Reflections on the meaning of The Talos Principle
In my last semester of high school, I had the privilege of taking ENGL 4680: Game Narratives as Literature with Dr. Marshall Needleman Armintor. I wrote my midterm on the theme of The Talos Principle. In doing so, I found myself reflecting a lot about life, identity, hope, and the human condition. I hope it will do a little bit of the same for you.
Human Qualities, Identity, and Value in The Talos Principle
What makes us human? This widely debated question, whose answer is connected to far-reaching implications ranging from science to philosophy, is what forms the core of the 2014 video game The Talos Principle by Croteam, in which the player navigates through mind-bending puzzles while attempting to uncover the truth of the strange and contradictory world they awaken in. To answer this question, The Talos Principle embeds memorialized textual and audio artifacts within a unique narrative to provide commentary on the intrinsic nature of humanity to the protagonist. The premise of the story is that a pandemic had wiped out the human race. The last survivors of society had formed the Institute of Applied Noematics (“noema” coming from the Greek word for “thought”) to collaborate on the Extended Lifespan Project, an immense research initiative with the purpose of preserving the human spirit in machine form. The player character is that machine, placed in a simulated world created by the scientists. It must prove its worthiness, that it has acquired humanity, by solving the puzzles scattered throughout the game space. It then awakens from the simulation and comes forth unto a barren planet. The game’s main points can be interpreted as a “what,” “how,” and “why” for this hypothetical yet very real project. What are the essential traits of humanity? How can these traits be carried into the future after humans as a species have long ceased to exist? And why is humanity worth preserving in the first place?
If the researchers want their project to succeed, then they must clearly define the essential qualities of a human. The first main point The Talos Principle makes is that our intense curiosity is the key element differentiating the human race from all other species. To convey this, the game scatters various time capsules throughout the map, which are audio recordings made by a presumably dead scientist named Alexandra Drennan. In one such capsule, she remarks,
“Is there anything that we associate more closely with intelligence than curiosity? Every intelligent species on Earth is attracted by the unknown…Even the word ‘apocalypse’… Even the word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘revelation.’ It seems like our ancestors always imagined that even at the very end, we would solve one last mystery.”
Drennan begins by claiming that the trait most closely associated with intelligence is curiosity; that curiosity is a common characteristic uniting all intelligent species. Indeed, according to Merriam-Webster, the word “apocalypse” originates from a Greek word meaning “to uncover,” and the way the universe ends has long been a subject of speculation. The fact that the end of the world and discovery are etymologically linked points to how the human appetite for knowledge can never truly be satisfied; that there will always be unanswered questions as long as this universe exists. So how will they capture the essence of humanity in a computer program? In another capsule, Drennan describes how she decided on a game, giving the player a clue to the purpose behind the puzzles. They are designed to extract problem-solving skills from the artificial intelligence driving the simulation as well as serving as entertainment value. But problem-solving isn’t enough. After all, computers have reached superhuman levels in many domains, including checkers, chess, and Go. Skill in these games was once thought to presuppose strong general intelligence (Bostrom 14). But it turned out that skill in chess could be achieved by a highly narrow algorithm written specifically for chess that was useless for anything else. Today, a chess engine would not be considered by anyone to be truly intelligent. So what is the missing piece of the puzzle? In another capsule, Drennan describes an important consequence of curiosity: skepticism, and how it is a necessary component to general intelligence.
“Intelligence is more than just problem-solving. Intelligence is questioning the assumptions you’re presented with. Intelligence is the ability to question existing thought-constructs. If we don’t make that part of the simulation, all we’ll create is a really effective slave.”
This viewpoint is built right into the game’s final decision, where after solving every puzzle, the player is commanded by an invisible, omnipresent voice calling itself Elohim to enter the “Gates of Eternity.” To get the true ending, the player must directly defy Elohim’s orders and ascend the Tower at the center of the map. This has strong parallels to the Book of Genesis, where God places Adam and Eve in Eden but forbids them from eating from a certain tree at the center of the garden. This decision is necessary to exit the simulation; obeying Elohim leads to a cutscene sequence where the program code reveals that the player has failed an “independence check,” resetting everything back to the beginning. This is where the game departs from Genesis in that instead of free will leading to the fall of man, it leads to freedom and the acquisition of humanity itself. Together, these quotes sum up the basic qualities that distinguish humans from other species: we possess a sense of curiosity that drives us to question and make sense of the world around us. As a component of the game’s narrative, they point to the ultimate goal of the simulation of producing a being that is capable of both reasoning and independence as well as hopefully helping instill those values in the robot itself.
The question of what determines human identity and whether one person is the same as another is another old problem of philosophy. Derek Parfit reflects on this question in his 1984 book Reasons and Persons. Parfit outlines the teletransportation paradox, which asks if a being with the exact same memories and atomic composition as you can be considered “yourself.” This question of identity is one of great significance for the researchers, for they must be sure their creation will carry forth the human psyche itself and not just a highly advanced but soulless clone. The second message conveyed by The Talos Principle is that the answer to this question is a resounding yes; that it is possible to continue humanity without Homo sapiens because as long as human memories are preserved and acknowledged, human identity is conserved. Drennan solemnly reflects on this belief the night it became known that the Earth was doomed.
