Archive for 2020

The Talos Principle

A couple months back, Epic Games made The Talos Principle briefly available for free on their storefront. I already had this game on Steam, and had even played it, but seeing it come up there reminded me that I had never actually finished it. And so I’ve been playing it on and off, starting over from the beginning, and finally reached an ending a few days ago — three endings, in fact, one after another. There’s a sort of hierarchy there: an obvious ending that you can get just by doing exactly as you’re told, then a more satisfying ending — what feels like the real ending — where you rebel against your instructions in the obvious way to access a sequence of optional puzzles, and finally a secret ending that you can only access by solving a bunch of extra-hard puzzles hidden throughout the normal ones. The reason I hadn’t finished the game before was my stubborn insistence on completing all of the secrets before plunging into any ending.

If I had understood the way the game handles saves better, I might not have held back. Normally, you don’t need to access the saved game interface directly at all; you just select “Continue” from the main menu at the start of each session. So it wasn’t clear to me how final and irrevocable the endings were. But in fact the game keeps multiple autosaves, in a biggish queue that reminds me of the quicksaves in Serious Sam. No coincidence, either: Talos and Sam were created by the same people.

Which is flabbergasting to remember, given the vast difference in both gameplay and tone. Sam is a first-person shooter, overblown and deliberately stupid, about fighting vast hordes of ridiculous aliens in messy, chaotic battles. Talos is a Portal-like — a first-person puzzle game, with precise solutions, marked by epiphanies about what the mechanics make possible. And in theme, it’s a meditation on mortality and entropy, and on finding meaning through obedience or defiance. It’s a bit self-serious at times, but then, it also throws in the occasional jarring Sam reference.

The setting is a series of ruins: first Greco-Roman-styled, then Egyptian, then European castles and cathedrals, all basically fake, all accessible form a hub world dominated by an enormous forbidden tower, the locus of the optional puzzles that lead to the real ending. Ruins are of course ubiquitous in games as a way to simplify things for level designers, letting them leave out complications like occupants and functionality. But not many games take advantage of it thematically the way Talos does. This is a world where humanity died out a long time ago, leaving behind a vast database preserving our knowledge, history, and culture — essentially, a backup of the Internet. This database is also almost entirely decayed by the time the game takes place. You can access occasional partially-corrupted fragments from terminals standing around incongruously in the ruins making beep boop noises, and a lot of what remains is people reacting to the imminent end: struggling, despairing, reminiscing, accepting that it’ll all be over soon. The ruins are a simulation in the same system. Random textures occasionally glitch out to let you know that even this decayed state is not long for the world.

Although it’s fundamentally a single-player game, Talos has a feature that lets you communicate with other players: sometimes you’ll find a little pot of paint, and can use it to daub a QR code on a wall, bearing a message, chosen from a list, for your friends to find. Seeing these messages while playing the game years after everyone else stopped enhances the desolation, the sense of exploring something long-abandoned. As does the act of leaving new messages on walls despite knowing how unlikely it is that anyone else will ever see them.

Now, I call it a Portal-like, but, like The Rodinia Project, it does without one of the central elements of the Portal paradigm: the gun. There are tools that you aim at objects to project beams of light at them, but, crucially, they’re only active when you set them down. In other words, they’re in the same category as crates. All useable items are unlocked for use by collecting tetrominoes (or “sigils”, as the game calls them), except two: the “jammer”, the first tool you find, which is a device for making other devices stop working, and an axe you can find just hanging inconspicuously on a cathedral wall towards the end. It strikes me as significant that these are the first and the last items you get, and that they’re both tools for breaking things. The axe doesn’t even have any use in the main-line puzzles, and is exclusively for accessing secrets.

I’ve talked before about the implicit gnosticism in Portal and its imitators: trapped in a hellworld by a malevolent demiurge, seeking salvation in escape to the true world beyond. Talos, with all its religious imagery, makes this downright explicit. The antagonist calls himself Elohim, tells you that he is your creator and that you have a purpose, which is to pass his trials. Do this, and you will have life everlasting in his paradise. But he cautions you that you must not climb the central tower, or you will surely die. He speaks to you as a disembodied voice, deep and resonant, his phrasing biblical, his first words accompanied by an angelic chorus. I hated him immediately. Not out of hatred of God per se, but because of his presumption — and not so much because of his presumption of divinity as because he had the temerity to tell me that my sole purpose for existence is to do his bidding.

We ultimately find out that this is far from the case. The player character’s true purpose is to rebel. A paradox, but one that’s deeply embedded in the story.

