Intelligence and the Search for Meaning: Thoughts on The Talos Principle

SPOILERS! This post is full of them. Please don’t read this post if you have any interest in playing The Talos Principle. Should you have any interest? If you liked the puzzles in Portal, and wish there were more: yes. If you want your concept of humanity and perhaps even reality to be challenged: most definitely yes. SPOILERS!

The Talos Principle

What is artificial intelligence?

The simple answer to that question can be found from the likes of Google and Apple. Saying ‘Ok, Google’ or ‘Hey Siri’ into your smartphone will allow you to ask targeted questions; and, within moments, it will be understood, processed, and acted upon.

The problem is that these services are designed around very specific use cases — getting directions to a location, figuring out whether it will rain, and so on. Any variation from this built-in expectation will result in a confused or inaccurate response.

So what do we really mean when we speak of artificial intelligence? Mostly we’re looking for something that behaves like us, like a human. And because we often build artificial things in an attempt to improve efficiency, we believe it should actually rise above some qualities of human intelligence, such as processing speed or the ability to see connections in vast amounts of data.

And that’s where The Talos Principle steps in. You find yourself in a beautiful world full of ancient ruins and complex puzzles — but not as a human. It becomes clear early in the game that you are a machine. There is no trace of a biological body in yourself or in anything else you encounter.

So what are you?

Part 1: The Game

Before we get to that question, it’s worth talking about The Talos Principle as a game. Many reviews and comments compare the game to Portal, and there are definitely some similarities. Both feature an ever-present disembodied voice, and both have puzzles as the primary gameplay mechanic. But the similarities end there.

The Talos Principle takes place in several locations, each modeled after a distinct ancient civilization. Juxtaposed with those aging, crumbling ruins are sleek, complex mechanical guards. This visual conflict signals that these devices don’t belong, and require caution. Which is good, because there is nothing else in the game to tell you their purpose. In order to figure out their true nature, you have to run into them — and let them kill you.

This swift combination of discovery, curiosity and punishment happens quite early in the game, putting a damper on thorough experimentation. If the game did a better job of showing you the full capabilities of the mechanical guards, this wouldn’t be an issue. However, there is one puzzle where you quite literally have to infer something that you’ve never seen before and would never think of doing unless it was shown to you previously. Hinging a puzzle solution on a hidden mechanic is lazy design.

There is also a great deal of negative possibility space in this game. It’s striking when compared with Portal — whereas Valve made their rooms tight and succinct, The Talos Principle is quite happy to lead you into an area that has absolutely no purpose except to show you pretty graphics.

I would say that these two faults are the ones that significantly impacted my enjoyment of the game. There are other, less egregious faults, but they’re not worth spending time on.

Well, okay, maybe there is one other item worth mentioning: the computer terminals. The terminals scattered around all the environments are the only source of narrative in the game. When the puzzles start to get tiresome, it’s the stories and insights from these terminals that keep you going. In a way, this is a shame: for all the beauty and detail put into this game, it’s walls of text that keep the player motivated.

It’s at this point near the end — when the puzzles start to lose their compelling sheen — that the player considers the gameplay and the narrative as a whole.

Part 2: The Philosophy

There are two main narrative threads that are discussed in The Talos Principle’s pages of text.

The first reads like a cross-section of the Internet — everything from lowly forum comments all the way up to collections of ancient writings. This gives the player a sense of place for what might be going on in the world, as well as some insights to what the player themselves are experiencing.

For example, forum and blog posts talk about an epidemic that is slowly killing off humanity. There is chaos as well as kindness. There are passionate pleas to reunite loved ones — not just to talk on the phone or online, but to actually meet in person.

Then there are the historical texts, such as the ongoing tale of an ancient Egyptian’s journey to the afterlife. As the story unfolds, there are obvious allusions to what the player is currently experiencing: the promise of heaven, the trials to prove worthiness… and the guards that must be confronted and overcome in order to proceed.

The second thread gives more insight into the nature of the player’s world — and this is where most of the philosophical discussion comes into play. Whereas the first thread makes it clear there is a virus destroying humanity, the second thread focuses on an organization trying to collect the entire works of mankind in one place for prosperity — the result of their effort is essentially what the player experiences as the first narrative thread. Even deeper than that, though, is the work of one researcher in particular. Her goal is to not only save all of mankind’s thoughts, writings and teachings, but also create a new species that will be able to appreciate this collected knowledge.

This poses two interesting questions: what is the value of a new species? And, what does it mean for a species to appreciate the collected works of mankind?

