For years, it seemed, every time I checked my Steam inventory I would find a new discount coupon for a game called The Talos Principle. I had no idea what it really was, but the promotional image was of a humanoid robot holding a cat. Not exactly the ideal way to pique my interest. So I ignored it over and over until just recently.
When the 2020 Summer Sale started on PSN, I was browsing the games, and saw that The Talos Principle was on sale. I don’t recall exactly what it was that made me change my mind, but I clicked on in and noticed that it was described as a “philosophical first-person puzzle game” which made something click within me. I quickly Googled it and saw that it holds a 10/10 rating on Steam and has generally excellent review scores. So I bought it.
Even at that point, I didn’t even start playing it until weeks later, when I needed to clear out some space on my PS4’s hard drive. The Talos Principle seemed like it wouldn’t require a huge time commitment, so I hopped in.
I am so frustrated with myself for blowing this game off for so long.
The Talos Principle is, without a doubt, one of the most satisfying video games that I have ever played. Not only is the puzzle solving a ton of fun and mind-bending in all the best ways, but the theme and narrative of the game are maybe the deepest that I’ve ever seen in a video game.
Diving straight into that theme, I don’t think that I’ve ever played or even heard of another video game that so thoughtfully explores the realms of philosophy, faith, and artificial intelligence. The Talos Principle is a deep dive into existentialism, examining concepts such as the meaning of life and what it means to be a person. Many of these ideas are touched on in short text logs -either diaries or emails of in-game characters- or excerpts from (what I assume are) real-world texts. In addition to that, the main throughline of the the game is your constant interaction with an AI who presents philosophical questions to you and then challenges you to defend your points of view. It’s so unique, and really made me think about the ideas that I was working through. It’s also an awesome coincidence that I’ve actually been getting into philosophy in real life, so it it was all that more impactful to me.
There’s also a concurrent plot about figuring out exactly where you are, how you got there, and whether or not you should really be listening to the booming, disembodied voice that claims to be your character’s creator. It’s interesting stuff, and I always appreciate when a game’s backstory and world building is parceled out into little chunks that you discover throughout your journey, giving you the chance to come up with your own theories as you slowly put all the pieces together. It’s maybe been a little overused, but I still like it. Fortunately, The Talos Principle never really gives you the hard details of the backstory, so you get a nice picture of what happened while still being able to fill in the gaps with your imagination.
What I’m getting at here, is that I really like games -or any other media- that keeps me thinking about it even after I’m done interacting with it.
As far as the gameplay? It’s highly reminiscent of Portal. The game is broken up into worlds and levels, and each level has a handful of bite-sized “test chambers” for you to solve. There are a number of tools that you unlock along the way, each one adding more complexity to the puzzles that you’ll be tackling. So I guess it’s really more like Portal 2 in that way. While the designers were able to come up with many puzzle variations for each tool, it’s when you have to use multiple tools in a single puzzle that things get really nutty. One tool in particular, the recorder, allows you to make a ghostly copy of yourself and sort of duplicate all your other tools. Every time I came across a puzzle that used the recorder I got a pre-emptive headache because those puzzles were always the most mind-bending and really force you to think several moves ahead. There are even a few rare examples where you have to figure out completely new concepts on your own. The finale is an epic multi-tier series of puzzles where you have to work alongside another robot to make your way to the end.
Your prize for solving each main puzzle is a tetromino, which are used for various things: the green pieces unlock each world, the yellow pieces unlock new tools, and the red pieces unlock the finale. To unlock anything, you’re presented with a square or rectangular grid and smattering of tetrominos, and your job is to fit all the pieces into the grid. They start small, but the bigger grids near the end of the game get really tough. They may have even been some of the toughest puzzles in the game, since there isn’t really a good strategy (that I was able to discover) for reliably solving them.
And then there are the stars. 30 stars are hidden throughout the worlds, and they unlock bonus worlds that unlock a bonus ending. Many of the stars are maddeningly difficult to find, never mind actually figuring out how to claim them. Some require you to sneak tools out of puzzle chambers, some require you to criss-cross beams across multiple puzzles, some make you come up with unexpected ways to use your tools. One particularly nasty one requires you to follow a QR code to a hex code that you need to convert to a time and date, from which you need to pull numbers to punch into a giant dial. Basically, the stars tend to go way beyond the scope of the way that The Talos Principle teaches you to think, and I don’t feel bad for looking up hints or outright solutions for several of them. To my credit, I solved every other puzzle in the game on my own. It’s just that those damn stars could be so obtuse that I don’t think I would have even had the mental capacity to collect them all without help.
The PS4 version (and I’m assuming all versions at this point) even comes with an extra DLC chapter, Road to Gehenna, which is essentially a super-very-hard expansion pack. As of this writing I’m only a few puzzles in, but they have been absolutely crazy, and the stars have been just as obnoxious to find as ever. There’s also a whole new sub-plot about a bunch of androids who deal with being caged within the world’s puzzles by forming an online community. It’s intensely in-depth and you’d best bring your reading glasses because there is tons of text to burn through.
(Editor’s note: I’ve finished it now, and Road to Gehenna is incredible.)
I said earlier that The Talos Principle has much in common with Portal. Robots, puzzles, turrets, a disembodied voice directing you through puzzles. Portal goads you along with the false promise of cake, The Talos Principle goads you along with the false promise of ascension and immortality. Although maybe it’s not actually a false promise? You’ll have to play it yourself to find out, and I absolutely recommend doing so. The Talos Principle is an incredible game, a profoundly thoughtful experience unlike any other in the realm of video games. And also it’s just a lot of fun to solve all those puzzles.