fresh plan of attack.

Left for Leicester and also retsecieL

Some of the later puzzles made for much glaring and brooding as I slurped a cup of tea and tried to work out how to manipulate the cubes, crystals and timey-wimey stuff to feed my tetromino habit. Not all of the later levels are that difficult, though, and I breezed through some of them. I’m wondering if they were intended as rest stops almost – opportunities to solve something while waiting for harder puzzles to swim into focus – but it did make those simpler levels feel inconsequential on occasion.

There’s a hint system if you get truly stuck but I’m not sure how much people are likely to use it. The hints are unlocked in little sanctuary sections, which I liked – so much so I didn’t want to leave the peace of the space – but in terms of play, it’s a lot of work to unlock a single clue and they’re only available once you’ve opened the third world. I’d say you’re more likely to look up a walkthrough online than use them.

The tetrominos which you collect are used to unlock more skills for your toolkit as well as opening up new worlds to explore and providing access to the aforementioned Big Hulking Tower.

What could possibly go wrong?

Is that the Big Hulking Tower you’ve been told not to go anywhere near on pain of losing your immortality? Yes. Yes it is. Hello, videogame reverse psychology!

The warning comes via a booming disembodied voice which calls itself Elohim – Hebrew for god or God. There’s an overbearing paternal flavour to Elohim which clearly echoes particular interpretations of God. As a counterpoint to Elohim you have access to library terminals peppered through the world. These dispense snippets of texts from the real world (or at least, one apparently existing outside the one you’re exploring). There’s philosophy, fictional blog entries, emails, literature to read as well as existential questioning at the hands of an AI library assistant.

even videogums

It’s not easygoing material – certainly not if you’re looking for light relief after butting up against a difficult level – but I found it engaging and rewarding. The variation of the types of material kept my interest from flagging and the AI was posing questions I enjoy thinking about. There were moments where it did lose me, particularly when the set of responses available didn’t seem to make sense or follow the logic of what was said. For example, there was a question which I happened to have given a lot of thought to outside the game. When trying to explain it to the AI using the options available I ended up in a situation where I either had to admit to being wrong and choose another response or pursue a point which was then framed as not making sense.

Working back from the game’s conclusion there’s a chance this was deliberate but when actually playing it’s jarring and gets in the way of seriously considering some of the subject matter being offered up. The relationship with Elohim has notes of The Stanley Parable about it. Not in terms of how it plays out specifically, but the central question of whether you’re going to defy or obey the game’s God figure.

I hope you like jamming, too

Tonally, I’d say it’s similar to what I’ve played of The Swapper which isn’t surprising since the writer of that game, Tom Jubert, is also one of the writers on The Talos Principle. He’s joined by Jonas Kyratzes who penned The Infinite Ocean – another game whose existential themes have echoes in Talos.

The philosophical side of the game won’t be for everyone, and you can largely leave it alone or skim the texts if you really don’t get on with it. I really enjoyed digging into the archives so I’d recommend giving it a good go, but ultimately it shouldn’t get in the way of enjoying the excellent puzzle side of things.

The one thing I would say is that the game is pricey to the point of being off-putting, certainly to at least one friend. It’s £29.99 full price on Steam (pre-orders get you a slight discount). I think it’s worth it and got about 12-15 hours of playtime out of it so far (obviously some of that was disgruntled tea slurping/glaring or taking a soothing Beyoncé dance break). I’ll also return to finish off some bits – bonus stars and the like. At the moment, though, there’s a free public test which offers a selection of three puzzles so you can try them out beforehand as well as Sigils of Elohim which has a selection of tetromino puzzles to play around with. Do that if you’re umming and erring about whether the game is worth £30 to you.

[UPDATE: Edited that last para slightly so you know how long I’ve played and so on!]

60 Comments

  1. Dominic White says:

    That price tag seems a bit high until you consider something that not too many reviews have mentioned: This is a REALLY BIG game compared to, say, Portal 1 or 2. Most reviewers I know estimate around 15-20 hours just to get through the main puzzles, and then another 5-10 for the crazy optional Star puzzles, which often require you to bend or break the rules of the game as it has taught them to you.