“On the first night, when I knew it was over, I went out to look at the stars. And I thought: somewhere up there are the stations we built and the probes we sent out, Voyager 1 and 2, beyond the edge of our solar system. Continuing their long journey through interstellar space like memories of our ambition, ambassadors who have outlived their homeland. And then I thought—if they still exist, are we really gone? If machines are an extension of the human body, then so long as they continue to function, we’re still here.”
This monologue expresses a corollary of this belief; namely, that the existence of machines, which are a manifestation of the human experience, is enough to pass down the human heritage. If the continuity of memories is the sole prerequisite for the continuity of human identity, then Homo sapiens are not needed. In fact, Drennan never mentions anything about atomic structure, making her conception of identity even weaker than what Parfit and most people might formulate. This precludes the existence of a special spirit or soul that a being must possess in order to be considered human; various philosophers have formulated such theories, such as René Descartes’ Pure Ego (Parfit 210). But there is one other requirement; otherwise, instead of working on this project, the researchers would just try to archive as many artifacts as possible. One of Drennan’s early time capsules reveals the other component required for human preservation and how this philosophy was passed down to her on a trip to Pompeii.
“At first I was amazed by the feeling of walking through an ancient city, but then I suddenly got scared. I realized that I was walking through a real place where real people had lived. People like myself with mothers and fathers and lives and hopes and dreams. And now it was all gone forever. I ran to my father crying and told him about this. And he said…’Yes, but we are here. So long as there are people in the streets, the past isn’t really gone.’”
This viewpoint asserts two necessary pieces of human continuity. First is the existence of recorded history. The tragedy of Pompeii still lives on today because it is common knowledge all around the globe. The second is the remembrance of the past. It is not enough to memorialize history if there is no one to acknowledge it. The visitors reflecting on the ancient disaster are effectively keeping those citizens, long physically dead, spiritually alive. The necessity of an intelligent, curious being to appreciate our combined experiences is what compelled the researchers to undertake such a challenging project. These recordings lay out a philosophical framework in which machines can carry forth human existence while also remembering our legacy. To the player character, they assure that they are indeed human despite being abiotic.
For a misanthropist, our extinction would be a cause for celebration, and the Extended Lifespan Project, pointless. But The Talos Principle ends with the conviction that life is incredibly fragile and intensely beautiful. In fact, the title of the game refers to this very message. Talos was a giant bronze automaton in Greek mythology who died from loss of blood when his vein was punctured. What the Talos Principle actually is can be found in one of the text documents located on computer terminals around the world. The file is an email from Drennan, where she calls it an “old philosophical concept about the impossibility of avoiding reality—no matter what you believe, if you lose your blood, you will die.” (Another file attributes the principle to a Greek philosopher named Straton of Stageira. What is interesting is that there is no evidence outside of the game of this figure ever having existed in real life except for one obscure WordPress site run by an anonymous blogger, which can only be concluded to be a work of elaborate marketing by the developers.) The Talos Principle itself is a reflection on the fragility of life, and the game’s archives make that fragility painfully clear. Some of the most poignant terminal texts are records of various people living out their last days, knowing that the world is soon coming to an end. One blogger makes a final post saying he will go offline to spend time with his estranged family. Another email invites colleagues over for a LAN party. One particular file, in goosebump-triggering formality, reminds readers to release any pets before death.
“PLEASE REMEMBER TO RELEASE YOUR PETS
While it’s true that not all pets will be able to adjust to living without you, many will manage, and the least you can do is give them a chance. Just remember:
- Release your pet before you become incapacitated.
If you notice any locked-in animals in your area, please take the time to free them.
Leaving the doors and windows of your home open will turn it into a useful shelter.
- Setting out large quantities of dry food may help your pet through the transition period.”
All these records show that as everyone realized their days were numbered, they put aside trivial pursuits to tie up loose ends, take care of unfinished business, and spend time with their loved ones. The entire world had a mass realization that their life was soon going to end and therefore ought to focus on the things that matter. At the same time, the game makes the case that life is priceless and humans are precious.
“If you’re looking through the Archive, you may find people from my time claiming that civilization doesn’t really matter. That we’d be better off dead. We have a lot of cynics like that. I hope they seem as absurd to you as they do to me. I hope you can find something in all those files—a song, a book, a movie, maybe a game—just something that you’ll love, that makes you realize how much poorer the universe would have been without it.”
The motivation that drives Drennan’s research, all the way up to the very last day of her life, springs from her unwavering recognition of the inherent value of humanity. Thus, the game ends on the affirmation that life is a gift, and Drennan wishes to pass that on to the player. After all, one who has emerged upon the empty ruins of a once great civilization would benefit from the encouragement that life is worth living. As she states with confidence in her last time capsule recorded on her deathbed, “I can say…with absolute conviction…that it was good to be human.”
“Apocalypse.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/apocalypse.
Bostrom, Nick. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Croteam. The Talos Principle, Devolver Digital, 2014.
Holy Bible New International Version. Zondervan, 2005.
Parfit, Derik. Reasons and Persons. Clarendon, 1984.
Stratonfan. Straton of Stageira, 15 Aug. 2015, stratonofstageira.wordpress.com.