Using what initially appears as simple, puzzle-based gameplay, The Talos Principle quickly morphs into a complex rumination upon the line between human and machine consciousness. Revisit this one while you have the chance.
The Talos Principle
While many games in recent memory have dwelt upon the nature of consciousness and have used video game mechanics to interrogate the exact nature of such a malleable and abstract concept, I have found no such example that accomplishes its goal quite as effectively as Croteam’s 2014 masterpiece, The Talos Principle. Using what initially appears as simple, puzzle-based gameplay, this game/philosophical treatise hybrid quickly morphs into a complex rumination upon the line between human and machine consciousness in ways that are engaging and, at times, simply brilliant.
It’s difficult to talk about what exactly The Talos Principle is without undermining the creative design of the overall game; like Gone Home (2013), The Beginner’s Guide (2015), and similarly focused narrative games, half of what makes The Talos Principle special is each player’s experience of the interaction between the game’s narrative and its gameplay.
What I can say is this: within the first few moments, the player finds him/herself in the in a walled-off complex vaguely Ancient Greek in construction. A booming voice from overhead identifies itself as Elohim and commands players to complete a series of puzzles to progress. It is at this moment that players realize that they themselves are robotic, as a metal android-style construct with human proportions. To reveal any more about the plot would be sacrilege, but the themes engaged with here concern the nature of human consciousness, the definition of the self, the value of choice, and the sanctity of freedom, all wrapped into an incredible ball of puzzle solving progression.
While I foreground this game’s narrative as its most important element, the puzzle solving and physics-based design moving that narrative forward are worth players’ time and investment as well. Beyond the opening tutorial, a number of worlds in different locales feature dozens of puzzles, each of which is constructed in a Portal-esque design of using blocks, projectors, lasers, and reflectors to solve each puzzle and gain important pieces that unlock the ability to find and solve more puzzles. All of the puzzles are set at just the right level of difficulty. None are insurmountable, and the balance between finding new puzzles and exploring new bits of the narrative as revealed in fragmented emails, scattered recordings, semi-sentient help bots, and more are just enough to keep players interested through the entirety of the game’s roughly 8-10 hour duration.
Depending upon players’ tolerance levels for certain types of gameplay, however, The Talos Principle can become a bit repetitive toward the end, and the pace at which new narrative elements are revealed can frustrate less than patient personality types. Moreover, the way in which the game continues to press players to develop and understand the exact parameters of consciousness could alienate individuals who don’t find such philosophical activity fun in its own right.
Outside of these concerns, however, The Talos Principle is an incredible example of how video game narratives can be about so much more than overly-sexualized characters and massive explosions. Some games try to get to the core of what constitutes the human experience, and The Talos Principle succeeds in such efforts in a way that shows the heights to which video games can rise when treated with care and a precise focus upon the purposes of playing games in the first place.