Some larger puzzles towards the end are overlong or repetitive
“Losing” a puzzle entails restarting it from the beginning
The Talos Principle’s philosophical puzzling is the closest anyone’s ever come to recapturing what made Portal special.
From a text in The Talos Principle:
“You must consider these riddles,” the Sphinx said, “and tell me the riddle that I did not reveal.” The Sphinx smiled, the gears in her jaw creaking, her teeth a nightmare of rust. Her left eye flickered, but none of its terror was diminished. The ruins were silent.
“I think,” she finally said, “that the riddle you did not reveal is this: why do these riddles exist in the first place? Why do these curious automatons, these mute children of Hephaestus, behave as they do, forcing me to devise these intricate solutions? Each is a riddle, but the greater riddle is their purpose.”
The Sphinx did not answer.
Uncovering the Sphinx
Portal changed puzzle games. I don’t think there’s much dissent on that. Or if it didn’t change puzzle games, it at least was so unique in its execution, so interesting in the way it twisted standard shooter tropes, that it opened new avenues for puzzle games to go down.
And so they did. Since Portal‘s release we’ve had a number of imitators—Q.U.B.E., Quantum Conundrum, Antichamber, and hell, even Portal 2. They all tried to recapture some indescribable feeling many people had when originally playing Portal. They all achieved varying levels of success in that pursuit.
The Talos Principle comes closest, as far as I’m concerned.
It’s not because of the surface similarities, though those certainly abound. The Talos Principle‘s puzzles are arranged in discrete rooms, similar to Portal‘s test chambers. Each finished puzzle unlocks a Sigil, and collecting enough Sigils unlocks new puzzle mechanics and doors to even more puzzles. There’s nothing as iconic in the puzzle mechanics as the Portal Gun, but redirecting lasers certainly feels familiar (to say nothing of the ubiquitous cubes and red switches on the floor).
That’s really not why The Talos Principle is so great though. It’s the “A-Ha!” moment.
Portal was excellent at the “A-Ha!” moment. Almost too excellent, in fact—since the game was only twenty levels long, it felt like you were still unraveling the full potential of portals when you finished the last bit.
The Talos Principle ‘s tangled network of laser beams and boxes and fans and signal jammers is packed with revelatory moments. There’s a text you’ll discover early in the game that says, “The way I see it, the world doesn’t come with a manual. You gotta figure it out for yourself. A bit here, a bit there, put it together, try to make sense of it.” The text makes sense in its story context too, but I have no doubt it was an important philosophy in developing The Talos Principle also.
And sure, that’s the whole point of a puzzle game, but it’s the way those “A-Ha!” moments come to you in The Talos Principle that I really appreciate. There are very few puzzle mechanics in The Talos Principle—maybe six objects overall—but the developers have done an excellent job of building puzzles in such a way that you’re always discovering new uses.
There was one puzzle—I don’t want to spoil it so I’ll keep this incredibly vague—where I struggled for about twenty minutes, trying and dying repeatedly. The Talos Principle doesn’t gate your progress until late in the game so I left, did some other puzzles, and came back. Still couldn’t figure it out.
I finally picked up a box in frustration and did something stupid with it, laughing because it was like a surreal virtual prank. Two seconds later my mouth dropped open when I realized I’d uncovered the solution by accident.
That sort of moment is so rare in games, where the developers say, “It’s okay to be stuck. It’s okay to keep trying.” There’s a built-in help system, but even that is locked behind a number of barriers both physical and mental. And to be honest I don’t even know what it consists of because I didn’t use it.
And then there’s a second layer of puzzles on top of the first—hidden stars in each world that take even more abstract thinking to unlock. At the moment I’ve only uncovered about a dozen. They’re hard.
The puzzles aren’t perfect. Unlike Portal‘s short-and-sweet length, The Talos Principle contains probably over a hundred puzzles. I clocked about 10-12 hours and I’m still working on those star puzzles, and while I appreciate the amount of content there are some puzzles near the end that feel like busywork once you’ve got a good rhythm down.
Until you climb the tower, that is…
I don’t want to skip over The Talos Principle‘s story because it’s also full of “A-Ha!” moments.
It’s nothing like Portal. I want to disabuse you of that right from the start. Where Portal is full of dry humor and spawned a thousand memes, The Talos Principle is a morose reflection on mortality, on what happens after we die, on the pursuit of truth and what it means to be human.
It’s heady stuff, especially for a video game to tackle. You awake in a Garden, brought to life by a being named Elohim (Hebrew for “god” and/or “God”). Why? What is your purpose? Is your purpose just to solve puzzles?
The story plays out in a number of threads. There’s Elohim himself, who warns you away from temptation. There are QR Codes imprinted on the walls, left by other people who came through the Garden. There are a handful of audio logs. And then there are the computer terminals, which house the Archive—a vast databank of texts, mostly corrupted. Each terminal has two or three texts which deal with everything from the works of Immanuel Kant to chatroom logs to personal emails to a translated story of Anubis.
The Talos Principle walks a very fine line. There are people that are going to play this game and think it’s pseudo-philosophical pretention masquerading as something more. There are people who read that last paragraph and already rolled their eyes and decided not to play this game, I’m sure.
There are also going to be people, like me, who think it’s one of the best stories this year. Each individual fragment of story is so small, but it’s like mosaic tiles. Suddenly you’re eight hours in and gasping because you just found a crucial text and unraveled a key part of the larger whole and it’s hit you so hard you half-stand up out of your chair.
This review is vague to the point where it hurts me, but I’ve given you as much knowledge as I can about the mechanics of the game without ruining any puzzles—you play in first-person, and you manipulate objects (lasers, boxes, fans, et cetera) to progress through a series of test chambers. If you liked (or didn’t like) Portal, it’s that type of game, and a very good one.
But what makes The Talos Principle special is its story, and I just won’t talk about that more than to say a passing interest in philosophy is recommended. If debating what it means to be human sounds like a great Saturday night, then The Talos Principle is for you. If not, maybe give this one a pass.
Regardless of what you choose, I consider it one of the best games of the year. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind.
Hayden writes about games for PCWorld and doubles as the resident Zork enthusiast.