The Talos Principle

It isn’t often that I have the pleasure of playing a game this brilliant.

The Talos Principle is one of the best puzzle games I have ever played. In the style of Portal, the player manipulates tools like signal jammers, portable beam splitters, and crates to manipulate their environment to unlock the path to obtaining items called sigils, which, when collected, allow progress to higher levels. What The Talos Principle lacks in innovation akin to Portal’s portals, it makes up for it with the large variety of mechanics at its disposal, creative bonus puzzles, and a finely calibrated difficulty curve that ramps up the challenge in a sustainable manner that is only very rarely frustrating. The puzzles primarily take place in three different environmental themes – Greek, Egyptian, and Middle Ages Europe, providing a picturesque visual backdrop for the player to appreciate in between puzzles. The game is pretty enough that a legitimate player activity is to wander around the set-pieces and take in the sights while listening to the surprisingly good background music. While there are fail states that arise from obstacles like mines and turrets that obliterate you when you’re not careful, these rarely cause undue frustration, although the penalty for failure is somewhat dire – you restart the entire puzzle again. All in all, mechanically the game is competent to a fault, a seamlessly entertaining and finely tuned experience that speaks of game design par excellence.

That’s not really what elevates this game to its stratospheric heights, however.

Like Portal, the Talos Principle weaves in between its puzzles a narrative. The player materializes in the midst of picturesque Greek ruins and is told by a booming, bodiless voice calling itself EL0HIM that they are a child who must complete the puzzles to gain eternal life. Without anything else to do, the player completes the puzzles and moves through the myriad worlds. But soon, the player comes across computer terminals in the world – incongruous contraptions, surrounded by artifacts from antiquity – and the true nature of the world becomes clearer.

The narrative opens up in stages. It is an experience on rails, with the player’s progress in the puzzles reflecting their progress in the narrative. Soon, the player finishes the puzzles in the world of the Greek ruins and ascends into an eerie over-world, a windswept, barren glacier where an enormous tower looms into the sky, its top shrouded in a vertex swirl of storm-clouds. EL0HIM tells the player that all the worlds shall be bequeathed unto him as he completes the puzzles, but warns the player that to ascend the tower means death for him and his generations. It is a naked analogy of the Garden of Eden, sure, but the visceral experience for the player is different from that of Eve. The player knows, through the benefit of experience as a gamer and consumer of stories, that the tower is meant to be climbed, that it is a path to be taken to complete the game.

What distinguishes the narrative is the level of texture and interest in the world. The player can read snippets of text from the computers scattered about the landscape, listen to collectible audio recordings, read messages left behind by other puzzle solvers that came before the player, and most interesting of all, argue philosophy with a mysterious program lurking in the database, although the player’s dialogue choices are necessarily circumscribed, allowing the program to poke logical holes in whatever moral position the player chooses.

These atmospheric nuggets slowly unfurl to reveal the truth, and that process is just interesting enough that it acts as a driver for the player to continue solving the puzzles, if only to open up the world and inch closer to the truth of that world. That process is so important to the game’s narrative that I am loath to write too many details – it must be played to be appreciated fully. Is the payoff worth it? I would say that while the endings could have been a bit more substantial, the process was one full of introspection, reflection and pathos about subjects such as life, death, consciousness, humanity, authority and love that seemed to reach out beyond the monitor and entangle the player long after they exit the game.

It is a narrative that only a game could have pulled off, because what makes the plot work is that the player’s agency is an integral part of it. The player needs to solve puzzles to earn the narrative and uncover the truth. The seeker of knowledge is not a character in a book or a show, but is the player himself. And somehow, playing a game makes that journey to find Truth loads more rewarding and affecting.

This game is Portal’s successor, sans the anarchic humor – a smart, narrative-driven, yet competently constructed puzzle game with loads of atmosphere and thematic interest. It is a game to show non-gamers the narrative potential of the medium. I’d say, that barring some very minor flaws – such as the ending, some frustrating fail-able puzzles, and the lack of true player choice during some of the branching dialogues – The Talos Principle is a near work of art.

I give this game: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

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The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K. Dick is one author that never lets his characters get in the way of his ideas.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is often touted as one of Dick’s best books. Having no basis of comparison other than a dimly-remembered Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the more recently-reviewed collection of short stories, I can’t really say for sure how I’d have rated it in the scheme of Dick’s literary pantheon. However, this book does feel very much a mature, book-length version of one of his experimental short stories, where he has the length and breadth to extrapolate his ideas into their fullest extent.

