Last week I spoke of the two categories I separate puzzle design into, those being the story driven ones, the ones with a close tie to the game’s narrative and game universe common sense, and the challenge driven, those placed in the game just to give players something meaty to bite into, often tied to the game’s plot by theme rather than adhering to the plot, the locations, the character’s common sense, etc.
With those two in mind, I’d like to talk to you today about two other categories, but these are the ones in which I separate the games that feature these puzzles. Despite the article’s title, I don’t like to call them puzzle games, as puzzles in both categories can be in a variety of genres, with the puzzles being just another challenge offered to players, without them being the core of the experience—take the Resident Evil franchise for example, the first and latest titles heavy on complex puzzles but not their defining feature.
I base these two categories on how the players interacts with the puzzles in the world. They can be Sequential or Open.
The Talos Principle is a first person adventure game, developed by Croteam, where you control a robot working his way through dozens of challenge rooms guided by a voice from above. Will you obey and seek eternity in servitude or will you quest for the truth, no matter how hard it may be?
When Talos opens, you find yourself in what seem to be Greco-Roman ruins. As you explore, you find your first puzzles and challenges and a voice speaks to you from on high. His name is Elohim and he claims to be your creator. He wants you to find sigils—Tetris Blocks—to prove you’re worthy of paradise. You will collect the sigils through overcoming the various challenge rooms.
These rooms are in giant simulated worlds in three towers—the first with a Greco-Roman feel to it, the second with an Egyptian theme and he last with a Middle Ages vibe. And as you explore them, you’ll come across terminals with the emails, blog posts, rants, articles and thoughts of the people behind the simulated world and the library containing all human knowledge and history. Through them, and especially through Alexandra Drennan’s time-capsule messages, you learn of their struggle to finish this project before the world—and humanity itself—come to an end. It’s a heartrending epistolary story but also an uplifting one, as you read and hear about humans at their best in the face of inevitability. It’s a wonderful plot and one I’m overjoyed of experiencing. And that is without considering the deep philosophical debates, over the nature of humanity, you have with the Library Assistant AI, always there to put you down and offer counterpoints to your arguments.
But it’s not just the story that kept me coming back, but the puzzles. Each room has a theme, a set of tools you should/have to use and one of the Sigils. You start out with only the Jammer, to disable barriers and hazards such as turrets or bombs. As you collect Sigils you unlock the Connector, to redirect beams of energy—red or blue depending on the emitter; the Fan, to lift yourself and objects off the ground or propel you across distances; the Playback terminal, to record yourself performing actions and then generate a recording-clone to perform them (my favourite tool); and finally the Platfom, which you’ll never use on your own but with a Playback clone.
Talos’ rooms are all about logic and experimentation to reach your goal. You’ll jam doors so you can pass beams through them, overlap red and blue beams without crossing them, lift Connectors on boxes so they reach enough height to redirect beams even across challenge rooms or all the above using the Playback terminal. As you progress the challenge ramps up and it’s such a joy to complete the hard rooms. After playing so many inventory-based games in the past few years, I sincerely missed logical ones and that’s what Talos offers. It’s about logic but also creativity, to think outside the box and find the solution that best works for you.
Completing each room’s puzzle is hard enough but there are also Stars spread across the levels and you need 10 of them at a time to open the star doors in every tower and reach special closed-off worlds with greater challenges. Some star puzzles are straightforward, a variation on the room’s theme and goal, but others will blow your mind with their complexity. One in particular, involving some pillars and buttons, was extremely challenging to figure out. Finally, there are Sigil puzzles, where you arrange a set number of the Tetris blocks together to form a square or rectangle. The first ones are simple but they too become increasingly challenging as you progress through the game.
If there is one flaw to the game it’s the hint system. In some rooms you can find a little shrine where you can ask for help, but unless you’ve woken the messengers up by visiting their home simulations, you won’t get any. It fits into the simulation world’s myth, but the tool you need to unlock them is in the third tower so you’re going to spend a long time without any help from a guardian angel.
The upside is you’ll often find QR codes across the levels and challenge rooms, telling you more about those that came before you, the world and the puzzles themselves. Some are very cryptic, but they can offer significant help if you read carefully. You can even leave your own messages for your friends to find, but these are just random phrases generated from the documents you read and your conversations with the Library Assistant. Some are deep, some are fun and others are just right down silly. “Frogs are people too!” is my favourite.
The fact I mention challenge rooms might make it seem like they’re closed-off, claustrophobic, but you’d be wrong to assume that. Environments in Talos Principle are astoundingly beautiful. The first area is comprised of ruins, true, but there is lush vegetation, sandy and rocky beaches, vast expanses of water and detailed constructions that leave you in awe. The Egyptian one is straight out of your wildest archaeological dreams. And the last one makes you feel in Camelot…if it had lasers and turrets. Even outside the simulated levels, the temple-like lobbies are phenomenal and are in stark contrast to the rusting metal of the towers and the lifeless frozen expanse where they all stand. The visuals in Talos tell as much a story as the documents and voice-overs.
Speaking of voices, you only ever hear Elohim and Alexandra but the voice acting is superb. Elohim is grandiose and imposing, and Alexandra is as human as you can get. It’s her voice that carried me through the journey that is the Talos Principle, even if at times she broke my heart. In terms of music, from the simple melodies to the Latin religious choirs, it’s all amazing. At times when I played Alexandras recordings, there were sweet gentle melodies in the background that seemed both uplifting and saddening at the same time, depending on what she said. Maybe it was the location’s music—her messages mute all other sound effects—or maybe it came with the time capsule, but either way, the music moved me.
The nature of humanity and civilisation!
Simba, Everything the light touches is our Kingdom!
Handsome bot with a badass axe!
Life lessons right there!
This is the only complaint I have of the game!
These get really difficult later in the game
Names are indeed a funny thing. TMA could well stand for Tested Mature Avocados!
Documents in terminals can be very philosophical
Is it just me who thought of The Mummy after looking at this?
You can find messages your friends leave!
There are some cool easter eggs in this game!
Croteam has good comedy taste!
The Talos Principle is not only about amazing puzzles, but also about a very human story in a game where you never see one of our species. Instead, you feel the impact they had on the world.