This is the final part of a three-part essay on The Talos Principle which includes commentary from writers Jonas Kyratzes and Tom Jubert. The first part and second parts were posted earlier this week.
“There was nothing here when I first arrived. Did you know that?”
After completing The Talos Principle, I immediately bought The Road to Gehenna. Whereas I played Talos over nine months, I was more aggressive in working through Gehenna, tearing through it in a matter of weeks… although I fear the word “tear” has overstated my skills. It would be more accurate to write I “oozed through it like syrup”.
Gehenna is incredible. It’s so good that I now tend to think of Talos as a prequel to Gehenna.
Spoilers for The Talos Principle and The Road to Gehenna follow.
In the expansion, Elohim makes a copy of the messenger Uriel and tasks him with undoing his “mistake” before the simulation is shut down and wiped. The player takes on the role of this disturbingly named “URIEL_COPY” and is sent into a secret part of the simulation where Elohim has imprisoned a bunch of child programs inside super-hard puzzles.
Gehenna doesn’t beat around the bush, the difficulty is vicious from the start with every puzzle in that special category known as “I’ll come back to this one later”. I won’t be coy about it: generally, they’re harder because they are bigger. Bigger puzzles are more difficult almost due to obfuscation as it’s harder to break them down into component parts. Croteam even joke about by calling the largest puzzle “Goliath” in World 4.
A downside of the larger scale is some puzzles require so much legwork around their space that it gets a bit tiring. I’m thinking here about “Crater” in World 2 which forces the player into constant running back and forth with a jammer and, just like the recording puzzles, this means experimentation is time-consuming and less enjoyable. The silver lining is that there are only two recording puzzles in Gehenna.
Nonetheless, this is exactly the kind of challenge Talos veterans need. And not every puzzle is large. “Bunny Hop” from World 2 is beautiful because it’s tiny yet appears to be completely impossible.
Gehenna is cunning in that it exploit aspects of the Talos rules you probably didn’t even notice first time around. The solution to “Bunny Hop”, for example, needs the player to use their robotic body to block a power beam. In World 4, the puzzle “Air Delivery” can only be solved if you realise that a jammer can still work even when blown about by a fan. And then there’s the secret world…
The first challenge I took on in the secret world was the diminutive “Cut It Out”. The trick, which Croteam tease in the initial configuration, is to use a connector to cut another power beam. And you can still do this even if it’s physically impossible to connect to the target. It’s difficult to articulate how alien this felt; my mind was blown and I remember thinking, oh god I’m in so much trouble now.
I will admit to resorting to YouTube in just one case, “Small Space Big Solution”, but the secret world is almost worth the price of admission. To get access to it, you need to get ten out of a possible sixteen stars – but it’s here I need to address something.
Even in Talos there were “pre-designed” jumps you could trigger. Instead of relying on some clever jumping skills, anathema to the cerebral player, you merely had to stand in the right spot and the game would offer to take the jump for you. But in Gehenna, jumps required to reach some of the stars look quite impossible which means you only know the jump is there if you stand at that spot or you’re used to flinging yourself around with sprint jumps. The jump needed for the star in the World 3 puzzle “Harmony” is particularly egregious.
What this means is some stars are just a case of finding the right jump hotspot, exactly the kind of “hunt the portal-able space” problem that runs counter to the spirit of Talos’ puzzle design. It’s even worse than that analogy sounds because you can’t see the hotspot unless you’re practically standing on it.
Still, that’s really my only gripe because the core game is still trustworthy, still very Talos. When I solved the secret world puzzle “Temporal Solution” by making a break for it before a forcefield came back up, I knew I’d hacked it because it lacked elegance and grace; YouTube confirmed this. If you find yourself having to run around, you’re doing it wrong.
That’s enough about the puzzles because I really, really need to talk about the story. In Gehenna, no child program has ever walked these lands, so there are no QR codes (well, almost) and the simulation wipe has commenced so Elohim never talks to you. While it might sound on paper like Gehenna is more empty compared to Talos, the terminals throb with life.
The AI prisoners have hacked together an online forum and interact through the terminals. It has all the hallmarks of a regular human forum – cynicism, cruelty, amateur art, OTT positivity and humour. And, it turns out, the trials of forum moderation. I would never have expected this idea to work as well as it does and I found myself wanting to catch up with the latest forum happenings after every challenge.
While Gehenna has secrets, there is no real mystery which some consider a disadvantage compared to Talos, yet I found Gehenna to be far more engrossing especially as it closes with a giant question mark.
I wrote that Talos was both purgatory and graveyard and none of the child programs had a chance to know what life was. But the prisoners do. While Elohim obviously intended to completely remove them from the Process, he inadvertently gave them something magical – freedom. In their prison, instead of contributing to the Process, they contribute to a thriving community that even makes its own art.
When you first begin freeing the prisoners, it seems like you’re doing good but slowly it sinks in that you’re dismembering Gehenna. That’s when it gets a little uncomfortable and it doesn’t help that the community is suspicious of anything Elohim does. Some of the more senior members are wary to trust URIEL_COPY because you are here on Elohim’s business, plus all of the AI were subjected to Milton’s philosophical beatings training them to be sceptical of everything. I became concerned that my performance in the forum might lead to some turning down liberation and unwittingly embracing oblivion. I found myself caring greatly about the outcome.
The terminals contain a number of choose-your-own-adventure experiences put together by the Gehenna community but I realised the composite terminal experience is rather much like a big, dense Twine. I find it amusing that although I found it hard work to enjoy twines in the past, I spent most of my time in Gehenna chasing after more twine. Is Gehenna effectively the most commercially successful Twine game?
