The RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 8th: The Talos Principle: Road To Gehenna

What is the best puzzle game of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…

The Talos Principle: Road To Gehenna!

Adam: If I find myself writing about any more puzzle games in these calendar entries, I might have to re-evaluate my feelings about puzzles. I hate puzzles. I have Ernő Rubik’s face plastered across my dartboard so that I can periodically puncture him for ruining colours and cubes, and consider the occasional appearance of a Tower of Hanoi puzzle in an otherwise safe game to be an assault on my personal wellbeing. Shoot a thousand zombies in the brainstem? Sure. Transfer some discs from one rod to another? Not a chance. At best I’m going to reach for a walkthrough but there’s a distinct possibility I’m just going to quit and uninstall.

Sokoban is the worst offender. One day I’ll find the proof that the entire crate-shuffling exercise is derived from a lost Kafka story about the alienating absurdity of mindless labour.

On paper, The Talos Principle and its expansion Road To Gehenna sound like a trick. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’d be entirely possible to present the entire game to me as a story about artificial life, intelligence and worlds. Or an exploration of theism, myth and the consciousness. Those are things that could be interesting, particularly given that I like the work of Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes, the game’s writers. That game – a sci-fi philosophical quandary set in a possibly virtual recreation of history and myth – sounds like it would be one of my favourite games of the year.

At some point I’m going to notice all of the puzzles though. Even if the writing is brilliant, I’m not going to stick with a book or a film that forces me to solve a puzzle every time I want to move the plot forward. That my first steps into The Talos Principle led me into rooms that reminded me of those light and mirrors puzzles that crop up unexpectedly from time to time should have added several nails to the coffin. As soon as the game introduced a device to record and replay actions, to solve puzzles requiring cooperation with your past self, the lid should have been firmly sealed and I should have been long gone.

And yet, here I am, having completed not only the base game, released last year, but this year’s superb expansion as well. I don’t know if it’s the first-person perspective that helps me to understand the construction of the puzzles or if it’s the beauty of the world and compelling text that fills it, but something kept me invested in The Talos Principle. Maybe it’s just that the puzzles are superbly designed. It’s more than likely that a combination of all those things, as well as the ways in which they form a cohesive whole, helps the game to appeal to even the most hardened puzzlephobe.

John: The Talos Principle was cruelly robbed of a place on last year’s psuedo-calendar, because it was rather silly and released in December. But boy it deserved one. The good news is, expansion pack Road To Gehenna not only assures this oversight is made up for this year, but entirely merits a spot in the list on its own.

Talos was a combination of puzzles as smart as anything in Portal, and a fascinating story that explored the philosophy of consciousness and existence, via a self-aware AI. These ontological ponderings are taken into a parallel story to the original game’s, set in a prison world in which cyborgs that have displeased the mighty Elohim are trapped. As Uriel – previously referred to in the main game – you set about freeing them because, well, they’re at the centre of a new set of ingenious puzzles.

What you find as you get further into these more complex puzzles of bounced laser beams, fans, blocks and barriers is that the prisoners aren’t entirely convinced they want to be rescued.

The result is another wonderful combination of mind-hurting challenges, and superbly interesting writing and thinking. The writing team of Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes is one I want to see happen again and again, now we know they can repeat it. In Gehenna, they also rather wickedly explore the nature of online communities, and brilliantly skewer the most common memes. It also contains some of the most hilariously brilliant deliberately bad writing I’ve ever seen.

It’s a game that’s not only smart itself, but also makes you feel smart while you’re playing. Which is brills.

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

20 Comments

  1. Vandelay says:

    Excellent. My favourite game of last year gets the Horace treatment it finally deserves.

    This year, I finally went back to the base game to retrieve the hidden stars. If you have not done this before, I highly recommend doing so, as some of them are truly devious. I must do the same for the excellent expansion too.

  2. DrollRemark says:

    For some reason it just failed to grab me anywhere near as much as the original game did, and I’m not quite sure why. I still haven’t finished it, and I struggle to find the compulsion to.

    I think it’s that the plot just doesn’t stimulate me as much, but then I’ve still enjoyed it. Or is it that the puzzles are too difficult to drop in and out of (on account of it starting pretty much at the level the first game stopped at)? Oh I don’t know.

    • mashkeyboardgetusername says:

      I had a similar experience, I think because the puzzles felt more hard for the sake of hard rather than clever, so upon solving most I was thinking “oh, for fuck’s sake” rather than “aha! Genius!”. Also didn’t enjoy smashing my head against the inhabitants of gehenna as much as I did sparring with milton, but that frustration is probably intentional.

