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The Talos Principle: design ruminations

As it happens I replayed Portal 2 right before The Talos Principle launched. That's gotta be the last thing a game designer wants to hear, right? "We don't use the term 'Portal-like', but, sure, Talos is... wait, you just replayed Portal? You couldn't have waited a couple of weeks in between?"

(I haven't gone to check whether the designers used the term "Portal-like". Nobody's going to disagree with it, nohow.)

Talos is a pleasant puzzle game with a nice script and good art and bullet-holes in several of its own feet. I recommend it but I wish it had fewer self-inflicted wounds.

(Note: in a "ruminations" post I don't offer an overall review. Instead, I focus on particular areas of design that I find interesting -- or problematic. So don't freak out just because I complain a lot.)

I hate to say this: Talos's problem feels like laziness. I hate to say it because the creators are not lazy. They worked hard. There's plenty of game here, but... well, I stand by this tweet:

Talos Principle has some great stuff, but wow, serious case of "Made a large game because it was easier than making a small one." (@zarfeblong, Dec 15 2014)

Let me talk about the structure. Talos is a bunch of puzzle areas with a hub-and-spoke structure, and once you unlock a few of those you reach a higher-level hub which leads to six more puzzle hubs, and then you unlock a third level. It's a lot of puzzles, but they open out in a nicely paced way. There are a bunch of puzzle mechanics, which interact in clever ways. Some of these mechanics are available immediately; others have to be unlocked by solving earlier puzzles. Then there are some bonus puzzles, which unlock optional puzzle hubs. There's an endgame sequence, which is a series of puzzles that you unlock as you complete the body of the game. When you get through those, you reach one big final "boss" puzzle.

So what's wrong with any of that? Nothing, except that word "unlock" which you just read five times in a row. See, the reward for every puzzle is a "sigil", a.k.a. a tetromino (a.k.a. a Tetris piece). To actually unlock every part of the game, you take your six-to-ten tetrominoes and fit them into a rectangle. Music plays, angels cheer, the lock opens.

There are... oh, I didn't count, let's say approximately one hundred and eleventy-one tetromino puzzles in Talos, in between (and gating) the actual puzzles. The actual puzzles are creative, engaging, and constantly demand creative thought about new ways to combine the basic mechanics. The tetromino puzzles are all exactly the same.

Hear us. We're not shouting "Oh, yay, another forty-leven tetromino puzzles!" What you hear are ceaseless mutters: "Not another damn tetromino puzzle." Cleverness is not required; in fact it's useless. You just have to put pieces in the grid and shuffle them around until they fit. Again.

(I try to imagine replaying Talos, like I've replayed the Portal games. Going through the puzzles would be fast, if I remembered the solutions, or fun, if I had to figure them out again. That's the adventure tradition. Going through the tetromino locks -- would be exactly as tedious as it was the first time.)

This is laziness. The designers had a structure, and they forced themselves to put creative puzzles in the structure, and then there's the rest of this boilerplate where they said "Tetrominoes" and never thought about it again. Or maybe they thought about it and decided not to do anything about it.

What could they have done? Variations. Triangles and hexagons. Pieces that you have to stack instead of tile. Anti-tiles. Transparent tiles. Diagonal tiles. Tiles that you have to flip over. Letter tiles that make words. They could have gone metapuzzle and made you reuse the basic game mechanics in the tetromino puzzles. Add your own ideas here. Anything but another sixty-twelve rectangular tetromino grids.

The designers had so many tetromino puzzles lined up that they released the extras as a separate game on Steam. Look, people, when you can generate that many shallow variations off the cuff, it doesn't mean you have a puzzle bounty. It means your players got tired of that puzzle model back in the 1990s.

I could extend this complaint to other aspects of the game. The scenery is pretty, as I said, but perhaps there's too much terrain and not enough variation in the decor? I suppose I'm stretching my point. The three worlds are three distinctly different landscapes (and the hub world is a fourth); the zones within these are variations on the theme. They made an effort. If I weren't already exercised about repetition, I could let it slide. But... no, it's a bit too much terrain and not quite enough variation.

