The Talos Principle is a special kind of game. At face value, I think most people would describe it as a puzzle game that deals with philosophical ideas. I would say that those people would be wrong. After having played through the core game, and particularly through its expansion The Road to Gahenna, The Talos Principle is a philosophical crash course on existentialism, consciousness, and morality that uses unique puzzles to progress its thought-provoking narrative.
As soon as you click “New Game” you are greeted by clouds and computer text signifying the startup of a computer program. “Starting child process….. Ready.” You awake in in a beautiful garden surrounded by ancient Greek architecture. A booming voice calls to you and bids welcome to his garden. His name is Elohim—a Hebrew word for a god or gods, most commonly associated with the God of Israel, Yahweh— and you are his creation. You—a nameless, fleshless android with perceived consciousness— must prove yourself worthy in order to enter his temple, and thus begins the game. Elohim proceeds to inform you of your purpose while exploring the world around you. He has designed a multitude of puzzles containing sigils (a.k.a. Tetris blocks) that you must collect in order to progress. Elohim explains that the purpose of these puzzles is to prove your worthiness of receiving his gift eternal life by testing your abilities, determination, and faith in him.
Elohim continues to reiterate his promise of immortality as you progress through the areas made available after unlocking his first temple. Once enough sigils are gathered to exit the first temple, Elohim gives a strong warning to avoid ascending the great tower protruding from the center of the world, for only pain and horrible truths await those who reach its summit. At this point it becomes abundantly clear that you are in a veritable Garden of Eden. It is left entirely up to the player to heed Elohim’s admonition and pursue immortality or to ignore the disembodied voice and climb the ominous tower. Will you be faithful, or will you partake in the forbidden fruit?
Throughout the game, there are computer terminals that give insight to true purpose of this world and the events leading to its creation. These terminals contain emails, chat logs, private letters, historical documents, and even direct quotations from famous philosophers. All of this information is overseen by the Milton Library Assistant (MLA), a seemingly sentient program designed to oversee the library database and respond to user queries. This snarky program also holds full intellectual discussions with the player from time to time, asking philosophical quandaries and dissecting every response with vicious scrutiny.
I even consider myself to be a student of philosophy and have studied many of the issues that The Talos Principle raises. Now let’s be clear, I’ll be the first one to tell you that I’m far from an expert when it comes to philosophy, but I like to think I can hold my own when discussing some core concepts. That being said, I was shocked and excited to find myself thoroughly stumped by a posed philosophical question and needing time to reflect before answering—which is not something that I’ve ever experienced while playing a game.
There are many games that deal with the life’s big questions, like “why are we here,” “does life have meaning,” and “is there a god?”In fact I have played many of those games myself, but I have honestly never experienced a game that has explored such questions to the degree that The Talos Principle does. Sure, lots of games delve into philosophical ideas, challenge political views, and criticize religious beliefs, but seldom—if ever—do they require a player to be introspective in order to progress. There were times, however, when this back and forth with MLA was rather frustrating, because I had counterpoints to what was said that I felt were better suited to his responses than the ones I could choose from. Regardless, this type of deeper conversation and unabashed, blunt manner of approaching these serious topics is extremely refreshing and I hope to see more of it from game developers in the future.
One of my favorite aspects of the game is the tutorial, or rather its lack of one. It wasn’t until I had finished the game and began writing this review that I recognized the simple thematic genius of developer Croteam’s decision to not tell you what to do. The whole point of this world is to test your intelligence, problem-solving ability, and to make you think for yourself. All the tools for success are at your disposal, but it is up to you to recognize their purpose and range of use. If you can’t, then you are not worthy to receive the answers you seek.
While I hugely appreciate the thought behind the game’s overlying motif, I wish as much effort was put into more of the puzzles. First off, let me preface how the game is played. The gameplay of The Talos Principle is closely related to that of the Portal games—there are even instances where you get to glimpse behind the curtain, revealing the world to be less wholesome than Elohim would have you believe. You move through a 3D environment, interacting with different tools and objects that you can pick up, such as boxes, signal jammers, fans, etc. Certain barriers do not allow you to carry anything through them, and others can only be opened by activating pressure plates, or connecting a blue or red laser to it. The game runs and plays exceptionally well from a mechanical point of view, and it’s one of the most creative approaches to a puzzle game I’ve seen in a long time.
As creative as it is, only a handful of puzzles provided any sort of challenge in the core game. The vast majority of puzzles I was able to solve easily within a matter of seconds, while others I conceptually solved just as quickly and were merely time consuming by requiring you to run back and forth and complete its steps. However, the opposite is true for the puzzles in the game’s expansion, The Road to Gahenna, which required far more thought to complete and were also some of my favorites. It is also important to note that while most puzzles in the core game provide little challenge, the gameplay in The Talos Principle is completely addictive.
While many puzzles aren’t difficult themselves, I challenged myself to see how fast I could complete them. When puzzles do start to get difficult, I challenged myself to never leave a puzzle area until it was finished. Every time I finished a puzzle, I found myself sprinting to the next one and hurrying to complete it. You always feel the need to challenge yourself, which is exactly what game is about and does exceedingly well.
The Talos Principle is also very much a completionist’s game. There are always more sigils to collect of various colors for various purposes. There are also stars that are extremely well hidden throughout the world, which are used for another secret purpose. Everything has a purpose, and sadly that is something I can’t say about most games today.
Atmospherically, the folks at Croteam did a phenomenal job. Music, environments, Timothy Watson’s performance as Elohim; I can’t really imagine how they could have done better—especially when you consider that many of the game’s materials are repeatedly used without ever feeling repetitive. The dialog alone establishes an intellectual environment in The Talos Principle that only gets deeper and more intricate as you continue your adventure in The Road to Gahenna. Even the menu design is elegantly simple and projects the game’s distinct atmospheric overtones while you’re not even playing.
The Talos Principle: Deluxe Edition on PlayStation 4 offers one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences on home consoles. It explores some of life’s biggest questions to a degree that is rarely ever seen in games, and it does so exceptionally well. Its approach to puzzles is imaginative, and it’s one that fans of the Portal franchise will connect with immediately. The majority of the puzzles in The Talos Principle are far from difficult, but its gameplay truly shines toward the end of the core game and especially in The Road to Gahenna—which is more of a perfected sequel than simple expansion. While its puzzles may not always provide constant contest, its addictive nature and fantastic atmosphere will keep you playing until the end.