The Talos Principle review: God in the machine

Mac, PC, Linux

Often, performing routine tasks can provide unexpected clarity: You think of the perfect ending for your short story while in the shower, or realize the best comeback while riding your bike down a familiar street – three hours after the actual argument. Or, you finally understand the true nature of consciousness while angling a laser beam into a portal beside a door.

The Talos Principle takes advantage of this vague phenomenon, presenting a series of straightforward physics- and tetromino-based puzzles within a deeply introspective, proddingly philosophical narrative. It could have easily been a puzzle game and nothing else – and its intricate puzzles could sustain it on their own – but The Talos Principle offers an intelligent story packed with history and the quiet questions we ask ourselves just before falling asleep. It's mysterious and haunting, creative and beautiful – and loads of fun.

The Talos Principle displays a deep understanding of spatial awareness and player thought processes in two distinct, interwoven layers. The narrative is told by the booming voice of Elohim, an apparent god who calls you "child" and asks for total faith as you complete his increasingly difficult first-person puzzles, and through a series of computer terminals that prompt deep thought about consciousness, philosophy and the technological singularity.

The puzzle layer contains familiar yet creative physics problems: Connect a laser to a faraway door via a series of light-bending rods, use electronic jammers to open doorways and stop weapons from attacking you, or place blocks on big red buttons to turn on fans and soar over walls.

These puzzles are placed in gorgeous 3D landscapes of once-great ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Rome. The goal is to collect tetrominos (i.e. Tetris blocks) one puzzle at a time – the pieces are usually placed behind laser-controlled doors inside self-contained playing areas. The tetrominos, in turn, unlock new puzzle-solving gadgets, including fans, blocks, laser-bending rods and a recording device that duplicates yourself.

The puzzles come in three flavors: green, yellow and red. Those featuring green tetrominos are the easiest, yellow are harder and red are the most intricate, difficult puzzles (aside from the floating stars scattered around the environments, presenting seemingly impossible, bonus brainteasers). At every level, however, the puzzles are intellectually satisfying and they rarely reach the level of ultimate frustration typically found in similar games.

One red puzzle, for example, stymied me for 30 minutes or so, but I never wanted to throw my controller through the computer screen: After bending some laser beams in the appropriate manner, I acquired three stackable blocks, a fan and a light-bending rod. I had to get the laser beam from a portal behind an electric barrier, to a door at 90 degrees to the laser and behind two impenetrable walls. Long story short, I spent a lot of time placing blocks on blocks and jumping into the fan with the light rod, swapping out all of my items in every combination I could concoct, and eventually, the solution clicked. As so often happens in puzzle games, it appeared to be ridiculously obvious in hindsight. But, while solving the puzzle, I never felt lost or bereft of options – I knew that the answer was hiding in a series of block and laser movements, and I knew that I would discover it if I just thought about everything a little harder or from a different perspective.

The Talos Principle features truly intelligent physical riddles. It is never the puzzles' fault that you don't see the answer straight away – it's your own fault for thinking too mundanely, for trusting the ruts run through your mind by other puzzle games or even during the previous level. And it's not just in the puzzles that The Talos Principle displays a high level of thought; the story told through computer terminals and in the booming voice of Elohim is equally introspective and intelligent, if in a slightly constrained manner.

The computer terminals tell stories of the scientists who created you and the world you're in, and they connect you to a messaging system that asks questions about the nature of humanity and machines. To be clear, you're a robot. That is, you have shiny metal arms and advanced artificial intelligence in your head, but after answering a few of the game's more probing questions, you might be forced to consider yourself to be a robot in real life – or a human in the game.

Some of the text uncovered at the computers distills the history of philosophy regarding consciousness, religion, death and technology, and the computer often asks for your own responses to related questions, though your answers are limited by the options granted. When discussing philosophy, a multiple-choice system is counter-intuitive, but this system does ensure the narrative progresses smoothly. Each conversation with the mystery messenger on the other end of the screen ramps up the tension beautifully – do you trust Elohim? Do you know who or what Elohim is? Do you know who you are, yourself? Do you know what you are? Elohim grows irritated at the computerized messenger and warns against the ideas it plants in your head, while the computer mocks Elohim. This is a battle between god and technology, god and humanity, humanity and technology. As the war wages on the screen, the world is tinged with a sinister air. You'll complete the puzzles, but you'll wonder why more often, you'll seek ways to defy either Elohim or the computer.

These thoughts – why, what, who – are the constant mental backdrop of The Talos Principle, and the puzzles provide a rich platform for them to germinate and form. While solving a (perhaps pointless) series of physical challenges, the mind wanders and probes these questions, even as a subconscious hum behind your every movement. The philosophy never becomes pretentious or overbearing, as it's littered with questions more than sermons, and it's interspersed with stories about the scientists responsible for your own robotic existence. The narrative is crafted so that these deep thoughts and questions unfurl naturally; it never feels preachy.

You can ignore the story, if you want – never approach a computer terminal, shut off that booming voice, turn on some Taylor Swift and enjoy the puzzles – but I wouldn't recommend it for a few reasons. The music in The Talos Principle is lovely, at times sounding like the first chords of Moulin Rouge's version of "Roxanne" – passionate and dark Spanish guitar. Elohim presents a mystery simply by existing, but the way he speaks to you and the processes he cites evoke a brilliant unease that heightens the impact of completing each puzzle. The history lessons and questions raised by the logs in the computer terminal are profound, if limited. This is a game about tone and deep thought; the bulk of The Talos Principle's impact stems from its beautifully crafted narrative, not its puzzles.

The Talos Principle is an expert manipulator. At one point while wandering the trails toward yet more puzzles, I questioned whether I was on the correct path, if I should turn around and try a different environment first. I paused at the computer terminal to find a message about ancient men taking different paths to find the same ending. At another point, the computer displays a heavy note about death, followed by a text option titled, "coming soon." These subtle yet self-aware narrative turns demonstrate the writers' understanding of player movement and thought, as well as skill in creating a tense, inherently dramatic world.

The Talos Principle is not a smart game – it's wise. It peers deeply at people as an idea, including the players, and it tests their humanity and intelligence in a series of beautiful riddles and spatial-awareness tests. It's full of excitement and personality, even if it may not contain a single "person" at all.

  • Price: $40

  • Multiplayer: No

  • Controller Support: Yes

  • Level Editor: Yes

  • Pretentious: No

In Other Words
The Talos Principle is an intelligent first-person puzzle game whose spatial riddles are challenging, but they don't make the player feel dumb (too often). Even its dense, philosophical narrative and commentary on the nature of artificial life isn't designed to make players question their own mental capacities – instead, The Talos Principle invites players to look at the world, and their own minds, just a little differently. It's beautifully executed on all levels, and it's simply beautiful.

This review is based on a Steam download of the Windows version of The Talos Principle, provided by Devolver Digital. Images: Devolver Digital