With this much chanting going on, you know things are about to get serious.
It starts right from the title screen and immediately sets the sort of mood that portends Deep Thoughts and Momentous Events. Sure enough, it’s not long before you’re gazing across magnificent ocean vistas, contemplating profound quotes amidst crumbling ruins and generally trying to make sense of this weird situation you’re in. Yeah, they give you an awful lot to think about here, even for a puzzle game.
Underneath all the pretty scenery and words of wisdom, though, lies a familiar substructure, like Portal or The Turing Test. You know the deal by now: basically you go from room to room, solving little discrete puzzles in order to progress.
As usual they start off simple and gradually incorporate more and more complex mechanics. The various devices at your disposal work together nicely and allow plenty of room for clever twists that make you think outside the box, which is key to keeping this routine fresh. Well, I could have lived without that $&@%^!* record/replay thing which seemed like it made every puzzle 10x harder, but overall this side of the game is really solid.
Even if they had just stopped there it probably still would have turned out to be pretty good, but then they went the extra mile and built on this foundation in a number of significant ways.
For one thing, they open up the rigid linear structure that you typically find in these games. Within certain limits you can approach the puzzles in any order. Each one rewards you with a little Tetris block and when you gather up enough you can assemble them to unlock new areas. The best is when they use components across different rooms to form giant meta-puzzles that span the entire area. I wish they had done a lot more of that in fact, because that was a brilliant idea and it made me feel really smart whenever I actually figured one out.
The whole place is arranged as one big interconnected zone subdivided into three regions with distinct visual styles, which themselves comprise multiple separate areas. You’re free to wander around and investigate at your leisure, and this element of exploration adds a totally new dimension that makes the experience feel much less regimented and artificial.
The environments in these things are usually just background noise, but here they take on a much more engaging role, and not only because they look nice. There are just enough secrets and hidden points of interest sprinkled around to draw you into the world in a natural way without it devolving into a tedious scavenger hunt.
At the center of it all looms an immense, silent tower, its upper reaches shrouded in swirling clouds; and every time you walk past you can’t help but stare up at it with all sorts of questions in your head.
What is this thing? How do I get up there? What’s at the top?? It’s gotta be good!
All you know is that you’re not supposed to climb it, which of course makes it twice as captivating. Like The Dark Tower, its inescapable presence binds the game’s many worlds, unifying its interactive and narrative sides.
And also like The Dark Tower, this is where their ambitions finally run up against a bit of Icarian over-reach.
Without spoiling it too much, at its heart this is an entirely straightforward sci-fi story. That’s not a criticism, by the way. They do a great job here of telling you what’s happening without really telling you. It strikes just the right balance, creating a tantalizing air of mystery that keeps you thinking without becoming needlessly confusing.
The issue is more with how they frame the whole thing. The various fragments of the past that lay out the basic plot arrive along side a great many grandiose allusions–Greek legends, Egyptian mythology, Christian theology, a little Buddhist mysticism for good measure.
These building blocks for their syncretist allegory are served up buffet-style. Room by room, you circle the table filling your plate with a quote here, an old tale there; yet while it’s interesting enough in an idle sort of fashion, none of it really impels you to reconsider your actions.
I think it’s easier to appreciate when you contrast it with something like Soma, which also dealt with things like the meaning of consciousness, the mind vs. the body and all that stuff; but Soma examined a specific question under a very well-defined set of circumstances. You spent the whole game not only reckoning with these concepts but also being explicitly tested and applying them time and time again in a practical way. When it all came together in that final scene, that’s what made it so horrifying, worse than anything I could have imagined, in part because I’d been an active participant making real choices all along.
Like I said, they raise a lot questions here but they’re almost entirely peripheral to what you’re actually doing. The robot protagonist has no voice or personality, and so ultimately the only perspective is your own. From time to time they make an effort to challenge you with an ongoing conversation, yet it’s just as dry as the old myths you’ve been reading, and the choices were too limited and far removed from my own point of view to have much impact.
And either way you’re obviously going to climb the tower, even if you have to cheat a little. Hey, don’t look at me like that!
I would have traded all the quotes and abstractions for one scene like in Soma where you’re looking at that robot body in the chair and deciding whether or not to flip the switch. It’s the difference between acknowledging a theme and actually exploring it.
Right up to the very end I was holding out hope that they were going to reveal something that made me re-think everything I thought I understood and bring it all into new focus. So maybe the biggest surprise of all was that that never happened. Underneath all the lofty quotes and references, the story is exactly what it looks like.
I think part of what you’re seeing here are the limits of translating a metaphysical story into a purely materialist cosmos. Take away the supernatural, as one of their own quoted authors once wrote, and what remains is the unnatural.
However you want to blend together the overall allegory, it’s drawn from sources that are all grounded in faith and undermined by the fact that the authors don’t really believe any of it. It’s delivered with a sort of distant academic detachment which leaves that side of the game looking a little lost and helpless, like it knows it needs to get somewhere but can’t find the directions.
You can hear it in the voice of your creator. Not the “God” figure who harangues you throughout the game and clearly has no real authority, but your actual creator via her recorded messages. There’s a lot of abstract thinking and heartfelt emotion, but ultimately no real forceful imperative to harness thought to action as you move forward.
To the extent that the story tries to elevate itself above the mundane in search of a deeper meaning, it ends up as one long, desperate cry in dark, with more echoes than answers.
So as a sci-fi plot it’s perfectly good, as a setting it’s fantastic, and as a puzzle game it has a ton to offer; but as a work of philosophy it feels all dressed up with nowhere to go. Could have used less Talos and more telos, I guess; but don’t quote me on that.