    The first world alone (during which I found 2 of maybe 10 stars) took me a little over six hours, according to Steam. There’s a good meaty chunk of game here.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Lars Westergren says:

    Horray for great puzzle games! May it do well in the sales charts.

    > The one thing I would say is that the game is pricey to the point of being off-putting. It’s £29.99 full price on Steam

    That doesn’t sound like much, judging by how much you get? Sounds like a long and fulfilling game from the article.

    Also, let it be known that the first person in the comments who mention the word “pretentious” is a complete tool.
    No wait. Crap.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Also, let it be known that the first person in the comments who mention the word “pretentious” is a complete tool.

      How about the first person who plays the game from start to finish, then gives a long and reasoned analysis of what wisdom the philosophical side of the game actually conveys, then an exhaustive breakdown of how it doesn’t measure up to the standards of other, similar highfalutin’ pieces of pop culture, let alone literary treatises on similar subjects?

      Sorry, just fed up with people insinuating that word no longer has any meaning. I can offer no opinion one way or the other, though, the game is out of my price range at the moment. Though I’d certainly like to give it a try.

      • Premium User Badge

        Lars Westergren says:

        How about the first person who plays the game from start to finish, then gives a long and reasoned analysis of what wisdom the philosophical side of the game actually conveys, then an exhaustive breakdown of how it doesn’t measure up to the standards of other, similar highfalutin’ pieces of pop culture, let alone literary treatises on similar subjects?

        If that happens, I’ll read it and consider the viewpoint. :)

      • Faxanadu says:

        Well, already the demo made me think about something, albeit briefly. :P

        It asked something like “If you were to research something, you wouldn’t get results on in your lifetime, would you do it? And in the process, accept your mortality?” -to which I promptly responded in my head, you don’t have to accept your mortality, just the extremely high chance of it, and that clearly doesn’t sound as bad as accepting you’re going to die, clearly. :P

        If it doesn’t deteriorate from there, it doesn’t sound pretentious to me. :)

        • Danorz says:

          There’s an extra bit of situational context to what the speaker is thinking about and talking about in these audiologs that may not be apparent in the demo.

      • gwathdring says:

        I think the word pretentious has always been a bit useless.

        Your hypothetical article sounds fine. Pretentious doesn’t meant “doesn’t measure up to other stuff.” It means “Having pretense to something that is above one’s caliber or station.” It means “Thinking one is better than one is.”

        The trouble with pretentious is that it’s great for, say, describing yourself or a character you’re writing or a person who you know very, very, very intimately. But it just makes an ass out of you when applied in any other context. You’re not only making a judgement about someone’s character (fair game) but then doubling down by presuming to know what they are thinking about themselves and further asserting that they think themselves to be better than what your judgement of them says they deserve.

        That a word has meaning doesn’t mean it’s a useful word and doesn’t mean you can apply it in very many circumstances without coming off as self-righteous or, well, pretentious. Here meaning, presuming to know more about someone’s internal mental state than you could possibly know. There’s a nice example of one of the few cases where the word pretentious can be reasonably applied to someone you do not know intimately well–when they call someone they don’t know intimately well pretentious first.

        Though the argument could be made that pretentious has additional connotation of less specific elitism and presumptuousness. For example, saying that my film is a true art unlike that pop culture shit. Or suggesting that my works are fine literature unlike that pop culture shit.

        The annoying thing here is that you did that. Though, as you did it on the behalf of OTHER works instead of your own work or person, it’s not really in keeping with my understanding of pretentiousness. It certainly seems unreasonably disparaging, though.

      • TJ says:

        It seems like the argument raised against the usefulness of the word rides on the claim that no one person is ever really in a position to know what an author’s intentions were, or whether a work lived up to them.

        If so wouldn’t this mean that one could reasonably express a suspicion of pretension, and apply it not to the work’s creator (in this case, me) but to the work itself? “I played this game and it seemed to promise me X, but only delivered Y. Perhaps it really did deliver X and I just missed it, or perhaps it never really promised it in the first place, but pending evidence from other people on those issues pretension remains a plausible conclusion.”

