Sunday, February 8, 2015

Myst Series, pt. 7

The Talos Principle -- In the Garden of Eden, Baby

Greetings, high-minded gaming types! Welcome to...I guess we could call it Phase Two of my Myst Review Series. Series Two? I like Series Two. It sounds all British and hip. Will there be any actual Myst games in this new batch? Probably not, for the same reason as before: no goddamn compatibility. But I’ve got a parcel of games that, I believe, invoke the spirit of Myst. Peaceful, introspective puzzlers with fascinating worlds to wander. I hope to blog about all of them this year. Let’s turn on our brain-spigots and begin.

A friend pointed me toward The Talos Principle and I knew, I just KNEW, I was gonna dig it. The mere sight of laser refractors makes me giddy. It’s gotten a lot of attention lately, won awards, been compared endlessly to other games. And it’s true, Talos takes its cues from a royal flush of pedgree titles. The Myst connection is a given. Portal gets name-dropped a lot, mostly in connection to the plot (ambiguous, bodiless god-voice wants you to move some machines around). I could also compare it to Braid, and certain Legend of Zelda and Prince of Persia mechanics, and I could DEFINITELY compare it to Lost, and will, because I’m really shameless about name-dropping Lost. But where does Talos distinguish itself?

You awaken in a sunny, ruined temple with a booming voice in your head. This disembodied daddy-figure identifies himself as Elohim and bids you search the area to find a series of overgrown Tetris blocks. Are you a nameless Joe Anybody like in the Myst series? Nope -- you’re a robot. An android from the Alex Proyas/Bj√∂rk school of milky-smooth carapaces and eerie humanoid faceplates. Exploration unlocks new areas, each inspired by humanity’s past: Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Medieval Europe. There’s also an “overworld,” a series of concrete bunkers in some snowy wasteland (Antarctica? Siberia? Hoth?) that could be a forgotten Dharma station (hence the Lost reference), if not for an impossibly huge tower rearing into the lightning-choked sky. Elohim tells you not to climb the tower. Don’t do it. Don’t even think about it, even though half the Tetris blocks you find are specifically for unlocking tower floors. Elohim is a giant blowhard, full of condescension and smug superiority, patting you on the head for being a good little robo-slave. You’d think it would take a moron to blindly do what he says -- but your personal reaction is the whole point of the game.

You see, The Talos Principle is a game with Ideas, and while it avoids spelling out its premise (like Lost, guys! Guys?), it sprinkles the game with clues, themes, theories, abstractions, dissertations, and other smart-person stuff. The ancient ruins through which you roam are plainly computer-generated environments, but after awhile, you start to think the “overworld” is virtual too. You’re playing a game about playing a game. But why? Various old-school computer terminals provide answers, kind of. Something bad happened to the human race. Something all-exterminating. You are part of a last-ditch project to, if not save humanity, at least leave us with some sort of immortal legacy. You’ll delve into the minds of these half-hopeless projecteers and also read some extremely poignant snippets of humanity’s struggle to grasp the idea that this is it, the Big Death. However, the rest of the recovered documents are a bit obtuse, a smattering of myth and philosophy that’s supposed to tie into the aforementioned Ideas but that I skimmed over because the game was trying to be smarter than it needed. The religious imagery is obvious: Elohim is God, you are Adam/Eve, your virtual playground is the Garden, the tower is the Forbidden Tree, and there’s even a Serpent in the form of a puckish A.I. who appears on the computers to engage you in circuitous ethical debates.

I applaud the game for having all these Ideas and refusing to pander to doofuses, but the story is kinda in a separate world from the gameplay. The puzzles are standard fare, but push boundaries nonetheless. Each Tetris block hides within a labyrinth of passages and switches and energy doors. You will align lasers, jam machinery, ride air currents, tote around this game’s version of Weighted Companion Cubes, and tiptoe past roaming proximity drones that’ll blow your robotic butt cheeks off if you get within their no-touchy zone. There’s a Braid-like mechanic where you “record” copies of yourself, and it’s gotten no easier for my poor brain to wrap around such temporal hijinks. Luckily, the game is devious in how it expands on each puzzle mechanic. When you figure out that a drone will attack a gun turret, or that multiple cubes on a fan will greatly boost the reach of a laser refractor, or that two jammers can do amazing things when used in tandem...that’s when you get the blast of endorphins: look what I figured out! I craved that feeling in the Myst series. Talos follows after Myst in that it takes place in a series of gorgeous worlds, but each world is pretty much the same, puzzle-wise. But, then, there’s also the idea that you’re in a giant schoolroom. Myst did that too. And Talos ratchets Myst’s ethical boojums up several notches.

The ultimate story arc comes down to your own actions. Do you do what Elohim orders, lulled by his promise of divine rewards? Do you climb the tower and solve the trickier puzzles within, knowing Elohim doesn’t want you to, but also knowing that the very nature of gaming demands you find all the secrets? And what about the stars? Yes, there are gold stars, hidden within the levels, requiring a hell of a lot of outside-the-box thinking to discover. If that seems archetypal, well, you’re within a virtual environment specifically based on video games. Ain’t that clever. But what matters is what you do with the knowledge. Talos has three endings, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that the most “complete” ending comes from deciding that Elohim can go jump off a virtual pier. That’s what I recommend, anyway, because that ending is rather epic and beautiful to behold. The gradual unraveling of the game’s plot really pays off. It’s surreal to play something with such metaphysical ramifications. I mean, it subverts the very idea of “breaking” a game, of deliberately trying to mess with what the makers want or expect. I had to cheat and look up some puzzle solutions, because I’m only human. Is the game expecting that too? Is my frustration, my trials and errors, my giving up and playing The Evil Within instead, all part of the game’s twisty meta-agenda?

Maybe. Or maybe I’m diving too deep. You can certainly just interpret The Talos Principle as a fine game with gorgeous graphics, time-honored puzzles, and an interesting storyline that leads you deep within itself. The game’s biggest Idea is that we all experience something in our own fashion, and whether our way is “right” or “wrong,” well, in a way, those labels are irrelevant because it’s all part of the overall human experience. And if the world were to end, wouldn’t we want the next iteration, the next Adam and Eve in their Garden, to be able to draw from all human experience, good or bad? To have the perspective of those who solved every puzzle, those who had the wrong answers, those who cheated, those who obeyed or disobeyed? If you knew the world was ending, what would you say? What packet of knowledge would you want our theoretical successors to imbibe?

It’s an Idea, isn’t it? Play The Talos Principle and get a glimpse.

Myst Review Series