      Still happy to see it recognised in the advent-a-thon finally.

      • LW says:

        I had the opposite experience; there were a number of make-work puzzles in the base game that didn’t require cleverness so much as repeating tricks you’d already learned. The stuff in Gehenna felt fresh.

      • DrollRemark says:

        Still happy to see it recognised in the advent-a-thon finally.

        Oh, absolutely. My love for the original makes it one of those games I absolutely eulogise to people who haven’t played it. Any flaws in Gehenna are minuscule in comparison.

  3. FreeTom says:

    So far there has yet to be a game in this calendar I’ve actually played.

    There are just too many good games now. I know it’s about as first-world as problems get but I really find it quite stressful.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    John, this bit confuses me:
    “The Talos Principle was cruelly robbed of a place on last year’s psuedo-calendar, because it was rather silly and released in December. But boy it deserved one. The good news is, expansion pack Road To Gehenna not only assures this oversight is made up for this year, but entirely merits a spot in the list on its own.”

    To be clear: this would have won an award even if Gehenna DIDN’T release this year, right? As you note, it wasn’t eligible last year due to being a December Game, so doesn’t that make it a default consideration for this year even as a base game?

    • Sigh says:

      No. Horace refuses to acknowledge the existence of games that release in December.

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        British English will always find new ways to baffle me. How can a game release? Surely it is released (by someone). That’s just…how grammar works. Right?

        • KillahMate says:

          Other games are released by someone. In an effort towards ontological consistency, both The Talos Principle and the Road to Gehenna expansion release themselves.

        • Kitsunin says:

          Is this a British English thing? As an American, I could have sworn “the game released last month” etc. was correct colloquially. I mean sure, the grammar doesn’t make sense, but in the same way as a thousand other phrases.

          • elderman says:

            I read an article about this a few years ago which I’ve never been able to find again. It’s actually not grammatically incorrect, it seems, it’s just a disused reflexive English verb tense. According to this article (or was it an interview?) this was a popular tense in the 19th century, often found in Dickens, for example. Essentially, the meaning is identical to the passive voice but using a reflexive grammar. It’s not uncommon in other languages; I know a similar construction is common in French. I don’t remember what the name of the tense is, and I’m not aware that it’s more common today in one or another part of the English-speaking world.

          • elderman says:

            I probably should have said “implied reflexive grammar”. I really wish I could find my source again. It was really interesting, and I love the feeling of this tense in English.

          • Premium User Badge

            basilisk says:

            I believe you’re describing the subjunctive.

  5. thaquoth says:

    I’m still amazed that this game was made by Croteam of all people.

    You know, the only game they did that isn’t Serious Sam.

    Yeah.

    (It’s really good)

  6. caff says:

    Love the puzzles in Talos. A nice mix of easy-but-fun, and others giving a real “A-HA!” feel.

    The terminals dotted around the gaff are interesting, but I found the experience too cold and emotionless. I want to feel like I have a purpose (e.g. Braid) rather than a robotic trudge through puzzles. Maybe I didn’t play enough and all would become clear, but it seemed so abstract, so I gave up.

    • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      Oh, you definitely have a purpose in Talos, but solving the puzzles is only part of it. Understanding what your purpose actually is—well, that’s also a part of your purpose. But different people will tell you different things along the way:

      ELOHIM tells you your purpose is to solve puzzles to glorify him and gain “eternal life”.

      Milton (the conversational entity in the Library terminals) suggests otherwise.

      The earlier puzzle solvers have left their competing theories as to their purpose as QR codes.

      The best clue to the actual reason for your existence and the puzzles comes from the “time capsule” voice recordings that have been left around the place, together with the fragments of emails from the Institute for Applied Noematics that you can find in terminals.

      • Kitsunin says:

        Indeed, your purpose in the game is to discover the purpose for your character in the game’s existence. Appropriately meta, for a game largely about philosophy.

  7. Banks says:

    Infinifactory is a hundred times better than this scripted boredom.

  8. Merus says:

    I assumed, having watched a trailer, that a game about shining lasers into receptors and holding down switches with boxes would have nothing new to offer, and was continually surprised by how inventive the base game was. It’s a real testament to Croteam’s skill at level design that they took a set of unpromising mechanics and wrung so much out of it – and then realised there was even more they could get out of it and filled up an expansion with the excess.

    Unfortunately, the expansion does not run well on my computer, so I have to wait for an upgrade.