The usual cyberpunk tropes are well-known in the video game world: Humans, cyborgs, androids, the human soul in face of artificial intelligence. The Talos Principle takes a step back from all that: If an artificial intelligence is created, how would we recognise it? Discover it? Prove that it is truly an intelligence, and not just a really good program?
You might have heard of the famous Turing Test. A test of a machine’s ability to behave indistinguishable from an human. Recently this year another intelligent program made headlines by passing a college entrance exam. In Hollywood movies like Ex Machina explore how we would be able to tell if a person’s intellect is natural or artificial.
(This article contains spoilers to the story and overall plot of The Talos Principle. I try to keep them minimal, but if you want to experience The Talos Principle completely unbiased, you should stop reading.)
Humans try to create artificial intelligence and at the same time try to define what intelligence actually is. The Talos Principle creates a scenario where these challenges are put in a truly refreshing setting: it removes humanity from the equation.
In the beginning of The Talos Principle you wake up as a robot in an ancient world. Greek temples, pyramids and sphinxes, medieval castles and churches are the sets you explore. Time periods were gods played an important role in a lot of people’s lives. And so it happens that a booming voice from the sky greets you: Elohim.
You are his child. You are in his garden and you are free to go wherever you wish… Except the dark tower. You must never go there – at least that’s what the voice tells you.
Sounds familiar? How Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden is one of the oldest stories of all time. All religion aside it is a tale of two universal human traits: free will and curiosity.
It’s no coincidence that these are two things that are essential in gaming as well: We value freedom of choice and we are curious to explore the virtual world made for us. We try to understand the rules of the game world and how to use them to our advantage. In The Talos Principle the game world’s only function is to test if an AI can make a choice out of its own free will. If it is not only able to but also willing to disobey a command to feed into its curiosity. It is not about what the AI chooses, it’s about it’s motivations and reasoning.
Now in the game the player controls that AI. You are the AI in-game, in reality a human who already has free will and curiosity. You are capable of taking these actions and decisions, but you probably never really thought about how and why. The Talos Principle makes you question your thought process and decision-making constantly. On scattered computer terminals a mysterious program asks you for your motives and tries to get you to admit to certain behaviours. QR codes left by previous AIs question the trials you have to get through and other AIs. And even leftover traces of humanity are to be found in audio recordings which connect you to something familiar yet seemingly far away. Even though if The Talos Principle’s levels are shaped after the human world, it is still clearly a different one.
With these factors you not only feel less alone, you will also be more influenced, more insecure. In the game world, choosing one thing over the other is not a simple selection that determines the ending, no, you must overcome more puzzles and challenges and think more and harder to get there. The Talos Principle makes you work hard if you want to know what’s behind the curtain – and certainly rewards you for it.
In the end you feel like you have experienced how Artificial Intelligence – or any kind of intelligence and even humanity struggles to define what truly makes up free will. The Talos Principle is a thought-provoking journey that has earned its ranks in the cyberpunk hall of fame by its unique scenario. This is no coincidence: One of the game’s writers, Tom Jubert, also worked on The Swapper, a game with a similar philosophical undertone. I can strongly recommend both of them if you like your puzzle games served with a healthy side of philosophy.