        Further, by applying the term to the work, rather than the creator, you’re not unfairly doing down someone’s character. A good creative can have lofty ambitions yet fail to deliver on them in particular circumstances.

        That, anyway, is the counterargument I think the Milton Library Assistant might raise, if this conversation were occurring in The Talos Principle.

    • Philippa Warr says:

      I’d say it was definitely worth it – I got 12-15 hours of gaming out of it so far and will go back to 100% the bonus bits I didn’t manage to unlock so add in another few hours on top of that.

      TBH I should edit the end of the review to add that. Tis useful info!

    • Konstantinos Dimopoulos says:

      Odd thing is I pre-ordered it for 18 euro on Steam (10% off the 20 euro price) along with a Serious Sam game. Can’t help but think that either Croteam or Steam has done something very wrong with its regional pricing.

  3. Faldrath says:

    Huh, I somehow completely missed the fact that Jonas Kyratzes was involved in this. This has changed my stance from “mildly interested” to “very much interested indeed”. I shall have to wait for a sale, though – alas, money is tight now with all that Christmas silliness going on.

    • Premium User Badge

      Hodge says:

      Yeah, same here (on both points). Though with me it’s I keep forgetting that Kyratzes is involved in it.

  4. His Divine Shadow says:

    Might be worth pointing out that “elohim” is Hebrew for “Gods” (i.e. plural)

    • Philippa Warr says:

      Tis singular and plural afaik, but here it’s used to refer to a single voice and the use I’ve heard it being put to most often is to refer to God (as opposed to god)

      • His Divine Shadow says:

        God as a unity of gods perhaps, since grammatically it’s a plural form. Most likely it’s commonly used as singular just to avoid all the implications and different interpretations of what it might have meant.

        • elevown says:

          elohim as it originally meant, is the name of the race of the gods from what i understand- as in its pre christian meaning as used in the religious texts of the palastine region, and in the early bible – it didn’t mean lots of gods in one, but deffinatley referred to multiple different gods- there are least half a dozen gods mentioned in the bible.

          But if you want to talk about its modern use, then it is probably safe to say most think of it as simply God, because Christians either don’t know or want to ignore its actual origin and that other gods even exist in the bible.

          • tnzk says:

            That was a bit of a sideswipe at Christians there. As a well-read Roman Catholic who probably should take more interest in evangelising than allowing the world to flail around in religious ignorance, I can tell you there are no other gods in the Bible. There are angels, demons, men, golden calves and spaghetti monsters that are falsely attributed as “god”, of which the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob patiently tells the Jews (and then Gentiles) over a period of 1500 years that all those gods are not really gods and its not a good idea to put your life in wannabes.

            The irony a Christian worth his salt could tell you is that we all banded together and ended up killing the one and only real God while proclaiming loyalty to the false ones. Much twist, very amaze, 10/10 best story ever.

            Anyway good deed done for the year, back to sin and suffering. Also this game seems right up my alley if it’s got philosophical mumbo-jumbo and a healthy dose of adventure puzzling (or puzzle adventuring).

        • JonasKyratzes says:

          The ambiguous nature of the word “Elohim” is one of several reasons it was picked, as it reflects some of the fascinating, odd parts of the Bible – see also the strange plural in Genesis 3:22 (“And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil”) – which inspired elements of the game’s story. I’ll leave the rest to figure out for those who played the game and want to dig into its themes.

          I know you should never comment on reviews, but this is something I’m particularly interested in, so I couldn’t resist. Off I go.

          • Hex says:

            Not sure how strange it is, as God is a trinity — 3 distinct persons existing in perfect communion. Who are also all the same thing. I’m pretty sure God intended himself (themself?) to be inscrutable to mere mortal minds.

            They still get to chat with one another.

          • death_au says:

            I was already interested in this game, but you’re comment here has piqued my curiosity further and may have been the tipping factor into my purchase.