Do there need to be, what is it, ninety-odd puzzle areas? Portal and Portal 2 together don't have that many. Talos's are all good puzzles, sure, but you could have cut some. I know -- it's a thorny thicket of audience expectation -- "$35 game, gotta satisfy the players" -- there are always complainers.

But you could have tightened Talos up. Really. It would have been extra work, because editing is hard; killing your darlings is hard. But you'd have made a better game.

On the plus side, there's a clear distinction between the main puzzles (clearly presented, well-demarcated areas, smooth difficulty curve) and the optional "star" puzzles (out-of-the-box thinking, hidden secrets, random exploration required, goofily hard). That's the right way to put your wild ideas and extra content into the game.

(I'm a bit grumpy that the bonus stars unlock bonus puzzle areas. (With, yes, more tetromino locks.) The point is that players should solve all the main puzzles but struggle with the bonus puzzles; they'll only solve a few of those. (I only solved eleven.) But then why make some of the bonus puzzles extra-hard to reach? Offer them all, let people solve what they can solve.)

Nothing that I've said implies bad game design. These are places where the design could be better. The only failure is the failure to take that extra step. Or, okay, to run that extra mile. (The hardest mile of the marathon, to be sure.)

...And then we reach the boss puzzle, the place where I nearly stopped playing. I get that you want to impart a sense of urgency. But a time limit on thinky-puzzles just sucks. Lack of checkpoints, that sucks the giant oozing slimy banana-slug of suck.

What's that you say? Both Portal and Portal 2 had time limits in their endgame puzzles? Yes, but they had really good checkpointing. If the neurotoxin killed you, you restarted that stage of the endgame, working on the same task as before.

When you die in the Talos endgame (and you will), you start it all over. There are five stages; I must have repeated that first stage six times. Why the hell is that a good idea? I already solved it! Five times! Let me work on the puzzle that I'm stuck on!

Did you have any play-testers? Did they say "Oh, well, solving the same puzzle over and over is the best part of your game"? Or had you already destroyed their will to live with tetrominoes? What's frustrating is that if there had been checkpoints, the time limit wouldn't have bugged me; and if there had been no time limit, the lack of checkpoints wouldn't have bugged me. (Much.)

I got through it eventually. (After giving up, going to bed, and re-launching the game the next day. Not eagerly; with fear and trepidation and grumpiness.) I got the good ending (or as good as it gets without obsessively walk-through-ing the bonus stars, which I don't intend to do).

...I haven't discussed the script or the narrative, and I should, because they're solid. Talos uses the "trawl historical databases about the end of civilization" story model, well-known from games such as (sorry) Portal. Then, slowly, a more interactive element intrudes.

This isn't the usual sort of "I am an NPC, you are a PC, let's have a conversation that moves the story along" thing. I mean -- it is, but the format is -- okay, this is going to sound silly -- the format is a sophomore late-night stoned philosophy bull session.

Let me back up. The concern of Talos is free will and moral agency. The interactive dialogue is an interrogation of your ideas on those topics. It asks you questions and then (in the manner of all sophomore stoned philosophy sessions) tries to undermine your answers with thought experiments and more questions.

Of course (and ironically) the machinery behind this is a bog-standard menu-choice dialogue tree. (With some state.) But it carries off the illusion surprisingly well, just by tracking your answers and reflecting them back at you. It's a sneaky trickster character, so its voice shifts occasionally, which keeps it feeling fresh. And since any sophomore argument about free will and morality can be summed up in one line, and demolished in another line, the dialogue-tree format actually fits really well.

I don't think it's revolutionary IF technique. It wouldn't apply to most games. But it's a nice marriage of theme to a familiar form.

So that's what I've got. I recommend The Talos Principle -- with reservations. No, I haven't talked about the good puzzle design; there's plenty of good in there. You'll enjoy the game. You just have to get through a lot of frustrating moments as well.

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