Talos Principle 2 and the quiet subversion of optimistic sci-fi

"What are we without a future?"


“What are we willing to fight for? What do we deserve, morally speaking? What is our place, our relationship with the universe, with nature?”

During a preview of The Talos Principle 2 in August, series writer Jonas Kyratzes posed 19 questions about the essence of humanity in just 90 seconds. Between explanations of new mechanics and puzzle systems, he rattled off deep musings about society and the natural world as easily as if he were reading his weekly grocery list. It felt like these questions were constantly on his mind, poised at the tip of his tongue.

“What does society owe me?” he asked. “What do I owe society? What is our relationship with nature? What is our relationship with the universe? Is the universe kind? Is nature understanding or is it cruel and random? And if it is cruel and random, where do we fit in? What degree of control should we have?”

The Talos Principle 2

He wasn’t craving answers. The Talos Principle 2 is filled with provocations like these, and according to Kyratzes, they’re designed to generate conversation and debate, even if it’s all internal. The goal is to spawn deep thoughts about the future of humanity and the role technology can play in our evolution.

“They're statements that are intended to make you think,” Kyratzes told Engadget a few weeks after the initial preview. “Let's say the robots are human and they're capable of love. Like, that's our premise.… Hopefully that is also the sort of thing that will provoke some thought.”

This philosophical approach to the future is the heart of The Talos Principle, an award-winning sci-fi puzzle game that debuted in 2014, and its tender curiosity is baked into the sequel as well. The Talos Principle 2 is due out this year for PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, and it directly follows the story of the original. It’s set in a burgeoning society built by sentient robots, and its main gameplay mechanic involves solving complex laser riddles, interspersed with conversations about the nature of consciousness, love and survival.

The Talos Principle 2

Co-writer Verena Kyratzes didn’t work on the original game’s story, but she and the other developers at Croteam used its calm, question-asking approach as a blueprint for the sequel.

“It didn't only ask you a question, but once you gave the answer to the question, it kind of very politely asked you to just think about whether you're really sure about that,” she said. “It's a game that constantly tries to make you think, to interrogate yourself and your beliefs, and I really hope that we managed to do that in the second one, too. The gentleness of it is something that's very important to me because I think if you're talking down to somebody, if you're just telling them, ‘That was stupid,’ then they will immediately close off.”

The Talos Principle 2 represents an old-school brand of sci-fi that invites people to play around with the ideas it poses; warm, welcoming and slow. Even the series’ conclusions, when it offers any, are inherently optimistic, centering on humanity and the ability society has to thrive with nature in the future. It’s a return to a Carl Sagan era of forward thought, positioning people as the solution, not just the instigator, in problems like climate change, overpopulation, rogue AI, pandemics and space travel. This alone is a refreshing perspective in a sea of mainstream sci-fi media that only envisions the future as a miserable, sterile void manufactured by society's stubbornness and greed.

The Talos Principle 2

“Consistently, science fiction presents itself as being original for taking a dystopian view, as if it was subverting a mainstream narrative of hopefulness,” Jonas Kyratzes said. “They'll be like, ‘In our story technology is bad.’ Oh really, you mean like every other story?”

As a series, The Talos Principle is more thematically aligned with the aspirational sci-fi of the original Star Trek or The Next Generation than it is with the gloom of today's Picard. This optimistic, human-first approach makes The Talos Principle 2 subversive as a work of contemporary sci-fi.

Here’s how Jonas Kyratzes and Verena Kyratzes discussed the modern glut of pessimistic sci-fi among themselves:

Jonas: “[Dystopia] is of course, on some level, a response to the conditions we live in. But it's also limiting our ability to imagine something else. And I think this kind of optimism, that's so crucial, it's so fundamental in a way that it's hard to talk about, because what are we without a future? I think that also reflects our alienation from our own humanity. The tendency to always go, ‘Humanity is a virus, humanity is bad, all humans are evil.’ Einstein once remarked that this is a very troubling thing, a sign of alienation, because it's such a fundamental thing to have a connection to humanity. Because you are human. … It's the most mainstream idea, it's the ruling ideology of our time: Nothing will get better and you shouldn't expect anything to get better.”

Verena: “Often we’ll watch something that is set 300, 400, 1,000 years in the future, but what they're actually talking about is something that is [current]. They're no longer imagining a future. They're just talking about what upsets them in the present.”

Jonas: “By taking it into a utopian future, it gives you different ways of thinking about it, and now a lot of science fiction doesn't. It's like, here's future racism, exactly like now racism. As if to say, nothing will change, nothing will get better, nor can it. And it’s like, OK, great — why are we telling this story?”

The Talos Principle 2 will present decidedly humanist ideas in conversations with NPCs and general story beats, but it also makes room for other conclusions. The game’s respect for the human race extends to individual players, and the story will unravel in various ways depending on the choices each person makes and the interpretations they choose to follow. Diversity is one humanity’s greatest strengths, after all.

There are varying levels of engagement with the narrative, too — completing the game’s incredibly challenging golden puzzles, for instance, will unlock a “significant story payoff,” according to Jonas Kyratzes.

The Talos Principle 2 isn’t necessarily a game about utopian sci-fi; it just uses this direction as a backbone. The sequel takes players from sterile, Myst-like testing grounds filled with wildly tricky spatial puzzles, to a clean, shining city built by robots that act like and call themselves human. Robots that feel human. Robots that feel, full-stop.

“All of these things that we're all thinking about and arguing about are going into this game, and hopefully are reflected in the conversations inside that game,” Jonas Kyratzes said. “I would hope it's expressed as a story through characters who have personalities. The game is all of these things, but it's also a love story, as much as anything else. Multiple love stories. It’s intertwined love stories in a lot of ways, that's an undercurrent that's very significant. The ability of sentient beings to love, even if they are robots.”

A multitude of questions spawn from this premise alone. The Talos Principle 2 will invite players to test their own theories about consciousness, AI, sustainability and love in a meditative space. It doesn’t promise answers, but maybe it’ll inspire players to ask different questions about humanity’s future, just like sci-fi is supposed to.