          • His Divine Shadow says:

            you mean, THOU SHALT NEVER COMMENT ON REVIEWS?

          • TJ says:

            Shit, I’m not supposed to comment on reviews?!

          • K_Sezegedin says:

            Hex, keep in mind the concept of the Trinity was extrapolated from New Testament material, its never specifically described in the text of the bible, and certainly has no place in a reading of Genesis…

  5. Dead guy says:

    As a European, non UK Steam customer, I preordered this game for 17.99 EUR, which should be around £14.99. Full price is 19.99 EUR (£15.99). I think Philippa Warr’ s price comes from the Steam database website, which reports I should have paid 36.99 EUR for my preorder, which is obviously false.
    In the end, check The Talos Principle’s real store page before calling it overpriced, as I’m pretty sure database prices are wrong.

    • Wang Tang says:

      Well, she is not wrong, as obviously in the UK it costs 29.99 pounds. Here in Germany, it is 39.99 Euro, which, at least for me, is overpriced. There is no such thing as a “European customer” for Steam; as you see from the price differences between me and you, there isn’t even a “Eurozone customer”.

    • Kobest says:

      I can confirm this as well. I was rather surprised at the seemingly harsh price tag but when I checked Steam it only said 17.99 € at the moment (10% off due to pre-orders, normal price 19.99 €). That’s a pretty good price for such an amount of content!

    • Vandelay says:

      Seems to be a bit all over the place with price around the world. Russia is the cheapest at £6.28, whilst EU1 is the highest at £28.47. I suspect all of these have 10% discount for pre-order.

      As ever, always look at places besides Steam. According to Enhanced Steam, you can use Green Man Gaming’s voucher to get 25% to reduce it down to just over £20. Just tried to do that though and it isn’t accepting the voucher. Humble Store has it too, for $26.99, which should be around £17.

  6. Monggerel says:

    I remember when Kotor 2 tried to engage me on an “intellectual” UGH level by having an uppity old crone lecture disdainfully in my general direction.
    Every time Kreia opened her mouth I immediately retaliated with a spirited “See if I care fuck”.
    It was exhilarating.

    • Aninhumer says:

      Yeah, it basically had the same problem as is described here. The writers just can’t predict every possible view on complex philosophical topics, although with KoTOR2 it felt like they weren’t even trying most of the time. Ultimately every choice seemed to be between “I guess you’re right”, “Hmm, dunno lol.” or “Nuh-uh!”, so I was endlessly irritated by being unable to criticise Kreia’s rather warped views. From what I saw in the Talos Principle demo, they do a somewhat better job, but they’re probably still going to run into the same problem.

  7. kevinspell says:

    Hmm, it seems Devolver is slowly becoming my favorite publisher. And as much as I like Seroius Sam, I can say I’m glad Croteam finally tried to do something different and judging by reviews they have done it properly.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yeah.

      I also like how the Serious Sam lineage means there’s an option to increase the protagonist run speed.

      And then you can sprint on top of that.

    • Faxanadu says:

      Damn. I was wondering how the hell does a puzzle game have arcade shooter movement. I was like, raw mouse input? And enabled by DEFAULT?

  8. merzbau says:

    I’ve been faffing around in Sigils of Elohim on and off for the past few weeks, and I’m curious how the “unlocks” from that game feed into The Talos Principle- each tier of completed puzzles awards you an “artifact” and an alphanumeric string, presumably to be fed into TTP at some point, but there’s very little context in Sigils as to how they’ll be used.

    Would I be better off finishing the entirety of Sigils before I start TTP? I mean, I probably will anyway, what with it being free and all (and having a few other story-driven single-player games going that I really should see to first), but it would be good to know.

    • Philippa Warr says:

      I unlocked a code in that just now so put it in to see what was what. As far as I could tell it seemed to just unlock a new one of the little messages which pepper the walls from previous inhabitants of the world? So it wasn’t playable content or anything as far as I could see, more an augment for the walls?

      • merzbau says:

        Good to know, thanks!

        • phlebas says:

          Does Sigils get more interesting? I played a couple of puzzles after the first unlock, but it didn’t really grab me.