This conversational approach, without any mysteries to resolve, makes Gehenna a lot easier to “read”. Everything builds towards a single, unified world and I got to know the various Gehenna personalities far better than I did from Talos’ fragmented QR discussions.
That reminds me, who wrote what in this game? “We actually forgot to update the credits for Gehenna, so it still looks partitioned, but it was much more interwoven than in the original game,” says Kyratzes.
“There is no easy way to tell our texts apart,” says Jubert, “except to say that generally the more literary things – lots of the text adventures and short stories – and anything to do with Goldblum are Jonas. The direct IM conversations and the interactive bits that fuck with you – art gallery, prisoners dilemma – are me.”
While Gehenna is about the importance of community, it also asks the question of whether we need to be “freed” from our virtual worlds into “real life”. I couldn’t help being reminded of Kyratzes’ distaste for technophobia. Virtual places are good at enabling collaborative activity and forums, for example, do not have a direct analogue in real life. They’re more informal than a board meeting yet easier to participate in than a crowd of friends down at the pub. For some, it is the real world that is the prison, and freedom is found in the virtual.
But the big secret of Gehenna is that the forum leaders have been keeping the community under control using a bot called Lamb. They see it as their job, in their locked ivory tower threads, to make sure the community doesn’t unravel. They even cast out one of their own, Spider, who was proving too rebellious for their tastes. At the end of the game Admin is considering the choices he has made and I wished for the conversational option, “You’re just like Elohim, except at least he’s contrite and admitting his bloody mistake.” As you might be able to tell, I wasn’t able to get Admin to realise his mistake in my playthrough, but it is possible.
Aside from this, there are plenty of unanswered questions. Why can’t Elohim free the prisoners himself? Probably because his programming forbids him from solving puzzles, he can only make them. Why did Elohim imprison these particular programs? No one knows but perhaps they were all making strides towards independence in some way. D0G, for example, was terminated in Talos because his “positional values moved outside the parameters of the known world”. Admin was the AI responsible for creating Gehenna so it stands to reason that he might have been tinkering too much with the terminals in Elohim’s garden.
This leads into the stranger question – why does Elohim even want to save them? Countless others are buried in the simulation archives, but the Gehenna 17 are so special they get transcension. This seems to me an admission that all of the prisoners demonstrated some independence, even if that independence did not meet the requirements of the Process – which was to reach the top of the tower.
But the big question is what happens after the credits roll. Are we actually saving the Gehenna 17? It seems they are transcending to the same hardware as the successful AI from Talos. Will they all remain independent in one body? Will the resulting AI be an amalgamation? Does Gehenna actually survive?
Perhaps the answer is to be found in The_Blacksmith’s lost game “Jerusalem”. After completing Jerusalem, it occurred to me that Gehenna casts the player in the role of Alexandra Drennan trying to save a dying world. It was beyond Drennan’s power to save humanity from extinction, so she found a way to keep what it meant to be human alive.
Thus I think the Gehenna community is gone, but something of them will live on forever.
I do wonder if there’s any scope for a Talos sequel. The Gehenna expansion proved that Kyratzes and Jubert were able to come up with something completely different that slotted neatly into the original story.
Jubert says, “Talos 2 is something that exists in absolutely no formal capacity whatsoever, but given that everyone on the team has ideas they would be excited to explore in another game, given the critical success, and given Croteam’s propensity for sequels, the stars would have to drastically misalign for it not to happen at some stage in the future.”
But where would such a sequel go? “It’s worth noting that Talos, unlike a lot of games, has this very open world. There are no characters we have to use, there is no world we have to use, and there is no time period we have to use. What makes a Talos game is basically robots and philosophy. That means a sequel isn’t the onerous job it would be if I had to return to characters and settings that had already run their course in another game. I could come back to Talos every 5 years and I would probably be a different enough philosopher each time that I would naturally identify and exploit completely different opportunities.”
Perhaps Talos will go down the anthology route, like Fargo and True Detective, where each new series is a different story with different characters.
“We already had some discussions during the development of the original game to make sure that if we ever made a sequel, it wouldn’t just be the same story all over again,” says Kyratzes. “Whatever Talos 2 may end up being, it’ll be a step forward towards something new.”
- The TVTropes page on Talos has plenty of juicy narrative details that you might have missed. I certainly did.
- Worth reading is the Kill Screen piece on Talos in which Jonas Kyratzes discusses philosophy.
- It’s tempting to think of Talos in the terms of The Stanley Parable. Each child program is another player trying to battle Elohim the designer. But it’s a misreading that cuts away at the power of the story.
- Tim Watson as Elohim is great. Another reason to be sad when the simulation is deleted. But superb decision to hand him the closing voice-over for Gehenna.
- Sometimes you can pick out the writer out a mile away. There’s a bit about toothache in the archives and I knew, just knew, that was Kyratzes.
- I’ve barely discussed the setting and ambience of Talos but it worked for me. The music possessed a mournful quality which was perfect for the mood. Graphics-wise, Croteam’s choice of palette always looks vibrant and the environments of Talos never look messy in the way that modern first-person shooters like to emphasize the grittiness of the Real World (TM). I appreciated that. They were unrealistically beautiful, which was exactly what the game needed.
- I used the extensive Talos videos made by TenguDrop as reference material. There are three playlists: one is dedicated to solving The Talos Principle, another to the Talos Easter Eggs and the last is for The Road to Gehenna.