Thoughts on The Talos Principle

The Talos Principle (Logo)

Image courtesy of PlayStation Europe via Flickr.

Last summer, I was preparing a small group study in Christianity and Media, and I was looking for examples of recent games with Christian themes.  The first game to come up in my search was The Talos Principle by Croteam.  I downloaded the game in November and just recently finished it.  Here are my impressions (spoiler alert)

Premise

As the game begins, you suddenly wake up in a world dominated by Roman ruins.  A God-like voice identifies itself as “Elohim” (Hebrew for “God”), and then tells you that you must solve puzzles in order to prove your worth to Elohim.  After solving each puzzle, you earn a “sigil” (essentially a tetris piece) which you can combine with other sigils to open locked doors and access other parts of the game.

After playing through the first level, you gain access to the Temple of Elohim, which gives you access to other levels where you can solve more puzzles and earn more sigils.  Eventually, you find your way out of the temple, and that’s when things start to get interesting from a story perspective.  An elevator takes you upward into what appears to be an abandoned Antarctic research station–apparently the temple was underground.  Several other nearby buildings give you access to different worlds.

But in the middle of this snow-covered base stands an impossibly tall tower.  Suddenly, I hear the voice of Elohim warn me:

“Do not climb the tower, or you shall surely die.”

Like Adam in the Garden of Eden

From this point on, I was fascinated to discover that the game had made me feel like the Biblical Adam before the Fall.  I felt a general desire to obey Elohim’s command, whether out of respect for this game character, or perhaps out of fear of his power.  But at the same time, I really wanted to climb it.  Could there be something in the Tower that was better than what the rest of the game was offering me?

I found myself flirting with disobeying Elohim.  First I entered the door of the Tower, looked around the lobby, then left.  Later, I came back, climbed the first set of stairs, saw an elevator but decided not to ride it for the time being.  This experience made me wonder about Eve in the Garden: did she gradually give into her temptation to eat the forbidden fruit?  Maybe she touched the tree…walked away.  Touched the fruit.  Caressed its skin.  Picked it and set it down.  How long was she tempted before she gave in?

At one point, I told my wife that I would eventually climb the Tower.  She posed the question, “But, is intention to sin, itself sin?”  Perhaps.  My heart was already set on “sinning” against Elohim.

The tower from Talos Principle
The Forbidden Tower (image courtesy of PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

Encounters with the Serpent

Scattered throughout the game’s ancient ruins were computer terminals.  Mostly, these contained bits of the story in the form of random files, cached locally on each computer.  But after a while, an AI chat program named Milton starts talking to the player via the terminals.  Milton continually encourages the player to disobey Elohim and climb the tower.  I don’t think it’s an accident that this chatbot shares its name with the writer of Paradise Lost, which also retells the story of the Fall.

Deciding Whether to Disobey God

Curious as I was, I pointedly avoided climbing the tower for at least the first month of play.  The similarity with Eden and the forbidden fruit was too great, and we all know how that ended.  I didn’t want to make the same mistake and release sin and death into the world.

But on reflection, I started thinking that Elohim is not like my God.  Elohim gave me no reason to trust him, or to love him.  There was no perfect relationship that would be broken by my disobeying him.  Then, after reading various archives on the computer terminals, I determined that Elohim was himself an AI.  Apparently, I was inside a Matrix-like simulation, created by humans, and Elohim was the control program.  Feeling like a guilty child, I ran into the Tower and pushed the elevator button.

Feeling Like an Atheist

I have always believed in God, even if my assurance of Christian theology came more gradually.  So at this point in my play-through of Talos, I had the new experience of feeling like an atheist.  I had fallen out of belief in the god of the game.  He wasn’t deep enough, absolute enough, real enough.  Could this be what real-life atheists feel like?  It gave me a deeper understanding of them–clearly they never encountered a God who seemed real to them.

As I played through the rest of the game, I got the impression that the game’s creators might feel the same way.  In the archives, the player learns of a character named Alexandra: the scientist responsible for creating the simulation.  In her dying breath, she says she’d like to believe there is an afterlife, but she just doesn’t see the evidence.  Later, as I reached the summit of the forbidden Tower, Elohim pleads with me to stay:

“This world may be an illusion, but as long as we believe the illusion, it sustains us, it gives us hope.”

I think some people see religion this way: an illusion that yet has power, to the extent that we believe in it.

Design Notes: Similarities to Myst

Cyan’s Myst series of computer games is one of my biggest influences as a game designer.  As I began playing, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities to Myst.  First, Talos Principle is structured on a hub-and-spokes model.  Myst had a central island (called “Myst”) from which the player could access the five different worlds of the game.  Similarly in Talos, the Antarctic station serves as the game’s main hub, while Elohim’s three temples serve as mini-hubs to the individual levels/worlds.

I found it interesting that, unlike Myst, the player must complete the first level before gaining access to the hub world.  I like hub-and-spoke design because it gives the player a choice of what order they’d like to undertake the tasks of the game, but from a story perspective it made sense to initially restrict the player’s path.

Also like Myst, Talos Principle communicates much of the story through journal entries.  However, it presents these journals in two novel ways:

  • As files on a damaged computer system
  • As audio time capsules.

The audio time capsules were particularly compelling–in a lot of ways, it’s nicer to have a journal read to you than to have to read it yourself.  Cyan’s new game, Obduction, used video journals, but these were somehow less compelling than just the audio…but then maybe it was the acting.

Lastly, Riven (the sequel to Myst) also played with the idea of being a god over the world you created…though there was never a doubt that Riven‘s god was a false one.

Closing Thoughts

I was fascinated with how this game made me confront issues of faith–I am not sure how many other games have done so.  Though its creators are probably not believers, I think The Talos Principle presents an intriguing model for Christian game design.

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