Nothing prepared me for The Talos Principle. My science professors didn’t, my church pastors didn’t, my buddies subscribed to High Times didn’t. So I was flying blind. That’s how I prefer it, actually. All I had to go on was a couple time-bent screenshots and a transhumanist elevator pitch. But that was certainly enough.
From ready-set-go, I realized I was either above, below, or beside what I’d consider any run-of-the-mill plane of existence. Things were conspicuously mashed up. The Gregorian chant’s chorus of Halo-like voices, the Assassin’s Creed Italian-era frescoes, and the Apple IIe-alikes posted up on stainless steel pedestals started to deconstruct my sense of a timeline. This was indeed a place trapped in time, dislodged from time, or caught in some alt-history/subversive-futurist utopia. Or dystopia. One always ends up being the other anyway. Either way, I was either in the early 1980s, the 6th century B.C., or both.
There was a big, godlike voice in the sky. It benevolently prodded me toward my puzzle-solving task. I was surrounded by walled gardens. Over there was a signpost for a Tetris-like piece for me to gather. And, in the middle of this puzzle-laden courtyard, was a circular portal on the ground, with ones and zeros rising up like sparks from a campfire.
Obediently, I ran into a chamber and started solving puzzles. What else was I supposed to do? The ancient Mediterranean brickworks were lovely, not to mention the lithe olive trees, but I was eager to set about my task. Whether I was obeying as a character or as a player, I didn’t know. But that was just one of many questions I would face during my time with The Talos Principle.
I moved about the puzzle chambers, slowly picking up steam as I learned to use each puzzle-solving piece. While not introduced all at once, I learned how to use boxes (which look like Portal companion cubes, minus the heart-shaped branding), portable refractors (crystal-clear 20-sided-dice-looking devices), electronic jammers, and fans in various configurations to overcome obstacles, unlock gates, trip switches, and guide laser beams.
At first, completing these first-person puzzles was the point. But, as I got a peek behind the curtain here and there, the purpose of these puzzles was called into question. Why was I doing them? What was the point of collecting these tetromino-shaped “sigils”? Who, exactly, is communicating with me on the other side of these CRT computer screens? And why are there QR codes painted on the walls of these ruins, with messages from both faithful and faithless voices?
Not to mention the Big Guy in the Sky who starts talking real computer-like from time to time. He seemingly has no sense of self-awareness that he—he calls himself nothing less than Elohim, the Hebrew name for God in the Bible—starts going off like a scripture-spewing Speak & Spell from time to time. It was apparent that heavenly issues of creation and existence were going to come into play, but The Talos Principle gradually takes a skeptical stance towards the many voices informing your journey.
There are many stories running in tandem. They come from the MS-DOS screens of text on the computers. They come from holographic audio diaries placed around the stages. They come from transcribed QR codes painted (with white out?) on the walls. And they come from, of course, the Man Upstairs, Elohim.
The QR codes translate into short, Twitter-length posts from other individuals that either came before you or seemingly coexist with you, though you can’t see them. The exchanges between these characters unlocks some of the game’s sense of humor, which is welcome during such heavy philosophical musings. There’s “Sheep,” who has a clear grasp of the spiritual, but questions what it all means. There’s “Dog,” the voice of cynicism in the group. There’s “Samsara,” who’s simultaneously resigned and ecstatic to be here. There are several others, each one carving out a different voice during my journey. In what’s an otherwise very lonely game, these QR codes were a welcome exchange of communication, even if they lagged.
The person (?) chatting with you on the computer calls their/its relative human-ness into question rather early. There are hints that computer A.I. certainly has the capability to mimic human speech mannerisms, especially when it comes to the faulty grammar and poor capitalization skills that run rampant through online communication. I got into a debate with the typist on the computer. We went back and forth on what constitutes humanity, what consciousness consists of. I’m pretty sure I was losing that debate. The computer even called me out on my inconsistencies and flip-flopping definitions, and, with a sigh, I had to admit I’d been caught. I didn’t know anymore. It got complicated.
