The Talos Principle
Developer:
Croteam
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Available On: PS4, PC, OSX

Videogames tell players what to want. Collect all the rings, craft all the weapons, open all the doors. In exchange, players are bound to an accelerating cycle of frustration and flattery that eventually leaves them more spent than inspired. The Talos Principle inverts this structure, offering a contemplative puzzle game that seems to exist only to buy the players more time to think about a series of unanswerable questions. It’s a game about wanting more than answers.

Developed by Croteam, a small Croatian studio known for the slapstick first-person shooter series “Serious Sam,” The Talos Principle casts a player as an android coming to life in a computer simulation. You begin in Roman ruins, instructed by a voice in the sky named Elohim, the Hebrew name for God, to collect a series of tetronimo pieces — geometric shapes a la Tetris — from the ruins. Each piece is found inside a puzzle zone marked by a glimmering purple barrier.

Collect enough tetronimos and you can unlock a door that leads to a temple hub filled with six other areas like the one you’ve just left. Collect enough tetronimos from each of these seven mini-hubs and you’ll be able to unlock an elevator door that leads up to a frozen exterior, where you’ll find elevators down to two other massive puzzle zones — one set in ancient Egypt, the other a medieval forest –and a giant tower rising into the dark clouds above. Elohim insists you never try to climb this tower but its gate is conveniently locked by the same tetromino lock as all the other doors, and trying to do so seems inevitable.

These puzzling trials are meant to test whether new androids can both follow orders and independently problem-solve. It’s also a laboratory for seeing if artificial intelligence might be capable of developing consciousness and not just mimicking it.

The majority of the story is told through computer terminals, each containing a variety of disconnected documents, from email logs between the researchers who created the program, lost novel chapters, fragments of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology, and an ongoing conversation with a second A.I. called Milton, who plays Lucifer to Elohim’s god. Milton repeatedly tempts the player to renounce the possibility of consciousness, using coils of contradictory questions, which you’re expected to answer using only a few frustratingly vague choices the program has prepared for you.

The puzzles are primarily built around gates and switches. Solving them involves moving a handful of different items through the mazes with you, leaving boxes on floor switches, using tripod-mounted disruptors to open electrical gates and neutralize hovering landmines. There are also crystals, which you can use to refract blue and red lasers, and high powered fans to send objects flying over walls when doors can’t be opened. The most brain-stretching item is a small console that creates a ghost recording of your movements for a few minutes, allowing you to move in tandem with yourself to hold doors open or use items in ways you couldn’t have done alone.

There is some poignancy to the way the game’s puzzles reflect a Milton idea which suggests that humans are just complex machines that delude themselves into thinking they are conscious or free, describing bees carrying pollen to fertilize plants without ever understanding what they’re doing or why. In the same way, players carry machines around to connect them to other machines without ever really understanding why any of it should be necessary.

The Talos Principle comes to life in this gap between action and understanding. There is a reverent power in its asking the same fundamental questions across dozens of puzzling variations. Are androids the embodiment of the immortality humans had been seeking? Will you follow the computer code’s command, or defy it? How do you know you’re alive? Why do you want more than what you have?

When I finally solved all the regular puzzles, two new paths opened offering either a door into a heavenly mist or access to the tower’s final levels. I would have to choose between defiance and compliance, as I had been told from the beginning. I was curious enough about what a computer-programmed version of heaven might be like so I walked a few steps into the door and soon realized I was being forced into a false binary I’d spent the whole game trying to think my way out of. And, after making the choice, there was no way to go back.

A few minutes later I was dropped back at the start of the game with no ability to revert to an earlier save to see what might have been waiting at the top of the tower. I suddenly had an intense need to see what was there, less to learn the truth about the game’s other side than to have the knowledge of both outcomes sit side by side in my own brain as a way of rejecting the anguishing artificiality of being forced to pick one at the cost of the other.

I then realized in replaying the game I would be mirroring my android, moving him around the compound in the same way that he moved blocks and crystals around his own puzzle maze. Whatever catharsis awaited at the top of the tower would be only his, something sensible to robots surmounting their self-limiting circuitry.

The Talos Principle is rarely capable of answering the questions for which it makes you want answers. But in leaving enough space to wonder, it lets players name the questions in their own terms, a freedom that only leads back into a cell, dependent on language from long-forgotten generations, like computer code we’re no longer conscious of running but can’t seem to escape.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen

More game reviews: