Saturday, October 15, 2016

Dave Critiques - The Talos Principle: What does it leave behind?


Hey Hey folks, Dave here. Just a friendly reminder that this is a critique. I will be discussing The Talos Principle for those who have played it. If you are worried about spoilers, please stop the video, and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue!

When explaining The Talos Principle to others, I describe it as “Portal, with existential philosophy instead of humour”. Having completed all three endings of Talos on two occasions, I have to say that the description still stands. You enter a number of puzzle rooms that prompt you to use the tools at your disposal to solve them. As you do not use a portal gun and your character can jump, this is where the differences end (not to mention the complete divergence of theme and purpose). To take some of the headache out of first person platforming, jumping is almost turn based in that footsteps will appear on ledges, showing you where you will land if you hit the jump button. This is the first of many clever things about this game.

A lot has been written and discussed on the topic of mechanics as metaphor. Essentially it is the game imparting narrative information through the gameplay itself (its rules and systems). The Talos Principle links most of how it looks and plays to what it is about. The puzzle rooms have a purpose, the gorgeous locations have a purpose, the QR codes from other players have a purpose, and listening to both Elohim and the MLA have a purpose. What is that purpose? For starters, I think it speaks to the development team and project lead setting out to make something they really cared about. Something they could only express through this medium.

At every turn, the game is rewarding and vexing the player, often simultaneously. The puzzles can be fiendish, but you have a wide variety of them to choose from in your quest to retrieve any one sigil (the reward for solving said rooms). Exploring the world reveals lost audio logs, new computer terminals, QR messages, and even glitches in the system. Conversation is actually an important game mechanic. Once you make contact with the Milton Library Assistant, it will start to ask you very tough questions about what it means to be alive and to have consciousness. There is no right answer as any answer given will result in the MLA coming at you from a different angle. These conversations were my favourite part of the game. Although my desire to be cordial to the MLA in the face of its insults lead to it not wanting to speak to me anymore the first time through, in my second playthrough, I became friends with it, and we eventually fused into one being.

Even cooperation is a mechanic. Not only can you find paintbrushes that allow you to leave messages (that friends on your Steam account can see in their game), but the conversations between characters give great insight into how the other children of Elohim are faring. This all culminates at the top of the tower when you have to solve puzzles alongside Samsara and The Shepard (two characters you would be quite familiar with by this point). This section of the game leads towards the second of three endings, and after playing through it, I read their messages littered around the game world with a lot more understanding. Oh, and let’s not forget the playback machines, where you have to use a recorded version of yourself to help solve puzzles. If you think cooperating with other people can be maddening, try cooperating with yourself!

I’d like to take the time to address how a puzzle game like The Talos Principle works when playing through it a second time, as I did to acquire this footage. I last played the game in late 2015 so almost a full year has gone by. I had a much easier time with the majority of the puzzle solutions, and I don’t think it has to do with remembering how the puzzles were solved. A month or so before playing Talos I played a couple of hours of The Witness to see if I wanted to critique it (I do, and that video will be on its way sometime in the future). The Witness’ approach to puzzle design is not so much presenting you with puzzles to solve but rather teaching you the language that you need to solve the puzzles in the first place. That’s what caused the most grief my first time through The Talos Principle. The solutions to the puzzles often required the use of puzzle elements that I didn’t even know was possible. Returning to the game, I knew the puzzle language and had a much smoother time of it. There were still many red sigil puzzles that gave me grief, but more often than not, reading a messenger hint was enough to grease the gears of my brains sufficiently to lead towards acquiring the sigil.

So now we get to the question that is most pertinent, just what is going on? Well if you’ve completed the first ending, you’ll have a sense of what this computer construct’s goal is and what it is aiming for. Sadly the first ending means your character fails at what it set out to do, which is why I refer to ending two as the ‘real ending’ (and not just because we get a proper credits sequence). The second ending creates a sense of autonomy, and of anti-authoritarianism. It’s also only possible by benefitting from the work of others. It sort of mirrors that Isaac Newton quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

The second ending leads to a new age of the Earth. As far as I can ascertain, the whole game is set within a computer simulation that contains archives of all of human knowledge (or as much as they could archive before they were wiped out). Elohim, the MLA, the puzzles: they’re all there to create the perfect artificial intelligence to take physical form, and go out into the reality that humanity has left behind. The ‘talos principle’ itself refers to a concept that for all our philosophising, we’re still tied to this world in corporeal form, and thus have to come to terms with the limitations that brings. The character you are playing is trying to achieve physical form. Elohim and the MLA are watchful computer systems whose purpose is to mould the intellect of those that are training to ascend and become more than themselves.

Rather than expanding on this, the third ending seems like a letdown but is a missing piece of the puzzle. It’s kind of inversely proportional to the work required to activate it. You have to gather all the bonus stars in the game, and then solve the grey sigil puzzles in the star worlds. The stars are the most ingeniously guarded of all the game’s prizes, often using elements from multiple puzzle rooms to solve (or keen observational and deductive reasoning skills). Some of the stars are hidden in quite a beautiful way, such as the star on messenger island C, but most of them I never would have found if not for a walkthrough.

My first playthrough I started using a walkthrough about halfway through the sigils in Temple B. There were still puzzles I solved on my own, but you know how this works. The more you use a walkthrough, the easier it is to go back to it time and time again when you get stuck (and it took me this long to discover how easy it is to use the Steam community guides in game). I would say I solved around two-thirds of the puzzles on my own, and ended up using a walkthrough for everything else (including the bonus stars and the larger tetromino fields). On the second playthrough, I only needed a walkthrough for 2 of the red sigil puzzles, and about half of the grey sigil puzzles (plus once again, most of the tetromino fields).

I think what this means is I am admitting that the game is smarter than me. I feel like one of Elohim’s failed children (of whose desperate messages I read so much of during my playtime). The caveat is that while I felt defeated, I still was able to succeed thanks to the work of others. Very similar to the second ending in fact. Perhaps if I was like one of the programs whose only purpose was to solve these puzzles, I might have persevered, but as that was not the case, I did what I had to do to gain the answers I required. And then the third ending didn’t feel like such a let down because as I was helped in my quest to finish the game, I can now help others in their quest. All the work to find the stars made a little more sense. To truly help others, you must be fiercely dedicated and sure of your own purpose.

Finally, after the task of completing all three endings, I wondered about everything in the game that I had missed. I skimmed most of the text files in the computers, and I’m sure I missed a couple QR codes and audio messages. I wonder how many more easter eggs were present in the game, and what they entailed. More than anything I thought of the developer’s motives for making the game.

What were they trying to say? As the game revolves around philosophy, perhaps they weren’t trying to say anything, at least in an absolute sense. It almost feels like a thought experiment. Not only how computer intelligence would regard our collected history, but how such intelligence is formed, what it means, and how it wrestles with the same questions we wrestle with. Perhaps all that matters is what we leave behind. In this game, humanity is gone, but the combined efforts of the species have been passed on (as much as it can be I guess). Perhaps The Talos Principle is a similar process of the development team passing on their ideas to those that come after them. If that’s not the purpose of life, there’s a good argument to be made for it being the purpose of art.

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