    • TJ says:

      Yup, Sigils generally unlocks our equivalent of hats. No new puzzles as far as I’m aware, but new options with which to express yourself in the world.

  9. OctoStepdad says:

    I need to get to this sometime! hopefully early next year.

    Also, there is a “demo/beta” on steam right now if you want to try it out. I still haven’t found the time to play it.

  10. Melody says:

    I’ll absolutely get it, and I’m pretty sure I’ll love it too.
    But it makes me kinda sad that you can say I really enjoyed digging into the archives so I’d recommend giving it a good go, but ultimately it shouldn’t get in the way of enjoying the excellent puzzle side of things. . And not so much because you’re saying it, but because it means that the two parts of the game are almost independent of each other.

    I’d have loved to see them interdependent, interlocked, somehow. Or one bearing on the meaning of the other, or something. I don’t know. Just not as separate entities that were randomly put in the same game, almost as if by chance.

    • JonasKyratzes says:

      Hey there. Just wanted to say the puzzles and the texts aren’t separate, they just don’t connect in the sense of individual texts explaining individual puzzles. That’s because even in the context of the game, the puzzles are clearly puzzles. But the puzzles and the texts are connected, thematically as well as plot-wise. It’s just a little more oblique than usual. (It was intended that way.)

      Hope that makes you feel less sad! :)

      • TJ says:

        It’s also fair to say that the specifics of what you do in the puzzles doesn’t bare on the story either. That you are solving abstract puzzles is something that is tied into the story, but compared to classic point and click adventures, or say Penumbra, we lack any meaningful interplay between story and puzzling.

        I agree with some of the commentors who bemoan the lack of overlap. I think there’s a place for games like Talos or The Swapper which separate the two; but it’s far more exciting to find innovative ways to combine them.

  11. Botiquita says:

    Here in México, it is £11.53 ($254 pesos). Even in it´s 39.99 usd original price, it is extremely cheap for a game this good and with such a vast and quality content.

    Great review of a brilliant game !

  12. LionsPhil says:

    I am utterly stuck within the demo. I keep coming back to this, and can see no way to permanently elevate that thing to fire at the exit output-socket-thing.

    • Faxanadu says:

      Prisms can fire in multiple locations at the same time, remember. :)

      • LionsPhil says:

        They CAN?!

        So they can! Well, that was easy.

        • Faxanadu says:

          Yeah, you just had to remember it from the medium level. And yeah, a bit disappointing for the last puzzle.

          • LionsPhil says:

            Yeah, after finishing it I poked the benchmark thing now that I could, and watched the recorded player run straight past the preconfigured prism doing exactly that.

          • GepardenK says:

            LionsPhil: That’s not a recorded player, but an actual AI playing the game in real time. No kidding. Croteam uses it to playtest the game for them and look for bugs/broken puzzles etc.

            Ironic given the theme huh? :)

  13. Haborym says:

    Croteam huh? And they’re making a first person puzzle game instead of a Doom style shooter? Sounds pretty interesting.

  14. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    Very interested, but do tell: does this ‘recording’ thing work by having you do something, then do something else as the version of you you recorded does its thing again? If so, does that require you to time your actions to your imaginary future actions? Because I’ve seen that done in a hundred indie games from before indie was even a thing and I’ve had enough experience to know I won’t like it.

    • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      Yes, that is exactly how the recording works. You can try it in the demo/public test in the bonus level. I’ve not played the full game, so it’s possible that they do something more interesting with it there, but I’m doubtful.

      I also find this kind of recording puzzle tedious: the fun of a puzzle (for me) is in figuring out what to do, and not in executing it with correct timing or sequencing when they are complicated.

  15. Wowbagger says:

    Well I’m in. Looks lully and is getting rave reviews.

  16. megazver says:

    Played the demo. It was good enough that I’ll buy it.

    I did get a distinct impression that the oddly generic art style was probably due to them reusing some Serious Sam assets they had lying around.

  17. bill says:

    How does it run on lower end machines? I don’t mind turning down graphical options.