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