Video Game Review: The Talos Principle
The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game interwoven with a story which explores key questions in religion of philosophy of mind: what is it to be conscious, what is the basis for being deserving of moral considerations, do we have free will, what is the point of existence, and how can we determine whether other agents are conscious?
The puzzle and gameplay elements are pretty robust (reminiscent of Portal and Portal 2, perhaps the best games ever made),1 being do-able but not trivial. Some of the solutions seem quite hacky at times,2 and some game elements are frustrating, such as lethal obstacles which can force you to repeat trival-but-time-consuming initial stages of puzzles. There’s also a large number of puzzles which are solved with techniques which are unique to that puzzle, and often quite unintuitive such that you feel you’ve learned a lesson about the game’s interpretation of physics, which you never use subsequently.3 These frustrations aside, the strengths of the core gameplay - engaging puzzles, insight-based (‘ah-ha!’) solutions, and 4-d thinking - are enough to frame the story and provide a meaningful feeling of progress.
The puzzles and gameplay are not why The Talos Principle is reviewed here, of course. Its story positions the player as some kind of android in an esoteric world of ruins from various ancient civilisations, commanded to solve the game’s puzzles by a disembodied Voice of Command identifying itself as Elohim. The other major characters are a virtual library assistant terminal which conducts the player through philosophical arguments, and one of the designers of the world in which the player inhabits whose philosophical curiosity is portrayed through a series of voice notes.
Key questions foregrounded by the game are the relationship between the player’s avatar and Elohim, who issues commands and prohibitions with which the player can engage, and whether or not the library assistant is a conscious entity.
Engagement with the library assistant, where most of the philosophical debate takes place,4 proceeds through the selection of pre-determined dialogue options. The variety is fairly good,5 and although it’s readily apparent that the assistant will argue you to a contradiction or a standstill whichever option you pursue, that’s pretty much the point. If there were obvious answers to these very difficult philosophical questions we would almost certainly have found them by now.
The other components of the game, Alexandra’s voice notes and the various written information which pervades the computer terminals scattered through the world, work well to provide an impetus for the player’s philosophical curiosity and bite-sized doses of backstory/philosophy respectively.6
Finally, the presence of earlier androids in the game world, both in their occasional physical presence and their frequent messages embedded in QR codes pasted on walls all over the world, helps to problematize the question of the player’s avatar. In a nice touch of meta-ludonarrative synergy, the player sometimes gets to create these messages themself, by selecting from a list of pre-specified options… From my own philosophical perspective, I’d have liked to see a sense of progress in the distinctiveness and apparent consciousness of the past agents as their version numbers increase,7 but it’s understandable why this is underplayed.
Overall, The Talos Princple is an enjoyable puzzle game, and should please fans of puzzle games and philosophical enquiry equally, while being a special treat for those who enjoy both.
This is not a claim I make lightly. Portal is probably the only game I’d consider a must-play for anyone familiar with first-person video games (required to properly engage with the game, I think). ↩
I freely admit there may be more elegant solutions than the ones I found first! ↩
Even the near-perfect Portal had one moment where this sort of thing occurred. At one point you are required to open a door using the ‘use’ key to continue. No other doors can be opened in the game, and the use action is useless except for that puzzle. It’s obvious narratively that going through a door is a transition moment, but in the game it’s a frustration because the meta-rules appear to have changed (progress everywhere else in the game requires solving puzzles using portals). ↩
The player’s engagement here is optional; it’s possible to complete the puzzle parts of the game while ignoring the philosophical debates, for those who are left cold by philosophy of mind. ↩
I think a BSc in part grounded in philosophy of mind is actually a disadvantage to enjoying the game, because some of the lines of argument are predictable, and some of the apparently reasonable options look like simple misconceptions, or like they don’t quite express your position. ↩
From one of these fragments of written information we discover that the Talos Principle is that even the most ardent philosopher needs to breathe. Bishop Berkley may disagree, but almost everyone else accepts that reality happens even if you try to argue your way out of it. ↩
It could be argued that the game does do this to some extent, but it’s not readily apparent, at least from my play through. ↩