Stigmata is a nicely wrapped package of a book, an expression of what seems to be two of PKD’s greatest literary strengths – thematic depth and a fine control of plot. The world of Stigmata is painted in bold brushstrokes that don’t have much in the way of fine detail but feature a disconcerting, almost satirical distortion of our (or, at least, PKD’s) reality. And the plot meanders crazily through reality and unreality, virtual and real, jumping forward and backward on the timeline, but PKD maintains precarious control throughout this entire ride, even as he adds his inchoate ruminations on religion, drugs, media culture, environmentalism, and hierarchy into the mix.

In the world of Stigmata, Earth has become a broiling hothouse, and the UN ‘drafts’ people to become colonists and live in hardship on barely-habitable worlds in an effort to ensure human survival. These colonists, resenting their reduced circumstances, turn to a drug called Can-D that, when ingested, makes them hallucinate being back on Earth. The catch is, they have to rely on intricately designed model “layouts”, which they build and populate with miniature props and two dolls, invariably named Perky Pat and Connie Companion. When they hallucinate they project themselves into these doll avatars. The better your props, the cushier your hallucinated surroundings. All hell breaks loose, however, when industrialist Palmer Eldritch, recently returned from a decade long trip into interstellar space, returns with a strange new drug called Chew-Z that is even more potent: it allows the user to create and live in their own reality, compressing time so that they can subjectively experience a million years in the space of a single second of use – eternal life by another name…

It’s a weird, dystopian place, this world of Perky Pats, and to me lacks a certain kind of corporeality or substance, but is nonetheless acutely aware of its social milieu and zeitgeist. If there were a drug like Chew-Z that allowed one to become a character in a dollhouse, I’m not sure how its mechanics would operate. Why is it necessary to be Perky Pat? How would people of varying ethnicities, ages, and sexual orientations project themselves into the world? Why are there only two characters, Perky Pat and Connie Companion? Nevertheless, PKD was being prescient; I can think of no better modern day equivalent than people who watch shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians, because what is Perky Pat, really, than the ultimate expression of reality TV: vicariously experiencing the moneyed lifestyle through the foggy lens (or screen, as the case may be) of irreal sensoria? There are a dozen other features of PKD’s future world that have the same wry, satirical potential, even when viewed through modern lens.

I doubt that in Dick’s time, the idea of simulated realities was a completely original thing – but the way PKD has weaved it into the narrative is quite adept. Palmer Eldritch – what an appropriate name – is the enigmatic antagonist of this story, and his three stigmata – his mechanical arm, artificial eye and metallic jaw – are icons that signify his deity-like status in the book, simultaneously God and the Devil and something in between, an eldritch being, ancient and out of the deeps of space. He controls the web of reality through his illicit and potent drug, but the reality is not some abstract and removed plane – the simulated reality is one that somehow or other exists interlaced in real time and real space. From the reader’s perspective, everything is real, but everything has the potential to be irreal. PKD maintains this tension in the latter half of the book, to unsettling effect.

Of course, PKD’s characters are perhaps his weakest link. Most of them are interchangeable avatars, ciphers that he imports from story to story, world-weary types, cigar-chomping tycoons, blonde bombshells, icons of 60s Americana implanted without much refinement into an otherwise exotic new world. His protagonist, Barney Mayerson, despite going through a kind of crisis of character and recovering at the end, doesn’t quite ring true as a character, in terms of his motivations. I haven’t quite read a PKD character that’s been anything more than a talking vehicle for expostulating his ideas and themes. Not even Palmer Eldritch escapes this trap – he is memorable not because he is a character but because he is a mythic creation in the style of Cthulhu or a Godzilla (well, Godzilla might be a bad example). PKD was a man of his time, but to read his books is to read of sexual, racial and hierarchical dynamics that are, by today’s standards, rather antediluvian. But that’s no fault of his, I suppose.

I wouldn’t say Stigmata is a particularly enjoyable romp, but it is an important showcase of PKD’s literary gift, and a book that will ensnare you in its ideas and leave you wondering at how prescient – like his precog characters – Dick could be.

I give this book 4 out of 5 Dr. Smiles

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

The story of Amazon might make a good movie.

Brad Stone’s The Everything Store is a very accessible and entertaining take on a company that has enriched the lives of millions of people around the world. It’s certainly enriched mine – there is no counting the number of things, both useful and of dubious practical value, that I’ve ordered off its shelves. They pride themselves on their level of engagement with their customers – a quality to which I can happily attest. What Stone tries to do in his book is to provide a narrative of how that company came to be, powered very much by the firebrand personality and almost superhuman drive of its founder, Jeff Bezos. It also asks if Amazon’s endless and zealous crusade to provide its customers with a top-notch experience comes with its own, less savory costs.

