The Talos Principle

The Talos Principle is a remarkable game that does not work for me. That’s okay. I have no regrets of purchasing it and spending a good few hours with it, and more importantly it turned out to be quite thought-inspiring for me as a designer. I guess the best proof I have is that I’ve decided to write about it, instead of just simply moving on to another game.

I guess the game will work for a lot of people. It’s very well executed, and that, for example, includes obsessively extensive menus in which you can even reassign gamepad buttons. The core gameplay — immersive and engaging puzzle solving — is probably the best one I experienced since the original Portal. Finally, you can just feel it has a soul. Every second of Talos feels authentic and made with love and care. Somebody put long hours and a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this game.

What did not work for me were two things.

First, the way the challenge is served. Usually we can have three types of challenge for the player. One is difficulty (e.g. enemies start wearing armor and you need to spend more bullets on them). The other is complexity (e.g. initially you fight grunts on a flat surface, and later you fight grunts, snipers and grenadiers inside a multi-level fortress). The final one is forcing the players to adapt to a new challenge (e.g. you fight enemies with an assault rifle but then you get it replaced with a silenced pistol or a sniper rifle).

Personally, I very much dislike the first two. Yes, a little bit of the increase is a good thing. But most games somehow believe that cranking up difficulty and complexity every hour of the game is the way to go. I disagree. Take a look at Modern Warfare, the template for all Call of Duty games from the last few years. The fifth hour is no different to the second hour when it comes to the difficulty or the complexity. But the game keeps on feeling fresh and challenging due to the third type of challenge I described above: the need to adapt to new conditions. The game is about nothing else but firing your gun. However, what gun and under what conditions and for what purpose is constantly shifting.

Kind of like Portal, too. It didn’t have “from easy to hell” curve. It just kept on surprising you.

Talos goes fairly old school in that department. When, after a few hours, I got new toys to play with I understood that what awaits me now is basically increasingly complex and elaborate puzzles. If there was a switch to press, in five hours it’s going to be ten. If there were two laser nodes to connect, in further levels it’s going to be ten. And then it’s going to be switches and lasers in one puzzle, and then that puzzle will probably turn out to be just a part of a bigger puzzle.

If that’s your thing, awesome. But me? Not a fan.

However, I could probably deal with it all if not for the second problem, the way the story was delivered.

Talos has a pretty good writing, actually. There were bits in it — about the nature of games and curiosity, for one — that made me crave for more. But the rest of it felt overwritten, a bit dry, requiring a herculean effort to follow.

The story itself is a puzzle to figure out, and on the surface it’s a wonderful thing. But the way it is delivered — through walls of text in a sea of terminals — is at odds with the gameplay. The gameplay puzzles require the player to think, to think spatially, to be observant, to move, sometimes even to be a manually competent action player. All that is quite engaging, but then the game asks you to stop and read. And read. And read.

It’s like giving a child a Gameboy and every ten minutes asking them to pause the game, stand still for sixty seconds and memorize the numbers that are read to them out loud.

The reading is not a distraction in Talos. It’s not a disconnected background lore. Everything you read matters if you want to fully understand the story. And I personally always want to achieve that, but Talos asks me for a heavy mental investment without any tangible reward for my trouble. Almost everything you read is an enigma, a jigsaw puzzle piece that reveals nothing by itself. When for hours you don’t understand how it all connects, you have no choice but to memorize …or disengage. If I have to force myself to memorize tons of text, data, info, names, places, etc. — that’s simply no fun for me. If I disengage …well, this is when I stop playing games. I rarely play them anymore just for the mechanics.

We know why developers do their story-telling this way. It’s relatively cheap. It requires infinitely less resources than, say, having an NPC. And it’s fine, I get it. Game development is an art of compromises. But the thing here is that Talos would, in my opinion, benefit from even stronger optimization of the cost, i.e. with much less writing. The enigma of Aperture Science was enticing exactly because of the scarcity of information, not because I could attempt to decipher a hundred pages of cryptic info about it.

So I guess you can see now how the game inspired me to think more on the nature of challenge or story-telling. There’s much much more, even if we just stick with comparisons to Portal, with questions like: how do the benefits of Portal’s linearity fare against the benefits the open world nature of Talos? So much to think about. Good stuff.

Also, I do love everything that is happening around the game. It reminds me of Dear Esther in that regards. I love reading people’s thoughts on the story. I love the interviews with the writers. I love watching alternate endings and easter eggs.

The game is loved by gamers, has a very high Metacritic (five points higher than The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, for example), and I have no doubts that what did not work for me, might very well work for you. For example, Talos’ length — anything between 20–40 hours? — was too scary for me. If it was the length of Portal, I’d surely finish it even despite the problems I had with it. But I am pretty sure that the length is not a problem for most people, on the contrary.

So check it out. It’s one of the most interesting games that came out in the last few months. And they even have a demo, so you really don’t have any excuses.