The Talos Principle fills a surprisingly sizable void in the market: the void of quality first-person puzzlers. One would have expected that in the wake of Portal’s success there would have been at least a few real gems, but outside of the occasional copycat of questionable quality and the occasional acid trip, the genre has been quite sparse. The Talos Principle, however, stands out as some of the best the genre has to offer, and one of the best games of 2014.
This is sort of a common sentiment concerning this game, but it needs to be said: Croteam has spent the entire 21st century making Serious Sam games. Gratuitously violent, abrasive, and as old-school first-person shooter as can be. The Talos Principle is about as much of a 180 degree turn from that as they come. It’s a thoughtful, meditative puzzle game that strives to challenge your problem solving skills as well as your deepest-held beliefs and moral codes. It functions as both a heaping pile of clever puzzles and as a sort of thinking prompt for things you thought you had pinned down.
The game’s puzzles revolve around the placement of various tripods and manipulation of boxes and fans, instead of revolving around a single central mechanic like Portal or The Ball. One tripod redirects lasers into receptacles to provide power and another, the Jammer, cuts the power to doors, roving enemies, fans, etc. There’s also the good old recorder device indie puzzlers are so fond of that allows you to have multiple versions of yourself running around the map. The puzzles themselves are often astoundingly clever, and a few in particular got an audible ‘wow’ from me once I figured them out.
The goal of each puzzle is to connect power, open doors, fling yourself, and avoid terrifying little patrolling enemies in such a way to clear the way to collect a tetronimo, called a sigil. This sigil will contribute to a specific set, which you can use to solve the set’s corresponding sliding block puzzle. These puzzles can unlock the way to new hubs, the next level of the tower, and unlock new mechanics.
The Talos Principle is composed of three hub worlds: a tropical coastline, an Egyptian kind of desert place, and snowy mountains. Each hub is a giant chamber lined with seven or so teleporters to individual areas containing the puzzles. Progression is forgiving, as many of the puzzles give duplicate sigils and signs indicating which sigils can be found where are scattered all around the world. If you’re having trouble obtaining one you’ll probably be able to find it elsewhere.
The premise of the whole thing is that you are a robot that must undergo trials (puzzles) in order to prove itself worthy to Elohim, a disembodied voice that considers itself your god. It warns you against climbing the puzzle-ridden “tower”, and instead tries to usher you through to its promised land. The religious allegory is clear. You’re soon led to doubt Elohim and his promises by the Milton Library Assistant, an AI you can occasionally engage in conversation with. He serves to be sort of the snake figure in The Talos Principle’s fall of man, pushing you to doubt Elohim and climb the tower.
Conversations with Milton and the tomes of archived documents he can provide make up most of the intrigue. These conversations usually concern issues like autonomy, the definition of human, what a society should strive for, and Elohim’s promises vs. the tower. Milton is excellently written and, given you’ve only the equivalent of a dialogue wheel to respond with, able to challenge you in ways that floored me; they’re enlightening discussions that really leave you thinking a while after. At one point he even creates a psychological profile of you based on a survey, and the results are very revealing.
His aforementioned archives are doled out three at a time at the beginning of each area, and as they begin to form a firmer narrative they become genuinely chilling. They’re the most gripping logs I’ve read in a game, and the first time I’ve read every log from beginning to end. Some are simple emails to friends and family, some blogs, Bible excerpts, non-sequitur philosophical ramblings, and chatroom logs. A few of these provide revelatory moments as startling as a typical conversation with Milton.
The Talos Principle’s lifeless ruins are as haunting as they are serene. Elohim’s world is a beautiful place, rife with lens flares and vistas. The first hub in particular – the coast – provides the most breathtaking views. Each individual room of the hub is a fascinating area to explore, where the rooms of other hubs feel less so. Over the course of the game my desire to see every nook and cranny of the areas dwindled (as did the amount of nooks and crannies themselves, I imagine), but the coast had a great variety of landscapes and hidden paths. I never really found anything, but I always felt like I was seeing something no one else had seen when I wandered around, and that’s not a feeling I get from a game very often.
The soundtrack is also something truly special. Flashes of dissonance bubble up at just the right times to be appropriately chilling, and each track has a wonderful delayed, spacey attitude to it. The music feels like it’s coming from inside the game’s world, not like something that was coded to play.
That’s something that can be said about much of The Talos Principle: its world, despite being incredibly gameified, feels like something I’m really in more than any other game I played this year. Out of all the games I played this year, this is the one I least expected to be calling one of the best. It accomplishes everything it sets out to do so well. It’s the most thought-provoking game I’ve ever played, it has the most clever puzzles of any puzzle game I’ve played, the best environment design in recent memory, and an outstanding soundtrack. If any of those things is even remotely turning you on, then do yourself a favor and buy this game. You’ll get what you wanted and more.
Ethics disclosure: The reviewer was provided a review code from the developer.
The Talos Principle is available for purchase on Steam.