The book is split into three rough parts. The first tracks Amazon’s growth from a scrappy start-up as a book distributor to a giant conglomerate in the space of a decade. The second is a continuation of that story but focuses on Amazon’s quest to transform itself from a retailer to a full-fledged technology company, complete with cloud computing services, video streaming, as well as its push into hardware like e-books and tablets. The last deals with some of Amazon’s often adversarial dealings with its various suppliers and competitors, and considers the nature of the Amazon beast. Is Amazon a a missionary company, always innovating and pushing the envelope of service quality, or is it a mercenary company that ruthlessly chases growth and expansion at all costs, crushing competitors in its wake?

The first part is what I think might make a good biopic. Stone spins a tale in the “Great Men of History” mode – a narrative that starts and ends with Jeff Bezos as the architect of Amazon’s success. It even goes so far as to attribute Bezos’ unique qualities to his genealogy and upbringing. It lingers on Bezos’ often adversarial managing style and his frequent “nutters” – hyperbolic fits of rage where he spouts abusive invective to his lieutenants when his lofty expectations aren’t met. Stone attributes Amazon’s unlikely success to Bezos’ determination to make things work in the face of obstacles that would leave most people in despair. To Stone, Amazon’s internal culture is the soul of Bezos – infused with a sense of frugality, customer-centrism, hard work, and openness to conflict and disagreement that generates innovation and momentum, at the expense of work-life balance and a cordial, comfortable working culture.

Of course, the problem with this, as it is with many other biographical works, is the tendency to fall into a pattern of pattern-matching and theorizing, cobbling together a compelling-sounding narrative of Amazon’s rise out of disparate pieces of research and anecdotal accounts. This book is not immune to this form of narrative fallacy, and might in fact be guilty of it to an uncomfortable extent. There is no way to know how much of the book is “true”, but what is certain is that it is no stranger to such accusations that it is spinning a one-sided narrative: MacKenzie Bezos, wife of Jeff Bezos, famously posted a one-star review of the book on Amazon accusing Stone of doing so. Who’s to know who’s right in this scenario? The ostensibly objective outsider with his limited perspective, or the insider with the potentially wider perspective but equipped with personal bias? All the reader can really do in this scenario is to read this account with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Stone does better when he considers the bigger picture, posing the interesting question about whether Amazon is a mercenary or missionary company. As a company, Amazon acts on the principle that short-term gains in stock price are far less important than building up a brand and shoring up customer loyalty in the long run, in order to build market share. Amazon’s mission statement is simple and clear – be the one-stop storefront for all your needs, whether it be consumer goods or media. Amazon’s oft-stated deference to the customer manifests itself in its drive to have the lowest prices and the best service – in that sense, it is a missionary, spreading the creed that customer satisfaction is what companies should care about. But in doing so, it can be outright predatory when dealing with its upstream suppliers and competitors – threatening them to offer lower wholesale prices or leveraging their huge size to engage in price war brinkmanship to drive potential competitors out of business. To some, Amazon is the savior, acting as the watchdog to ensure that customers always get the best deals. To others, Amazon is a bully, driving small business owners to the ground, as well as online retail start-ups that dare to compete, and ill-treating their employees in the name of passing on the cost savings to customers. Do we characterize Amazon as a kind of corporate Robin Hood, arm-twisting corporations to give customers better prices? Or is Amazon a bully, engaging in unsportsmanlike behavior to inveigle unnecessary concessions out of its fellow companies? Is it the bitter medicine of innovation that Amazon peddles, or a malaise that will lead to crushed dreams and broken livelihoods? And what does this mean for the Amazon customer, in terms of shaping her patronage decisions, when Amazon’s cost-saving mechanisms sometimes means that their low-level employees in customer service and fulfillment are treated poorly and let go often? Stone’s book is a good general primer that introduces and expounds at some length on those issues, and should be read by anyone who has an interest in that aspect of Amazon’s business.

For what it’s worth, Amazon is a fixture in modern life, and I do believe it is the future of retail. However, it does strike home that the rise of e-books and online bookstores have driven many brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business. Is that a good think for reader’s culture in general? I think that browsing the aisles of a cosy bookstore is in itself an experience to be treasured. The clinical convenience of one-clicking an ebook purchase may have its advantages, but nothing beats an afternoon of book browsing in a place where a human touch has been put into careful curation and presentation of its selection. Fittingly, perhaps, my copy of The Everything Store is in print and purchased from a physical bookstore.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Wüsthof knives