The Talos Principle: Road to Gehenna

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Road to Gehenna is an expansion to the excellent puzzle-philosophy game, The Talos Principle which I played and wrote about back in March of 2015 (has it really been that long?).

While expansions often fall into the trap of offering nothing new to the experience, Road to Gehenna actually extends the puzzle gameplay in fresh and surprising directions – despite not actually introducing any new mechanics.

To me, this demonstrates the true value of designing games from a systems perspective. Have robust, interactive systems with rule-sets in place – and you can combine and extend them in ways that the original designers might not have intended. This is the principle that propelled games like Minecraft and Portal to fame – and it benefits Road to Gehenna too.  The puzzles were devious, often deceivingly simple, and employed new permutations of interactions in ways that I never expected.

One of my favorite things about the game is just how pretty the environments are. As the player, you are alone in a lush, empty word of Greek and Egyptian ruins, which creates a contemplative mood that perfectly fits the game’s philosophical themes, and which makes the relative isolation tolerable, and even enjoyable. Road to Gehenna might actually have even better environments than the original, and these environments provide depth and complexity to the puzzling as well. My favorite is a map in which a giant ruined aqueduct spans a vast chasm between two peaks, which the player can actually walk across, and which is incorporated as part of the puzzle.

The plot this time is also surprisingly engaging – expanding the themes of the game in unexpected directions. As opposed to the first game in which the player was a lone software entity on the path to transcendence, Road to Gehenna introduces a pack of other instantiated entities, who have been imprisoned by the world’s deity figure, EL0HIM, for aberrant behavior of some variety. Imprisoned in a forgotten corner of the worldspace with only the ability to communicate with each other through an online billboard-type forum, they have forged a meager but thriving online community – Gehenna – trading interactive stories, discoursing on the nature of their existence, and even writing Buzzfeed-like clickbait posts (like “10 reasons I love Gehenna”).

The player’s mission is to free these entities in order to allow them to transcend into the real world, much like the original player character did in the base game. However, these actions have the effect of upending the little community, as its inhabitants are unsure about what will happen to them in the wake of their newfound freedom – leaving the safe but limiting surety of their imprisonment behind to face a wider but uncertain and frightening future.

The story is linear but told in bits and pieces, with narrative continuity serving as rewards for puzzles solved. The desire to know more, and to reveal the next story bit, provides the game with a brisk sense of pace. The narrative is also affecting, which is an achievement when most of it is told through a console. But each of the instanced entities has their own personality, their own sets of concerns and fears, but also a certain kind of courage in the face of an uncertain future. It’s hard not to root for them as they make their way into a brave new world.

Which is actually, perhaps, the game’s biggest disappointment – the lack of a crowning narrative reward – a non-ambiguous reveal of their fates. We are never really told if their transcendance was real or a lie, or whether their personalities live on, and whether or not what they created with Gehenna persists in that unknowable realm beyond. While such ambiguity might have had a thematic significance, I’d have liked a more sure answer to that puzzle, because I was expecting that reward for completing all the puzzles and getting all the bonus stars – which took a fair amount of time, without guides (mostly). But instead, the ending didn’t provide the sort of closure that I’d been playing toward.

But the ending (or lack of one) doesn’t derail what is an excellent expansion to The Talos Principle, one that so manages to feel fresh even without having new mechanics, with a strong aesthetic, and with an engaging narrative with well-drawn characters. I would have no doubts in recommending it to anyone who enjoyed the base game, although I would caution them to temper their expectations of narrative payoff a bit.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 hexahedrons

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