The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzler. You play as a robot who awakens to the voice of someone claiming to be your creator, who tasks you with completing puzzles. He promises you eternal life for your service, but orders you not to ascend the tower at the center of the world.
As a puzzle game, I thought this was quite good. I was initially worried it would become repetitive, but the difficulty curve is excellently paced, with new mechanics doled out at just the right speed to get you used to each. The gameplay is incredibly intuitive, with many levels functioning as tutorials for new mechanics simply through their design and allowing you to poke everything at your leisure. There’s little in the way of explicit tutorial text, but you don’t need it; you learn how the world works by investigating it. I’d even say the game had a bit of a Metroidvania feel in the sense that certain puzzles teach you tricks and tactics that help make others much easier.
I also appreciated a fix for something that bothered me about Portal: held objects will snap to switches and boxes when you place them, so you don’t run into the problem of failing the puzzle because you placed a block a few pixels off-center from the pressure plate and the unnecessarily complicated physics engine took that as an excuse to go crazy. Similarly, the game highlights which areas are reachable by jump, so you don’t have to wonder about that either.
My only complaint is that I felt the addition of actual hazards were unnecessarily frustrating, especially when some puzzles can be quite long and require a lot of finnicky setup (especially the star puzzles that require configuring multiple puzzle areas at once). I think it would have been nicer if dying didn’t force you to reset the entire area, especially when the entire conceit is that you’re in a simulation where death is meaningless.
Also, the star puzzles that required you to use clever manipulation of your tools and environment were good, but the ones that were just “You need to find this switch that’s hidden around a corner behind a tree and in total darkness” were just infuriating. Pixel hunts are not puzzles.
As for the plot, my reaction can be pretty much summed up by this SMBC comic:
The story is deeply philosophical, obviously. Are AIs people? How does one define personhood? Does free will exist? If a Creator exists, should we trust them?
…Or at least, those were the questions I thought the game would engage with based on the description. In actuality, it’s mostly just ruminations on the concept of death and extinction, with the standard nonsensical platitudes. “Machines are an extension of humanity, so as long as the Voyager probes still exist, humanity still exists!” No, you’re dead. “Evolution, both scientific and cultural, is based on the sacrifices made by our ancestors; we must plant trees we will never see fully grown; so then shouldn’t we define ‘life’ as the continuation of the species?” No, you’re dead. “As long as people remember us, aren’t we all immortal?” No, you’re dead.
The answer to the “mystery” is pretty obvious from the get-go, to the point I’m left confused as to if it was even supposed to be a mystery. You’re in a simulation designed by a group of scientists who tried to preserve an archive of all human works and history when they discovered humanity would not be able to survive an oncoming extinction event. Elohim is not actually your creator and does not actually have much power over the simulation (which is glitching and falling apart), he’s just a nanny program designed to shepherd the AIs’ development. His promise of eternal life is a lie, and the Tower is a secret test of character to ensure the fully developed AIs are capable of free will.
You can figure pretty much all of this out immediately. I was expecting the story to go somewhere with this, but… it doesn’t. You don’t learn any more meaningful details, just more and more navel-gazing. It’s only when you finally reach the top of the Tower that Elohim confirms that yes, it was a test, as if that was supposed to be a big reveal and not the obvious conclusion from the start?
I feel like there’s some sort of disconnect going on here, where I figure this is all really deep and meaningful to someone from a religious perspective, but for me it just feels like a bland statement of fact. Yes, there’s no empirical evidence for a soul and it’s likely our body is all we have (this is the titular Talos Principle). I’m sure that’s a really big deal to someone who was brought up religious and is only grappling with this as an adult, but as someone who has always believed that, I’m just like… yes, and?
And the entire game is that. It’s just making a bunch of dramatic-sounding statements over and over and never coming to an argument or conclusion. There’s nothing here.
To say nothing of the plot holes in the story itself. We learn just enough details of the extinction event for it to not make sense — apparently it was a disease? I mean, okay, yes, recent events have shown we’re pretty crap at handling diseases, but seriously? They had enough time to design this elaborate archive and simulation, but not enough time to devise a treatment? I’m not clear why they seemed so certain this was the end of humanity when diseases are perfectly combatable. Nothing about Elohim makes sense, either — he’s not actually your creator, that’s the scientists who made the simulation, and even though it was his purpose to lie to you about the Tower he apparently genuinely didn’t want you to climb the Tower because he didn’t want to end the simulation because he was scared of dying. Because yes, escaping the simulation also deletes it (why?) and it’s not clear if every AI is combined into the final upload or if you just committed a genocide. (The DLC seems to imply every AI is saved, but waffles a lot on it so it can do some more navel-gazing on ~the uncertainty of death~.)
It’s possible the question is supposed to be “Is it worth it to destroy Paradise to ascend it?” but that question makes no sense, because it’s not a paradise — all the AIs seem to hate the puzzles and hate that they’re trapped in this eternal loop, and the simulation itself seems to be failing, so it’s not even truly eternal. I don’t understand how there’s supposed to be any reason you would want to keep it.
The very idea of the simulation is nonsensical, too. They’re trying to create people that will succeed humanity, and they accomplish this by… making them solve laser puzzles? How does that prepare them for the real world in any way? I think it would have made far more sense to nix the simulation concept entirely and just have you be in the real world from the start — that would have allowed the plot to focus on the themes of succession and society more neatly. But then I guess that would have made it hard to keep the conceit as a puzzle game.
The only positive thing I have to say about the story is the characterization of the AIs. You don’t see or speak with them directly, but they leave messages for one another on the walls of the areas, and it’s really fun to see how they develop a kind of society just over that. Different AIs have different opinions and personalities — they respond to one another, discuss their world, snipe at each other, and probably say a lot of things the player is thinking. The DLC develops this even further with a world where you can directly communicate with AIs through a message board, and they are adorable. (They write human fanfiction! And speculate about the nature of cats!) I thought this was a lovely depiction of emergent society and commentary on creative internet communities, though unfortunately it is ultimately derailed to yet again ruminate on ~the end of times~ in a very confusing way. I honestly ended up feeling like the admins were right and it would have been fine for everyone to just stay there making art for one another, but of course the player has to rob them of that choice by destroying the world.
(They do all use male pronouns, though. Booo.)
So ultimately, very disappointing. I don’t really get what it was trying to say or why I was supposed to care. If you want to see this kind of story done well, and with a focus more on the parts I enjoyed, you should read Unnatural Selection.