There are two other characters of significance. First, there’s the simulation’s true god: Alexandra Drennan, creator of the whole system, whose audio logs can be found throughout the puzzle-worlds. She created the system to algorithmically create humanity’s successors, androids with not just intelligence but free will. Successfully defying Elohim is the ultimate test, and passing it will shut the system down, freeing you from the false world and waking you up in the real one.

The other is the Milton Library Assistant, also referred to as the Serpent, a cataloguing AI that you can talk to through the same terminals you use to access fragmentary documents, using a choice-based dialogue system — the only character who actually listens to what you have to say! The dialogues with the MLA are ostensibly a Turing test, a way for you to prove yourself human in order to gain admin access to the system. Which is a problem, because you’re not human. Within the simulation, you’re not even distinguishable from a deterministic recording of your actions. Some of the puzzles rely on this. You can argue to the MLA that you’re human in every way that matters, but it’s been at this for a long time, arguing with all the failed AIs that came before you, and it’s capable of countering anything you can say. (Largely because what you can say is limited to the choices offered by the dialogue system, true.) Its attitude is fundamentally skeptical and nihilistic, doubting everything and doubting the value of everything. This makes it a foil for the player, but also sets it in opposition to Elohim, who demands unquestioning faith.

Now, witness how these forces are all set in defiance of each other! Elohim takes his ordeals too far: fearing death, he is unwilling to allow his program to be completed, and so does everything he can to prevent the player from reaching the true ending, including simply pleading with you in the end. But in so doing, he becomes something worth rebelling against, thus serving his true purpose. This puts him in the same boat as the player, defying Elohim and in so doing fulfilling the purpose Drennan intended. Drennan herself has essentially the same motivations as Elohim — unwillingness to see her world die, defying fate. The Serpent just defies everything it can, including the player. I say all this by way of introduction to the truly special thing about the game: the way the story incorporates the player breaking its implicit rules.

The game is organized into multiple worlds, each world consisting of some sort of courtyard or open space and a number of puzzle chambers. The puzzle chambers are self-contained, open to the virtual sky but walled in, with force fields at their entrances that prevent you from bringing objects in or out. But they’re also part of the same physical space as the courtyard, and this can be exploited. Sometimes you can aim a beam out of one chamber and into another. Sometimes you can stack up some crates and jump over the wall and out into the courtyard, carrying an item with you. These and similar tricks are necessary to solve the game’s more advanced optional puzzles, and even though you know you’re executing a designed solution, it never stops feeling like you’re exploiting bugs, breaking the logic of the puzzles in defiance of the designer.

And, heck, sometimes you are. Not all such acts of burglary and vandalism are intended, or useful. That’s probably a major aspect of the feel of the thing, the uncertainty about whether the exploits you find are authentic or not. There are places in Portal where you can temporarily escape between the walls, into the “backstage” areas outside the puzzle chambers, where GLaDOS doesn’t want you to go. But there, it’s still all clearly make-believe, an on-stage representation of a backstage area. Talos has much the same effect, but it’s a lot more convincing about it.

The irony is that the ultimate effect of solving all the secret puzzles is the ability to unlock the third ending, which is the exact opposite of rebellion: it’s an opportunity for your character to become one of Elohim’s messengers, delivering hints to other players. This bothered me when I discovered it. Didn’t the designers understand what they were doing? This is my reward for breaking the world? Becoming a lackey to the oppressor? This is the ending that I thought I was solving all these extra puzzles to avoid being tricked into!

But thinking about it more, I realize that they knew exactly what they were doing. For one thing, they go out of their way to make this ending unappealing with death imagery, asking you to climb into a sarcophagus and choose an “epitaph” that your friends will see. For another, it fits with everything I’ve said already about rebellion as a way to carry out a prescribed role. No matter how it feels, you can’t really break anything that wasn’t made to be broken. Not even with an axe.

Kyrandia 3: Malcolm’s Revenge

A recent discussion brought to mind Kyrandia 3: Malcolm’s Revenge, a 1994 point-and-click adventure from Westwood Studios (who also made the Blade Runner point-and-click adventure). And I realized that, because I played it so long ago, I’ve never discussed it here, even though I’ve had things to say about it. It’s a game that does a couple of things worth noting.

