Recently Croteam, the Croatian studio that has been making Serious Sam games uninterrupted since 2001, starting talking about adding new puzzle elements in to break up the waves of mutilation. Instead, it led them to a far more philosophical Eden: a new game, called The Talos Principle.
“Every lunch we always talk about the future, AI, technology, space,” said Davor Hunski, Croteam’s creative director and a self-described science freak. “We’ll discuss nuclear fusion reactions and the heart of the sun. I don’t know why, but we discuss science and religion every day... Could we find a way to deliver these thoughts and feelings about science, technology, religion, civilization? That was our soul. We’ve made muscles and bones, but the other side needed a soul.”
The Talos Principle is not a Serious Sam person’s game. Oh, sure, you can see some lineage, the use of ancient ruins and epic open spaces, but at most it has its mother’s nose. It started with an energy jammer, a sort of EMP gun that was drafted for Serious Sam 4 which could disable electronic obstacles. Playing around with it, the team realised that the puzzles they were making had legs of their own, allowing them to pursue whole other ideas that don’t suit Sam and his munitions.
Every lunch we always talk about the future, AI, technology, space
You awaken in a gorgeous scene, an ancient courtyard, and soon a booming omnipotent voice welcomes you to this world in all of its glory. As biblical as this may all seem, you’ll soon catch on that you’re not entirely human. Your computer intel responds to your actions, confirming you’re properly allocated and successfully learning to manipulate your surroundings. Eventually you will see your hands, robotic fingers that look like they’d sooner belong to an anthropomorphic Apple device. This world may not be a real one, and if so, what is it?
“I love science fiction,” said Hunski. “Is there a soul in humans? Is it something very special or just a complex machine? This is the key thing we want to point out in this game. Is our current human civilization, this homemade animal that we are, walking around the earth, is this just one transition between a more advanced creature of the universe?”
While looking nothing alike, Talos Principle reminds me a little of Thomas Was Alone, a 2012 game by Mike Bithell about a group of suddenly sentient intelligences manifested as rectangles, who try to figure out what it is they’re supposed to do in their world. There were two parallel narratives in Thomas Was Alone, the geometric pals trying to survive and the excerpts of dialogue from programmers trying to wrangle their unintended creations. Talos is not confined to a 2D plain, and its creator is far more divine in presentation.
The being you control calls itself Elohim, and calls out with the kind of gravitas you’d expect from being atop of Mount Olympus. Oddly enough, Egyptian and Greek temples don’t normally feel like religious imagery when they’re first person shooter settings, but it’s hard to disassociate them when you’re bombarded by god’s voice, so they’ve been recontextualized. A forbidden tower, a place you’re repeatedly commanded to ignore like Cadet Stimpy’s shiny red button, is this garden’s Tree of Knowledge.
There is a slight rift between what you do in the game and its context. The block puzzle and energy jamming are introduced as tests from the gods to make sure baby can walk on its own, but as they go on they stop feeling so epic. The puzzles you accomplish don’t feel as harmonious with the story as they did in, say, Portal. But the stages of a video game structured as both the gods watching their subjects accomplish tributes AND an artificial intelligence working to discover its purpose in the world is an interesting proposition.
“Would people like to listen to the voice from heaven,” says Hunski, “or go in the opposite direction and use your own scientific way of thinking when you question everything? That’s one of the big motives for the game. Even in the new Cosmos series you can see science is all about that, there’s no single person who will never be wrong. Science has specifics but it’s kind of cold. It’s not straightforward. We really wanted people to think.”
It is hard to think outside of the frames of our own perception. What does it look like to be code, or is even that too blunt of a question when considering that realm of existence? We know that when we were placed in this universe, we sought higher beings, and still do, and sought scientific methods of understanding, and still do.
While the Serious Sam take isn’t god’s word, just inspired by water-cooler chat and BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage, it’s fun to engage with the concepts as they’re so genuinely, radically mysterious. You just need to accept that this discussion is in the form of block puzzles, which I suppose is more appropriate than shooting headless torsos carrying cartoon bombs.