In addition to that questioning character on the computer, there are dozens of small files to read through. Some are snippets from company-wide emails; a company who, to some extent, must be running the show. There are bits of poetry from 17th century man of letters John Milton. There’s even a bigoted polemic written in a centuries-old tongue, putting Native Americans on par with children and apes.
But there is a lot of beautiful text, too. There’s the story of a man dying of thirst in the desert, discussing five elements that make up the soul, and giving up the ghost to Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. The dying man found himself bound by walls of iron and gates of pure light, making his way to the Tower of Osiris. Which is coincidental, see, because Elohim just informed me that I may go anywhere in his gardens, but I must not ascend the Tower.
I haven’t seen this Tower yet, but from the way Elohim talks about it, it sounds an awful lot like the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that Adam and Eve got themselves into a little trouble with. And I was certainly happy to go about my puzzle-solving existence without worrying about any Tower ascending into the heavens. But now that he mentioned it...
The puzzle rooms all come equipped with a name. They’re names like “Wrap Around the Bend,” or “Shoot the moon.” The name is often a clue as to how to solve the puzzle. But it’s also a handy marker for typing into a YouTube search bar when you’ve given up and need a walkthrough on a puzzle. Ah, what a time to be alive. There were a few times during the 120+ puzzles that I wanted to give up. Just shut it down, don’t turn it back on again. But there were only a couple times, at most, when I felt the puzzle solutions were unfair. Not that they were glitchy. No, they were quite consistent in their logic and execution. But one or two didn’t make me feel too bad when I did, in fact, look them up on YouTube and find a solution that was outside the envelope of what the game taught you to deal with.
I appreciate the fact that Elohim himself says that I should solve the puzzles myself, without outside help. I respect that. Well, I respected it until I hit the occasional wall. And that’s a metathinking issue Elohim addresses, too. He told me there’s no shame in walking away from a puzzle and coming back to it later; perhaps the solution would come to me then. Which is exactly how puzzle-narrative video games often work. Sometimes I banged my head against a wall for too long on a certain puzzle. Then I’d, I don’t know, go make a sandwich, or go to work, or take a jog. Then, when I’d come back, the puzzle would be reset, and I’d somehow plow through it with fresh eyes.
Puzzle games can be weird like that. It’s one of the only video game genres that will actively encourage you to stop playing for a while in order to have a solution surface in the meantime. It was just another layer of weird to have my “heavenly father” present the option to me, then actually hand over a PlayStation trophy when I took his advice and left the chamber I was stuck in.
There are multiple endings to The Talos Principle. They’re wide-ranging endings, too. My only complaint is that gathering all the Tetris pieces ultimately didn’t feel all that important. Of course, I can’t complain when one of the points of this entire journey was weighing the importance of completing such puzzles. Regardless, The Talos Principle runs a bit long. As the puzzles grew in size, scope, and what-the-hell levels of difficulty, I personally grew hungry for the rich narrative bits. I started to resent the puzzles. But, again, that might’ve been sort of the point. I, as a player, was being played pretty good.
I liked arguing about consciousness with the ASCII eyeball in chat. I liked the incongruous changes in scenery, taking me from ancient Roman and Egyptian views, to white, medieval castle walls. Oh, and the industrial brutalist architecture of whoever was constructing this entire shenanigan. I like the converging and diverging philosophical paths. The path of spiritual faithfulness, and the path of scientific enlightenment. Both have a say in the matter.
At a certain point, The Talos Principle asks, “Don’t you wonder? Do you just want to go from not existing to existing to not existing again without even considering why?” And that’s an interesting thing to think about. Amidst all the DOS-punk trappings and existential mind f***ery, there’s a deeply complex question worth examining here. It’s a question not often presented in video games, and I personally haven’t seen the question tackled with this much depth and intelligence and reverence.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile