It’s a miracle when a videogame dares to address the voice of God. The largely secular, apathetic and bitter videogame industry too often ignores what providence can mean to human experience and thought. Going well beyond the spiritual tokenism of Always Sometimes Monsters, The Talos Principle stands among the brave, contemplative few (Earthbound, The Shivah, Proteus) that seriously consider a greater power and the realizations that consideration can bring.
The Talos Principle’s examination of faith, doubt, rationalization and purpose is very welcome a year after the intellectually insulting The Stanley Parable HD. Not falling for the latter’s button-pressing nihilism, The Talos Principle uses voice-overs to set the stage for ages-old philosophical conflict: the pursuit of knowledge through skepticism vs. the satisfaction of order. To frame this conflict, The Talos Principle updates the Garden of Eden story from Genesis with Isaac Asimov’s speculation on the blurring of humans and machines. Some critics have called The Talos Principle a first-person puzzler, but the label is nothing more than part of an urge to compare this game to critical darling Portal and continue the contact high caused by Grand Theft Auto V’s “next-gen” conversion to the first person. The Talos Principle gains more punch with its third-person option, which better forces the player to observe the mechanical side of humanity and its relationship to the accounts of our creation.
In a way, The Talos Principle’s emphasis on these subjects is not surprising. Earlier this year, one of the game’s writers, Jonas Kyratzes, released The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, a choose-your-own-adventure that questioned whether traditional morality can survive over centuries. Similarly, The Talos Principle puts tradition to the test with interrogation from a skeptic, a sly parallel to the serpent (Satan) in the Garden of Eden story. Secularists need not huff or smirk at Satan playing the voice of reason, though: Kyratzes and co-writer Tom Jubert use Adam and Eve’s inquisitiveness, not their sin, to illustrate the universal struggle of humankind.
Gamers will be pleased to know The Talos Principle celebrates the beauty of puzzles extensively (at least 15 hours of guessing and solving). Engaging with the game’s text, however, amplifies this celebration in existential terms. The Talos Principle suggests that regardless of one’s belief or lack of belief in God, humans resemble the entity upstairs in playing and succeeding at games, creating order from chaos (though Jazzpunk makes a strong case that chaos is more refreshing than order). This deity-human comparison explains more than The Stanley Parable’s snark and smugness about illusion of choice (how many players need such an obvious lecture?). By connecting the repetitiveness and artificiality of game design to an instinct for order and completeness, The Talos Principle goes even further than the smart but limited The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, which didn’t attach its philosophy to play. In short, critics who claim the puzzles and philosophy of The Talos Principle aren’t complementary have explaining to do. Even when the game’s philosophical readings get tiresome and overly didactic, the constant puzzling informs the questioning and vice versa. (And the game is humble enough to laugh at its own structure: “Oh look, another puzzle. And another voice telling me I’m special. And another broken-down computer with fragments of nothing.”)
Like Choice: Texas (one of the best games of 2014), The Talos Principle is more concerned with portraying different viewpoints than making political spectacle. Even so, the puzzler doesn’t let the religious or the rational off the hook. While The Shivah also explores the reconciliation of faith and practicality, its corny climax can’t match The Talos Principle’s matter-of-fact ending, which argues that our chosen perspective will limit what we discover in one way or another. Thank God the puzzles are worth it.
Jed Pressgrove is a videogame critic from Mississippi. His blog is Game Bias.