This is perhaps the first game I’ve encountered where there was someone that could even potentially hold the title of lead philosophy designer. Of course, many games evoke philosophical quandaries. Braid, for instance, harbors a twist that begs the question of what defines a hero, whether perspective matters. But The Talos Principle from Croteam centers itself around the existential.
The mention of Braid is no accident. Much like Jonathan Blow’s upcoming The Witness, The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game that takes place on an island. You take the reins of a robot (something mostly revealed when you press X to restart and you press a button on your own mechanical arm) and go about the world exploring old ruins and solving seemingly artificially constructed puzzles, working your way towards…something.
There’s a lot of unknowns going into the game, especially going into a mildly humid Airstream trailer in a Hooters parking lot at E3, but finding out how it all works is part of the experience. In fact, as narrative/philosophy designer Tom Jubert of The Swapper and Penumbra writing fame says, the experience of uncovering the game’s offerings will be crucial to any revelatory turn you take after finishing the last puzzle.
As the other Croteam members in the cramped trailer nod along knowingly, I have my doubts. While the narrative pedigree certainly is there, this was the team that created (and subsequently and righty milked) the Serious Sam franchise. But I embark nonetheless, approaching a crossroads with posted signage directing me to several puzzles. As I look at each pointed sign, parts of my HUD light up. Apparently each puzzle gains me a needed tetromino, some of which I’ve already acquired.
I approach one hazily digitized wall and enter it. Each puzzle is entirely self-contained and immediately discloses its difficulty. This one in particular is a more difficult one, so I move on to another, the easiest of the bunch. It’s a rudimentary puzzle with the goal in plain sight. The tetromino floats at the top of a platform that, as it stands, is unreachable.
Leading to the stairs that lead to the prize is a path, but along it are two impassable blue light barriers. Luckily for me, however, there is a jammer nearby, which looks an awful lot like a more high tech surveying tripod. I pick it up and jam the first barrier, but the problem becomes quite apparent: those devices can’t jam and move at the same time. Using another jammer, I have to disable the first barrier, bring the second jammer across, point it at the same barrier, and bring the first jammer across to take down the second barrier.
It’s a simple puzzle, though it’s at least satisfying to solve while the ominous voice that speaks you to after each solution unsettles you just a bit. The godlike narrator compels you to solve more and more but with little reason to do so. But proceed I do to the second puzzle, which is similarly quite simple, involving additionally an automated turret and a locked door and keys. But then the third puzzle turned out to be quite the challenge.
In it, the tetromino was locked behind a gate, and it could only be opened by a blue laser. The problem was that there was a bunch of red laser connections via gem redirectors needed to be made to get to the blue laser generator. Redirecting lasers is quite tricky, as the puzzle itself is physically laid out to require placement optimization, and laser beams stop once they intersect another laser. The key was to utilize the holes in the wall and reducing your redirector count as you move them to the blue line from the red. There was also a small tetromino puzzle that could afford you an extra redirector, but it proved unnecessary.
As I head across the bridge to the final puzzle, the team members murmur something about a terminal. “Terminal? What, like the one with the Tetris puzzle?” A light comes across their eyes as they realize now, apparently, is the time. They direct me away from the bridge and back down and around the wall that stands between me and that puzzle I just solved.
A little way down towards the shore is, oddly enough, a little computer terminal. It’s somehow striking even as I’d just spent the past 20 or so minutes dawdling around scenes entrenched in the juxtaposition of nature and technology. I approach it, and use it.
It appears to be just a computer terminal. It has a few rudimentary functions available, like listing files and accessing help pages and reading files. However, opening and reading parts of the terminal revealed it to be much more than a computer. It was talking to me, asking questions and responding to me in kind. It asked me about the pieces and the narrator. It questioned my ostensible allegiance with it by solving each puzzle.
Though not entirely alarming (way weirder things have spoken to us as gamers), it was a remarkable experience. It’s rare you have a seemingly artificial construct question an omnipresent one within a wholly digitized form of interactive entertainment. It’s stranger, too, that only through unprovoked exploration could this terminal be found. There are no random collectibles and there are no side quests. It appears that these entirely missable elements are just as vital to the game as the puzzles are.
That is where The Talos Principle truly intrigues me. The puzzles, sure, show promise for being a tortuous yet pleasing mental exercise (the fourth one across the bridge had me especially stumped for the longest time as fans and grates and whatnot enter the picture), but this idea of a game blatantly questioning its own premise is an interesting and novel one.
Not only that, but I like seeing Croteam step out of its Serious Sam comfort zone to work on a puzzle game and to work with a writer as inventive as Jubert. He cooked up the crux of the atmospheric and eerie The Swapper; he was part of the team behind the mind and nerve-racking Penumbra series; and he even helped gin up the nutso premise to Driver: San Francisco. I’m excited to see where The Talos Principle ends up when it comes out later this fall.