Sponsored By: Manach
Time Pondered: 106 Minutes
What do you do when you hate the lack of player agency in games but don’t want to try to fix the problem?
You make a puzzle game that points out that there is no player agency in games.
I’d like to have a word with Ken Levine. After Bioshock rocked everybody’s socks with its momentous reveal and mediocre boss fights, the subject of player agency became a hot topic. Finally, gamers had a place to go for black Hello Kitty sneakers with hot-pink shoelaces and gigantic wallets with chains on them.
No. Sorry. I was thinking of a different Hot Topic.
Bioshock got everyone talking about player agency in video games, and how it doesn’t actually exist. Because the game industry is ten-percent innovation and ninety-percent bandwagon-jumpers, this led to a slew of games that pointed out that players have no agency in video games.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Imitation is one of the ways you can tell your idea was good in the first place. That’s why copyright laws exist.
The difficulty comes from overexposure, which is a bad thing because it leads to things like blistering sunburns and frostbite, though usually not at the same time. Overexposure also has the risk of making people fed-up with a concept.
I think I’m at that point. Yes, The Talos Principle. Well done. You’ve made a game about artificial intelligence that questions whether the player is an artificially intelligent rat running a maze.
And then you think you’re being clever by using reverse psychology! “Don’t go do this thing which is the obvious point of the game,” says the ethereal voice over a bangin’ (and, presumably, Olufsen’) PA system. I got news for you, The Talos Principle: Duke Nukem Forever did that same thing back in 2011. The President of the United States tells Duke over and over again not to fight the aliens. You know what Duke does? He fights the aliens.
There was no player agency in Duke Nukem Forever either, but at least they didn’t make me read facile essays about Greek philosophy between killing aliens.
It’s almost enough to make me want to listen to that ethereal voice and just uninstall the game, but if I weren't able to overlook hackneyed writing, I wouldn’t be able to play any games at all, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to write about them. The actual gameplay is exquisite. Somehow, the fine folks at Croteam (!) have managed to take the principle of the slider puzzle and apply it to three dimensional puzzles involving turrets and seeker-mines.
Let me cite an example, because I remember taking a 100-level philosophy course (much like the people who wrote the flavor text for this game), and those professors always liked examples and footnotes. Most of the puzzles involve some sort of tool that’s squirreled away in the environment for you to find and use, such as the electronic jammer that freezes turrets and seeker mines, and also disrupts force-fields that may be blocking your path. There are a number of puzzles that require you to bypass more force fields than you have jammers. I won't give away the solution, but it should be familiar to anyone who’s solved one of those little slider puzzles that have fifteen squares on a square grid that’s four tiles wide on each side.
You’ll get more tools as you progress in the game, though I will admit to a little bit of confusion regarding where to actually get those tools. I'm solving puzzles left and right, but throw something in plain sight and I apparently lose the ability to see it. Honestly, the time spent running around failing to notice things probably contributed to my over-exposed feeling.
I love the structure of the game, wherein you collect pieces of the puzzles that unlock more advanced parts of the game. It's a great way to make the world feel more open than it actually is, and the cleverness of the level and puzzle design only serve to highlight the triteness of the “WHAT IS HUMAN?” storyline that they keep beating you about the keyboard with.
Anyway, The Talos Principle has a lot of good stuff going on. If you ignore the terminals you can have a great time.
Am I compelled to keep playing, or do I keep playing because I want to? What’s the difference?
I’ll probably keep at it for a while. At just over a hundred minutes in, the puzzles are still interesting and challenging without being obnoxious. I’d say I’ll stick with it about as long as it takes me to start alt-tabbing to YouTube for walkthroughs.
Oh, and by the way: This paragraph you’re reading right now? It replaced about three hundred words of complaining about the fact that nobody bothers to write walkthrough FAQs anymore. Consider that redaction my little gift to you all.
What is a soul? What makes it dark? Does The Talos Principle have either of those things?
I’ve played many a puzzle game in my life as a videogame player. Most of them have learning curves that look like brick walls, which is not coincidentally the exact thing I feel like beating my head up against when I encounter the difficulty spikes. So far the most difficult “puzzle” in The Talos Principle was running around the world for ten minutes until I decided to ask someone for directions to the tool cabinet.
In other words, no it’s not the Dark Souls of puzzle games. If it were, my playtime would be much shorter and this review would be quite different indeed.
Three out of twenty seven flask thingies.