The Talos Principle is probably one of the most beautiful games made, with its organic outdoor areas and idyllic environments. Famous for the Serious Sam franchise, developer Croteam created a masterpiece of a puzzle game about the role of enlightenment in human identity. There are two main philosophies in the game. The first is monism, or the idea that only physical reality exists. It is the basis for empiricism and scientific positivism. The secondary philosophy in Talos is luciferianism, which is the belief that humanity must go beyond rejecting religion in order to achieve enlightenment; it must actively embrace darkness. Talos does this without resorting to goth theatrics, which is refreshing. The game is often described as a hybrid between Portal, Dear Esther, and Braid. With so much emphasis on the philosophic meaning of the narrative, is this the ultimate art game? Well.
A quick recap of the game’s plot: The player takes on the role of a virtual android lead through a series of test chambers by the artificial intelligence EL0-HIM, who claims to be the biblical God. As the game progresses, the player interacts with the library assistant Milton, another AI who guards humanity’s knowledge database. EL0-HIM refers to Milton as the Serpent from the Book of Genesis.
Both EL0-HIM and Milton were created by the dying human race to test AI iterations until one similar to its biological predecessors is found. This single chosen AI would then be uploaded to a physical robot body to start a new robotic human race. EL0-HIM tests problem-solving, while Milton tests for critical thinking.
The conversations with Milton are dynamic much like those in TellTale games. He is charmingly arrogant and twists the player’s choice of words in a flurry of rhetoric and empiricism. The more spiritual EL0-HIM also wants the player on his side, but does not pursue their allegiance as aggressively. The puzzles are reminiscent of Portal’s, and make use of many of the same mechanics: Powering lasers, turrets, cubes, emancipation grids and pressure buttons.
So we have compelling mechanics, beautiful environments, an interesting story and intriguing characters. The game should be perfect, right? The issues arise with the wobbliness of the three endings and their limited room for intellectual exploration. In the “God ending“, the player character’s memory is erased and it is put right back at the start. In the “angel ending“, the character self-sacrifices to become a guide for the player’s Steam friends. “Milton’s ending” is triggered when the player sides with Milton, and it is the canon ending: The player character fuses with Milton and awakens from the simulation to inherit all of humanity’s knowledge*. EL0-HIM and his puzzle worlds are destroyed.
The games Talos is often compared to allow the player to draw their own conclusions. They do this by asking a question rather giving an answer. Portal asks if villains should be forgiven if they are victims of circumstance. In Braid, is reality and one’s perception of it overlapping or completely separate? Dear Esther sways between love as transcendent over death, and death as the only liberation from grief.
In Talos, not siding with Milton results in punishing or unsatisfying endings. The player is not allowed to explore possibilities, regardless of whether they agree with Milton or not. This is particularly damning given the game’s philosophical nature, and paradoxically, it is self-defeating: Milton is the spirit of free-thinking, but the game only allows a positivistic conclusion to be drawn. When an answer is presented as unquestionable it is a dogma, and dogma is unphilosophical.
During the discussions with the player, Milton argues that if the lines between human and non-human entities are blurred, then humanity is proven to not be inherently special. He also presents empiricism and spirituality as mutually exclusive, and argues that if the physical world exists, then the spiritual cannot. In this view, morality and religion are synonymous and rejecting one means rejecting the other. It can be problematic to suggest (even to a non-spiritual player) that morality is an undesirable concept. Will the new robot race create a ruthless dog-eat-dog world in the canon ending?
It seems so. When EL0-HIM and his worlds are destroyed, so are countless other test subject characters, some of which are quite endearing. The message here is clear: There Can Only Be One. To succeed in Milton’s world, the player must agree that trampling everyone else for self-interest is the only way to succeed. It is worryingly reminiscent of the problems of the real world. Religious ideology might have been used to justify horrible actions, but so has empiricism. If, like Milton argues, morality and ethics are unprovable concepts, and if there is no difference between human and non-human creatures, then all harmful actions can be justified with biological instinct. This rather cynical false dichotomy could have been avoided if Talos allowed the player to explore alternative philosophies.
It is no coincidence that Milton is called Milton: He is certainly named after 17th century philosopher John Milton, one of the most influential monists. He was also the author of Paradise Lost, an epic poem about the fall of Satan from Heaven, and the corruption of Adam and Eve. The story presents Satan as a compelling tragic character, much like Talos’ Milton. One of Satan’s lines from the poem is briefly quoted in the game:
“Better to reign in Hell than to Serve in Heaven.”
Paradise Lost supports the notion that to achieve true humanity, humankind must defy God. This happens in the canon ending of Talos as well, though it goes even further into luciferianism, as the player character becomes the Serpent to defeat God. EL0-HIM reveals then that only a critical-thinking AI could leave the simulation, but the criteria for being good at questioning dogma is dependent on complete agreement with Milton. The game argues that to be truly critical, positivism must never be questioned. Is this not just replacing one dogma with another? What if neither EL0-HIM nor Milton are correct? What if spirituality, ethics, and empiricism are not mutually-exclusive? Shouldn’t a game described by its developers as philosophical allow for more than one possible answer?
*It should be noted that in the bible, Satan inherits the earth (John 12:31, John 16:11, Matt. 4:1-10), not people. Humans are supposed to inherit Heaven instead (Matt. 5:3–12). The game makes an interesting subversion of this which is no doubt deliberate.