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Wot I Think: The Turing Test

Artificial intelligence

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Oh my goodness, if The Turing Test [official site] could have existed in a world that had never seen Portal nor The Talos Principle, it would be lauded, famous beyond belief. Then again, in a world without Portal and The Talos Principle, Bulkhead Interactive would never have made The Turing Test, so it’s a little academic. As it is, we’ve got here an often smart, never quite brilliant first-person puzzle game that neatly fits into the same category. Here’s wot I think:

Like a sitcom from the 70s, the game’s title is both a reference to the subject matters of consciousness and artificial intelligence, as well as being an achingly forced pun: the character you play is Ava Turing. Fifty demerits to whoever decided on that. Anyway, Ava (as we’ll call her to avoid cringing) is part of a mission for the ISA, who gets woken early from cryo sleep and sent to the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, to investigate what’s happened to a ground crew.

On arrival, accompanied by her ship AI T.O.M., she discovers that the modular station has been redesigned and rearranged by the missing crew to create an elaborate series of puzzle chambers, apparently such that they form a Turing test, puzzles that an AI wouldn’t be able to solve. Such is the excuse for the following 70 rooms of puzzles based around routing power through circuits to open doors, extend bridges, raise platforms, and so on, such that you can progress.

I rather like that the effort has been made to make some sense of why a vast array of puzzles would ever exist, although I’m not entirely convinced that a ground crew of four or five people would quite have the resources to create seventy enormous room-scale puzzles in their apparently infinite stretches of base. Not least when you consider they couldn’t have asked the computer for help, since it was designed to keep him out. And if you think I’m being picky here, it’s because that setup emblematic of the problem that keeps plaguing Turing: it’s not quite as clever as it keeps saying it is.

This is most clearly an issue when it comes to the puzzles themselves. They’re often a lot of fun, and occasionally ingenious. Typically you enter a chamber and must work out how to manipulate a limited source of energy supplies (either orbs which you can gather and fire using a gun-like, or hefty plug-inable blocks) to create a route to the exit door. It’s Portal without any Portals, but quite a bit of Talos’s manipulation of power.

But there’s no doubting that a good half of the puzzles would never have passed muster for the games this so closely apes. In fact, the further you get, the more frequently weak they become, conflating difficulty for disarray. Where a masterful puzzle seems to give you one fewer elements than you think you could possibly need to get through, forcing you to think damned hard to laterally or imaginatively brain your way past the problem, here I kept being bemused that I’d already succeeded, expectations of multiple works-breaking spanners unmet. Later puzzles are far too sprawling, only more complicated because finding what you’re supposed to be doing is more obfuscated by muddle. I would regularly finish rooms with leftover equipment, rather than having thought my way past their scarcity. At half the length, it would have felt a much tighter, much more compelling game.

The issue worms its way further into the plot. It explores fascinating – if well-trodden – territory. A lot of focus is put into “the Chinese room”, and then a splendid hidden room containing a hefty amount of criticism of the flawed thought experiment. TOM acts as a companion-cum-unreliable narrator, as you uncover the mystery of why this Europa crew has both gone missing, and tried to keep their AI out. It ponders not just consciousness and knowledge, but also the nature of finality, and concepts of self-awareness and creativity. Mostly at a sophomoric level, but then that’s just above my own understanding of the subjects so it was ideally pitched. The massive problem being, Ava, the woman you’re playing, is an idiot.

This is an apparent astronaut, working in the 23rd century alongside deeply sophisticated AIs, who has never heard of the Turing test. Huh? In fact, she appears not to have heard of anything, such that she requires TOM to explain subjects you’d desperately hope would be known by a young teenager, let alone someone entrusted with leading space exploration missions. So rather than her having an interesting or sophisticate dialectic with the mellifluous robot voice, she just gets lectured by it.

As you play, occasionally you’ll find access to an optional puzzle chamber that results in little bonus rooms containing, well, the bulk of the game’s story. Here you can read the crew’s personal notes, emails, even essays, and find out more about the strange discovery they’ve made and its possible implications. It’s also pretty exclusively where the game talks about its most bemusing plotline, about potential mind control, before suddenly screaming it all at you in a scripted sequence a good while further in. And yet, Ava continues in complete ignorance of these details you’ve just had her read, failing to notice when TOM’s words contradict what you just read, or even declaring her surprise at things revealed hours earlier. And then things completely unravel in the final quarter of the game as the entire conceit collapses into total confusion.

However, the performances are all splendid. TOM’s silver-tongued delivery certainly errs far too much toward moustachioed villain, but remains always lovely to listen to, and the various recordings you find are all excellent. One, in fact, is genuinely moving and disturbing in equal measure. Accompanied by some fantastic music and constantly lovely sound effects, Turing is an unqualified aural success. This adds a lot where the script’s ambitions don’t quite meet its abilities. (I couldn’t help but desperately wish for a version scripted edited by Tom Jubert.)

Its use of the Unreal Engine is also resplendent, making the often clunky, corridory engine look gorgeous, albeit with some really clumsy load screens. Watching bridgeways meticulously unfold themselves is ridiculously entertaining, such is the skill with which this is animated. There’s an awful lot of talent on display here.

It’s definitely bloated, needing a brutal hand to strip out a few dozen of the weaker puzzles. Because in there are challenges that are not only good, but sometimes great. Really satisfying to solve. It’s that they’re too frequently diluted down by a series of chambers far more entertaining for the brief banter between TOM and Ava at the start than the process of completion. As such, it falls a good distance short of the two mighty games it emulates. And yet it manages a third place, far ahead of the many other copycat games that have appeared. That’s an awkward position to critique, really: this is a game that comes close to greatness, and those shortcomings form the bulk of my criticism – yet it’s an entertaining ride.

More than anything, I’m delighted that it’s tried so damned hard to be more interesting, more involved, more intelligent. That it falls short is a shame, but that it reaches higher than most is to be lauded. Gorgeous-looking, exquisite-sounding, and ambitious in its desire to be interesting, there’s a lot to congratulate. That the experience is punctuated by tumidity in its writing and puzzle design is the issue.

The Turing Test is out now for Windows and is available on Steam for £15/$20.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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