“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” So begins Genesis, the first book of the Bible. So also – in a way – begins The Talos Principle, a wondrous puzzle adventure that packs a far bigger philosophical punch than its choice of genre might suggest.
Developed by Croatian indie Croteam, The Talos Principle is a fantastic addition to the narrative-driven puzzle genre. Borrowing from Portal, and with stylistic homages to Myst and Abe's Odyssey, it’s an engaging and addictive title – one book-ended by some seriously deep themes.
On its surface, Talos appears to be a fairly run-of-the-mill puzzle adventure. Essentially a series of micro-games, it presents puzzles and challenges that must be completed in order to unlock sigils – puzzle pieces used to complete Tetris-style brain teasers which in turn unlock further worlds.
The mechanisms of these puzzles are fairly rudimentary: you’ll place boxes on fans, connect pylons to energy sources, or navigate floating robotic enemies in order to complete each challenge. Simple it may sound and initially seem, but simple it most definitely is not. Rather, these mini-challenges obscure a rare sophistication and hidden, fantastic depths.
Indeed, Croteam has managed to strike a near-perfect balance between mind-bending difficulty, lateral design, and progression. It’s no exaggeration to say that the core gameplay sets a new standard for the genre – it’s a shining example of puzzle gaming done well.
The Talos Principle also has a strong sense of place and presence. Croteam is famous for the antiquity-inspired worlds of the Serious Sam franchise, and that fascination with all things ancient has wormed its way into in the level design here too. Each world that you play through feels lovingly crafted, as well as intelligently designed from both mechanical and thematic standpoints.
However, it is The Talos Principle's themes and writing that elevate it from a good first-person puzzler to “truly engaging and emotionally rewarding experience”. Writers Tom Jubert (Faster than Light) and Jonas Kyratzes (The Sea Will Claim Everything) have put together a story-driven experience that far surpasses the mean for the genre, and even goes so far as to challenge Portal and Portal 2 for its crown.
Borrowing heavily from philosophies of transcendence, sentience, and what it means to be human, it takes your character through an allegorical tale wherein you search for free will, pushed further into the world’s depths by an omnipotent voice named Elohim (a clever reference to the first Abrahamic god and world creator).
Elohim exhorts you to push forward through the world and complete challenges so you may attain eternal life as one of His children – a theme expanded on and developed further in Road to Gehennna, the expansion which is bundled in with Talos’s Deluxe Edition. However, as with the story of Eve and the Snake, all is not as it seems in the garden(s) of Eden.
As the game progresses in difficulty, so too does the complexity of its narrative. Through your interactions with an unseen character named Samsara (an allusion to the Buddhist notion of birth, death, and rebirth), you may begin to question Elohim's instructions, and start to ponder your choices and how they might have impacted the story you are told.
As a narrative device this is not new. To the informed player, the sophistication and maturity in Jubert's and Kyratzes' writing – and the depth of literary tradition that The Talos Principle's gameplay rests on — will not be lost. To the more casual player, the allegory in the story of Eve's fall from Eden will still have the same emotional resonance as it did in The Iliad, Homer's Odyssey – or even in Portal.
But Jubert, Kyratzes, and Croteam take this rhetorical device one step further by locating The Talos Principle in a world that blurs the real, the irreal, and the digitally invented. Is one a supplicant? Should one exercise free will? Can one even exercise free will in a world not of their own making?
The end of the game, and the choices laid out before the player in The Talos Principle's gripping and intense finale(s) really drive home these themes, and emphasise how important they are as emotional touchstones in our non-gaming lives.
And that’s what elevates The Talos Principle from merely a fun and engaging first-person puzzle adventure to an excellent addition to the entire sci-fi genre. Themes of sentience and "human-ness" are dominating contemporary sci-fi – one need only look at Spike Jonze's Her or Alex Garland’s excellent Ex Machina to see that what it means "to be us" is the conversation de jour.
But this is a surprisingly delightful conversation to indulge in within the digital and interactive medium of games (and a return to familiar territory for Jubert after The Swapper). The Talos Principle is an addictive, fun, and emotionally-engaging puzzle title. But it is also an example of gaming's nascent foray in the literary world, and for this, Croteam can only be praised.