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The Talos Principle

I awoke in the garden of Elohim. He named me child and taught me how to grow. He gave me purpose. I must aid those to follow me, and through this effort will I earn eternal life.

Amongst the century-worn marble and delicately placed ruin, He has guarded his sigils with trials. I know not what they are for, but each seems to serve as part of a key. He tells me that their collection is my purpose, that I am aiding those who would follow after me. I had no reason to doubt his wisdom, but something else in the world made me wonder. I found a computer terminal. The old grey box’s electric green text bespoke images and glimmers of a different place, a place outside the garden. It didn’t fit the theme of the rest of this… Why is it here? What is all this for? Where am I? And what, for that matter, am I?

The Talos Principle doesn’t explain itself to you. It does pull you through the behaviors of basic first person puzzle mechanics, asking you to take small and incremental steps toward understanding its elements. But the workings of the broader world are left for you to explore. For example, the Tetris-like pieces you collect to leave the introductory area? There are more of them than you need, some gleaming a different color. It’s up to you to decide what these relate to and why they’re there. Seek and satisfy your interest like the curious child you are, Elohim might say.

Your quarry lies beyond purple curtains of light — boundaries through which your metal hands cannot carry objects. These gate entry to self-contained puzzle chambers holding a host of conspicuously modern or slightly sci-fi equipment, sharp beacons of metal and plastic that are easily picked apart from their classical surroundings. Over the course of your successes, new bits of this kit trickle in to complicate matters. Some of these, like force fields and wandering proximity mines, are fixtures in the environment that serve to restrict movement toward your goal, each in their own unique manner. Laser prisms, jamming devices, and other moveable objects reminiscent of construction or survey equipment interact with the static features to step you closer to your goal.

Aside from occasional vague hints lodged into puzzle titles, you’re left to your own. Each chamber follows a rhythm of identifying what you’re working with, discerning what seems ought to be done, and figuring out how to do it. You’re expected to remember lessons from past chambers and extrapolate them into new solutions, play with the tools you’re provided to tease out new uses, and combine pieces in ways you haven’t been told to. You’re consistently treated as an intelligent player — like somebody who neither needs nor wants their hand held.

There’s more out there than puzzle chamber after puzzle chamber. You’re occasionally tantalized with gold stars placed just out of reach. Other stars need a bit of stalking to find, but all of them will require extraordinary means or advancements of logic beyond the reasonable steps expected in regular puzzles to acquire. Some will even defy the rules of design you’ve assumed stay consistent. They’re elusive, covetable things, and exceptionally satisfying to reach.

The QR codes peppering the landscape are a far more easily attainable treat. They represent the painted scrawlings of others like you who have passed through before, and serve to further develop the narrative. Your forebears might offer praise or musing about your environment, while other messages are simple journals, jokes, or something far more cynical.

Straddling the branches of your path, computer consoles offer access to a library. There are odd files of text that may bear no immediate relevance to your puzzle solving or your baritone sky-father. A scrap of Grecian mythology here, a goofy email exchange there. But some might. You’ll need a proper admin account to plumb the rest of the repository for answers, but the acquisition of such is less than straightforward.

As you amass a bit of a volume of these files, you’ll start to recognize consistencies and connections. The logs contained in the library hold suggestions of extra layers of narrative to be discovered, if you’re willing to engage. The game trusts you to decide which bits are relevant to what and lets you form your own picture of things as you collect the morsels meted out at a nice, curiosity-stoking pace.

Before long, the floor begins to recede. The computer’s behavior tilts, and you start to wonder about its structure. It will address topics it ought not to, shouldn’t be able to, and will begin to spur contemplation you wouldn’t expect from the interaction. It suggests space beyond the godly figure’s descriptions. I’m being as vague as possible about the narrative built around this system and its connection to your world and play, because it’s the most fascinating aspect of the game. There’s joy in the discovery, and spoiling that for you would be terrible.

Here’s an attempt to explain it without bruising the fun. The developers released a public test that contains unique puzzles and script for the terminal — essentially a demo. I explored, I puzzled, I wondered, and eventually found myself caught in argument with the machine as to why I presumed I could simply download the full game at no cost, though not in such direct terms. You think you deserve access free of charge? Do you think that’s fair to the other users? What makes you so special? It almost seemed to be enjoying itself.

While the game doesn’t instill its own version of a personality into your avatar, it does offer opportunities for feedback that let you do so for yourself. Elohim clearly has a picture of you, whether or not you accept it. You function in this setting, regardless of whether you’ve decided you’re following your destined path or something different. There is space for you to develop your own regard for what’s going on, and in giving you such, the game pulls a neat trick.

While solving puzzle games is in and of itself a gratifying process, those moments of being stumped by a particular challenge often aren’t.The Talos Principle checks the problem by contextualizing your struggle as an in-character action. This is what your avatar would be doing even if you weren’t the one in control. Maybe you believe your struggle is developmental, Elohim exposing you to the adversity you need to hone yourself as his child. Maybe you’re disillusioned and bored, but figure the puzzles are there so you may as well. Perhaps you’re perfectly happy to play around with neon lights and fancy blocks.

Basically, you’re role-playing. And you’re very good at it, even if it’s incidental. Whatever you find yourself up to, be it whizzing through solutions or bouncing around in confused circles, your play is swallowed up by the scope of in-character behavior the game has allowed for. Whatever the motivation and disposition you’ve distilled in your avatar, you’re in character simply by playing. And you know what? Role-playing is fun. Consequently, being stuck can be fun. Even better, if I can be intentionally vague again and ask you to trust my evaluation, the perspective you’re placed in factors into philosophical exploration in a way that I have never seen elsewhere.

Granted, the strength of this feat will tie into how invested you’ve found yourself in what’s happening. If you’d prefer to treat the game as a straight puzzler and blaze past all but the critical path to completion, you’ll still catch a layer of the narrative onion, but deny yourself so much more.

I haven’t been this smitten with a game in a long time. The Talos Principle is a journey through quiet optimism and bittersweet melancholy that might challenge existing beliefs or ask you to form entirely new ones in areas you hadn’t considered. It achieves what it set out to do in stunning fashion, replete with excellent puzzles and an ability to elicit thought on interesting ideas without harping on its themes. While those disinterested in the genre or speculative sci-fi might find little to be excited about, those who are will discover something truly special.

Kristopher Goorhuis is an American expatriate in Southeast Asia and too pale to pass as Australian. Sticking out like a sore thumb has not abetted his shyness. Through sheer force of repetition, however, Kristopher has become adept at pretending not to be. He is not sure how to feel about exposing his thoughts and words to a wide internet audience.

Kristopher Goorhuis is an American expatriate in Southeast Asia and too pale to pass as Australian. Sticking out like a sore thumb has not abetted his shyness. Through sheer force of repetition, however, Kristopher has become adept at pretending not to be. He is not sure how to feel about exposing his thoughts and words to a wide internet audience.
Current Issue
20 Mar 2023

Strange Horizons will be open to fiction submissions on April 26th, 2023, at 9 a.m. UTC! To keep our response times manageable and submission windows more frequent, there will be a 1,000-story cap on submissions.
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