There comes a point in single-player games where we can feel utterly alone with ourselves. It's not just that no one else is around in the game, but everything is obscured from our perception. The finite levels begin to close in as you feel their limitations stop you from doing what you really want to do. We even feel trapped within the very mysteries we're meant to solve as we question what the point of it all is. This only really affects us because it mirrors how life treats us a lot of times. Why are we doing what we're doing? Is there a point to living, some grand design that makes our work worth it? This exact sense of isolation is explored in The Talos Principle, a contemplative meditation on the nature of humanity wrapped in an excellent first-person puzzle game.
Not that you're human to begin with. You awaken in a Grecian garden with no memory of what came before, armed with only the sophisticated communication skills that an adult might possess. You then hear what claims to be the voice of God, who commands you to gather the multitude of tetrominoes scattered throughout. You have free rein to enter and unlock every area within your sight, but the voice forbids you from ascending the tower at the center. Collect all the pieces, and you earn life eternal. And yet you're not entirely blind to the circumstances around you. Your form is robotic in nature, so you immediately deduce that you're not a biological human being. Sometimes the details of the world around you turn blurry and fuzzy, as if the world itself is glitching, so it's not hard to figure out you're inside some kind of computer simulation.
The tetrominoes themselves are cleverly placed behind gauntlets of puzzles you have to solve using several implements and switches that have been provided for you. Levels typically involve finding your way from one point to the next while bypassing the obstacles along the way. The most basic of these is the barrier of light, which you can dissipate by pressing a switch, aligning a colored beam of light into a matching hole, or disrupting it by using a special jammer you sometimes find nearby. Other obstacles, like mines, machine guns, or even the level itself, require similar strategies, but also involve timing and light reflexes. One element remains consistent: most puzzles task you with bypassing whatever is in your way through logic, often to the point where the game becomes a door-holding simulator. It's not uncommon to hold a barrier open from both sides so that you can get the tools you need to progress further.
Nevertheless, the combination of tools and level design keep the puzzles consistently fresh. Jammers and light-refracting rods let you manipulate any number of devices. Boxes can depress switches and serve as platforms to reach higher places. Fans blow whatever you put on them into whatever direction they point. You even use a recorder to record your own actions for a short time, and then play back the recording so that you may work alongside your clone in tandem, which is particularly useful once you gain the ability to have your recording carry objects above its head (including the real you). The Talos Principle forces you to broaden your mind and master the multitude of interlocking devices each room holds. Some puzzles even require you to move, align, and adjust them into a sprawling, interlocking system of mechanical relationships, an act that makes you feel particularly clever. Developer Croteam makes the most of a familiar conceit, challenging you to look at angles, sequencing, and timing in new, complex ways.
Some of the details of the world around you sometimes turn blurry and fuzzy, as if the world itself is glitching.
When you're not busy whittling away at the main task at hand, you're free to explore the strange simulation, which you soon find is something of a mix between the Garden of Eden and the Library of Alexandria. Aside from the forbidden tower, you're free to wander within the bounds of each area. You won't find much of interest aside from scenery, but you run into strange terminals scattered throughout the place. Each screen you find houses several pieces of information, some of which seem laughably irrelevant. Sometimes you find clues as to the nature of the place you find yourself, but sometimes you come across a history of the myth of Osiris, a passage from German philosopher Immanuel Kant, or a set of lyrics to an insipid modern-day pop song. But they are all musings trying to define what it means to be human.
And then there's the library assistant, which starts out as a plain speak program meant to assist you in a more conversational tone. Before you know it, however, it starts asking you questions about your nature, what a person is, what morals are, and many other heady topics in an increasingly passive-aggressive manner. You eventually get into full-on philosophy debates with it, and, much like real philosophy debates, you hardly ever feel victorious (though the jerk of an assistant will certainly try to claim as much), but you get to stretch your ideas until they either break or strengthen. Where most games are content to make you feel physically powerful, The Talos Principle dares to put you in the shoes of Socrates.
The puzzle rooms, while often brain-bending, are short enough that you might blaze through them with an almost mechanical glee, which almost seems to undermine the existential theme of the game. But we're talking about The Talos Principle here, so named for the bronze man of Greek myth that suggests that, if a machine can be like a human, then a human is like a machine. We are, after all, consciousness attached to working parts. You quickly learn the basics of how to manipulate the divine tools you're given, and your knowledge and expertise grow as your ability to apply logic as you move through the levels increases. But then, so can a machine. Artificial Intelligence can learn, too.
But as you get better at your given “vocation,” you're going to wander inevitably over to the terminals and pore over every work, absorbing what the ages' finest thinkers have to say about the human condition, what history and mythology tell us about our mortality and our immortality, and how the human race is advancing on the back of what came before. You listen to the audio logs of the simulation creator's musings on life and science and civilization. You read the QR codes of the AIs that came before and hear about what conclusions they came to. You even enter the tower you've been forbidden to climb because you just can't help yourself. The game doesn't require you to do any of this, but you do because you're inherently curious and eager to learn, another pesky human trait.
The puzzle rooms, while often brain-bending, are short enough that you might blaze through them with an almost mechanical glee.
After hunting down every last bit of information that the world has to offer, you don't come to any neat conclusions, but quite the opposite. Most of the knowledge that you accrue during your lengthy journey is quite contradictory. Clearly, humanity hasn't figured itself out yet. But you trudge on anyway, gathering tetrominoes as you use the knowledge of the past to build a future for yourself. The hints that the QR codes give build on your past experiences to help you solve the harder puzzles. The vast repository of knowledge at your fingertips help you form ideas about humanity and morality, which you arm yourself with when talking to that smug assistant. Every idea, every thought you come across, helps shape your belief system, ultimately informing whether you accept eternal life, ascend the tower, or stay behind and help the next generation reach new metaphorical heights. Your success is truly built from the whole of everyone's past triumphs and failures.
The Talos Principle is an absolute joy to play, packed to the gills with expertly designed puzzles and enough ancillary content to make any history of philosophy buff salivate. But all of that is almost beside the point in the face of the game's thematic ambitions. It may seem like you're alone in this world, but you're really not, and that's the greatest triumph of The Talos Principle: It serves as a fantastic representation of the human condition, complete with curiosity, speculation, wonder, fear, and a yearning to know the unknowable. But most importantly, it nails the role that isolation plays in the human condition. Because of all we don't know, because of how seemingly out of control we all are in the cosmic sense, we feel alone. But, in reality, we're alone together.