It’s hinted at throughout the pages of archived internet posts, but there is a common theme of intelligence having no meaning if it doesn’t have a physical form. Philosophers talk a great deal about the nature of reality, and the nature of consciousness — but when faced with the destruction of the species, certain truths are brought into sharp focus. Knowledge has value, but it is limited if there is no physical representation to back it. For example, I have knowledge about my family. I know that they love me, and that I love them. But the value of that knowledge is severely limited when it is merely written as words on a page. It’s not until we all gather together in one place and see each other that the full extent of that knowledge is realized and appreciated.

You can extrapolate this further to say that collecting all of humanity’s knowledge has limited value unless it can be used. Most of humanity’s knowledge is based upon the world we live in — even our stories and fantasies have some foundation on the world around us. Perhaps an alien species would eventually stumble upon Earth, find our repository of knowledge, and understand everything we were. But what if we could create a species? A physical being that could carry humanity’s torch?

What kind of species would that be? Humans only know intelligence from a human standpoint, so this line of thought dives deep into what makes something human. The game introduces a clever interactive program — the automated library assistant named Milton — which quizzes the player on their understanding of consciousness and humanity, all in the name of seeing if the player has enough humanity to justify giving them administrator rights to the networked terminals.

As someone interacting with the game, you can’t help but desperately want to prove to Milton — and to the game in general — that you are human. But to what end? What does that get you? What does it mean to have administrative rights? In the end, proving that you are human isn’t about how you answer questions, but how you behave.

Part 3: The Journey

For most of the game, it’s not clear how the puzzles link back to the narrative. But when you start to consider them as a whole, there is a theme that emerges: to be human means to be insatiably curious.

Humans love to solve puzzles, and that is stated as much as part of the game’s narrative. But it’s not just the obvious puzzles we want to solve, it’s the inconsistencies. Solving a puzzle that is put in front of us is one thing; but, sometimes it’s more fun to circumvent the rules, or solve something that’s not meant to be solved.

The Talos Principle satisfies those aspects in a few ways: the puzzles themselves have solutions that often rely on twisting the laws enforced by the world; there are extra rewards for unique solutions; and finally, the world itself teases you with the possibility that things aren’t what they seem.

It’s that last piece where the game truly shines. As the player explores the world, there are momentary glitches — parts of the environment will blur and shift, accompanied by the harsh sound of static. If you wander too far out of bounds, Elohim (the God-like voice) will start to ramble — a desperate monologue that seems directed at no one in particular. There are even some hidden areas that combine both of these elements, gradually nudging the player to realize there is more to discover. It’s also worth reconsidering one of the design flaws discussed earlier: the negative possibility space is so glaring and so obvious that you can’t help but ask ‘why?’. Perhaps, in this case, it’s not a design flaw at all.

The final decision presented to the player forces them to evaluate the significance of these oddities.

On the one hand, you can believe everything you’ve been told by Elohim. You can embrace the promise of eternal life, put the pain of puzzle solving behind you, and walk into the light. Judging by various notes left around the world, there is evidence suggesting you are not the only one who has been challenged with these trials. Some fail to even complete them, but those that do appear to buy into the promise without hesitation.

On the other hand stands the Forbidden Tower: a huge, imposing structure that you are told (again, by Elohim) to never ascend under any circumstances. Milton pushes you to challenge that order — to challenge all the orders you are given, in fact — and discover your own truth.

Of course, the choice is obvious. The only way to understand the true nature of your surroundings is to climb the tower. And, once you do so, you realize that is what you were meant to do all along.

The player represents the final iteration of an artificial intelligence for a new species. In bypassing the offer of eternal life, in solving the meta-puzzle that is built up throughout the game, you prove that an essential human quality has been learned: curiosity.

I wish this artificial intelligence evolution was further explored. We see how earlier intelligences start to question their purpose, and start to doubt Elohim’s word. But we never see that flicker of realization for ourselves. We never see an earlier intelligence look up at the sky in wonder, or attempt to experiment with the world around them. Perhaps that’s too much to ask.

With that said, it’s a marvelous conclusion to the game, and it’s the piece that has stuck with me the most. Faith certainly has its place; without it, we have no motivation to dream or imagine, to endure and persevere. But without a healthy dose of curiosity, skepticism and a search for meaning, we go nowhere. We don’t learn about who we are, we don’t learn about where we want to go. We cease to be.

Indeed, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Carl Sagan quotes:

Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

We may never see the point where previous intelligences start to search for meaning and grow curious, but the idea of a program wanting to know itself is evocative.

It’s evocative because the game takes one of humanity’s most wonderful properties, bottles it, and lets the player discover it in a way they may never have considered — as if for the very first time.


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