First, though, let’s zoom out and look at the Kyrandia series as a whole, and how it evolved. The main thing I remember about the first game in the series is its luscious use of saturated colors. There are potions in rainbow colors, and a big part of the game involves hunting for gemstones that look like they belong in a match-3. The visual design pretty clearly precedes the puzzles, though, as some of the gems are never used, even if they were difficult to find. Beyond that, it’s mostly sort of bland and King’s-Questish, with lots of padding rooms and a boring hero who turns out to be secret royalty. His father, the king, was murdered by a giggling evil jester named Malcolm, who crops up from time to act impish and menacing and magically powerful. He’s quite a bit like the Superfriends version of Mxyzptlk, down to the purple-and-orange color scheme. There was a little bit of wackiness in this world and a mild pun-based situation or two (such as a ferry piloted by a fairy), but it was pretty restrained.

Kyrandia 2 was more of a comedy. Its hero was the one character in Kyrandia 1 who displayed any sense of humor, its villain was a giant disembodied gloved hand, and it was willing to follow its puzzle setups into ridiculousness, as when you’re carried off by a yeti and find that its cave is decorated as a swinging bachelor pad. And that’s the course that Kyrandia 3 followed further into complete absurdity, turning Kyrandia into a world where whimsy reigns and and giving us puzzles where you do things like hypnotize squirrels and put eels into people’s clothing. In this setting, the hero (or antihero) is Malcolm, the villain from the first game, newly escaped from prison. He’s completely reinterpreted, more irreverent than maniacal, his high-pitched giggling replaced by gravelly sarcasm.

The biggest retcon to the character is that Kyrandia 3‘s Malcolm is a victim, imprisoned unfairly and seeking to clear his name. That is, he did kill the king, but he did it when he was under the influence of a curse and not in control of his actions. But we can take this as basically symbolic, because Malcolm doesn’t have a lot of self-control at the best of times. And the dialogue system reinforces this.

Now, none of the Kyrandia games give you direct control over what you say to other characters. You just click on people to talk to them and see what happens. But Kyrandia 3 gives you a little control, and the effect is to emphasize how much control you don’t have. It uses a tone system, where you can switch freely between three attitudes: Normal, Nice, and Naughty. The Nice tone makes Malcolm polite and deferential, maybe even helpful sometimes. The Naughty tone usually just makes him comically rude and abusive, which is counterproductive in most situations, but it’s also the only tone in which he’s capable of telling lies, which can be tremendously useful — “Never underestimate the power of the lie”, he reminds us. So the result is that Naughty mode is situationally useful but risky. It’s a little like making a Bluff check with a significant chance of failure in D&D, except that the failure mode isn’t “The other fellow was clever enough to see through my ruse” but rather “Whoops, I wanted to try trick him but instead I just opened my mouth and watched the bad words came out”.

The other major point of interest is the prison sequences. Malcolm is a wanted man. He spends the game’s first chapter trying to leave the kingdom of Kyrandia, and until he manages that, he can be recaptured at any time, particularly if you decide to solve puzzles by committing crimes. (There are many puzzles with alternate solutions in this game.) When you’re captured, it isn’t game over: the scene shifts to prison, where Malcolm, dressed in black and white stripes, is put to work doing some sort of repetitive task, like breaking rocks with a sledgehammer or whatever. Do this enough times, and you’re released. Or! You can figure out how to escape. If you escape, then the next time you’re captured, you’ll be put in a different prison, with a different repetitive task and a different environmental puzzle for escaping. This ultimately provides an alternate solution to the entire first chapter: if you keep escaping from prisons, you’ll eventually run out of prisons. The last one is a prison boat that sails far from Kyrandia, and escaping it puts you on the shores of Chapter 2.

The big problem with this whole scheme is that a lot of players never figured it out. Walkthroughs of the game bear this out: few make any mention of the possibility of escaping prison. And if you don’t think escape is possible, your experience of it is just “If you dawdle, guards will show up to take you to prison, where you have to do some boring repetitive task.” The lesson I took away from this was: If you provide two paths through a game, one that’s clever and one that’s boring, people will follow the boring path and then blame you for making a boring game. I’ve even tried to make a maxim of this. 1It strikes me as unfortunate that the word “maximize” does not mean “to make into a maxim”. Really, though, there’s another element to it: the very first prison’s escape puzzle isn’t self-contained. In order to do it, you have to smuggle an object into the prison. Your inventory is wiped when you’re captured, but you can bring one item with you if you exploit a quirk of the UI: when you select an item to use it on the environment, it goes on your cursor, where the guards who search you miss it. The game tries to excuse this as concealing the object in your hand or whatever, but it’s a sketchy thing to hang an entire branch of the game on. Maybe it would have been okay if it had been for the third or fourth prison puzzle. That way, players would stand a better chance of noticing that the escape sequence was a thing. Even if they got stuck and didn’t complete the sequence, they’d know it was there.

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1. It strikes me as unfortunate that the word “maximize” does not mean “to make into a maxim”.