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Rambling Through the Garden

When The Talos Principle first crept onto the holiday scene at the end of 2014, it was to an audience of baffled yet pleasant surprise: Croteam, the designers of the more conventional Serious Sam series, had produced a singular videogame that could only be categorized as a philosophical first-person puzzler. Its levels are set in the ruins of Classical Rome, Ancient Egypt, and Medieval fortresses; a booming voice named Elohim situates the game as a subdued, innovative take on religious apparatus; there is a relaxing ambient soundtrack to your attempts to gather the various sigils at the end of each puzzle. But players also stumble across terminals planted into sod or sand, which offer the opportunity to both debate the definition of humanity with an AI and browse a series of curated extracts from various texts—some fictional, some real.

The two writers who created the script for The Talos Principle—Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes—neatly divided their tasks, with Kyratzes being responsible for, among other things, crafting the extracts found in each computer. According to Kyratzes, these terminals were planned from the start: “From the very beginning somebody said—and we all agreed—that there should be terminals with texts in them, and that was the intent. To have these various perspectives in there, to have this dialectical process between them.”

The experience of reading the various texts on The Talos Principle’s terminals has a curious double nature. On the one hand, reading extracts from, say, Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations within the framework of the game partly outlines the in-universe purpose behind the puzzles and the preservation of texts: “What do you imagine that so many and such great men of our republic, who have sacrificed their lives for its good, expected? Do you believe that they thought that their names should not continue beyond their lives?” Within the narrative, this quotation cuts to the core purpose of the puzzles: humanity is dying, but may still live on beyond death if artificial children can develop from a series of complex algorithms. But at the same time, the player is taken out of the game and placed, paradoxically, in the same context as the artificial intelligence reading these texts: the past is brought to life in its reading. Cicero is still dead—says Kyratzes, “To me, it’s very powerful to have something written by Cicero and to think of Cicero as an actual person who thought these things”—even if the whole of humankind is not. Reading these texts reproduces on a smaller scale what the long-dead humanity hoped to achieve.

The titular Talos Principle is an expression of the inescapable reality of our material life

But that literary immortality is dependent upon the material survival of the text. The titular Talos Principle is an expression of the inescapable reality of our material life. The idea takes its name from the mythological bronze guardian of Crete, who bled out when the nail that kept his single vein closed was removed; within the game, the (heretofore) fictional principle read out of this myth is that the material world is the basis upon which our immaterial ideas are built upon—you bleed out, and you die. We may argue for the reality of justice, or consciousness, or beauty, but if you kick out their material supports they fade away.

Nevertheless, the triumph of immortality is a core theme in The Talos Principle. The videogame is, in reality, a videogame within a videogame: to ensure that the works and memory of humanity not die with their authors, scientists use a simulated puzzle-world to create and test various permutations of programming in order to create an heir. But in order to ensure that the intelligence passes for human, it is required not merely to pass a series of puzzles but also to exercise free will in the form of disobedience. According to Kyratzes, the game was, from its first pitch, a “humanist retelling of the Garden of Eden story.” But the metaphor is a multivalent one: the videogame can also be seen as a humanist—or humanities-centric—revision of the Turing Test. The point is not to see whether a machine can think like a human, but to put the intelligence in the same position as any of us, born as the latest link in a generational chain, an expression of the immortality of the human spirit.

in Talos, the material life follows the spiritual

Furthermore, though the game has a materialistic focus, it is remarkably willing to toy with this stance: the player’s character is merely abstract data, a figure in a videogame within a videogame. The protagonist is almost immaterial (merely code in a server bank) but rewarded at the end with a physical incarnation. In this way, the narrative is the inverse of our typical ideas of a religious outlook: normally, the spiritual life is that which follows the material one; in Talos this structure is inverted. But from another angle it also directly appropriates religious dogma: though it’s not often talked about, Catholics everywhere recite their belief in the Resurrection of the Dead (the return of the spirit to the body) while repeating the Nicene Creed. Similarly, the emphasis on a bookish immortality is a materialist analogy for the Ancient Egyptian belief in the necessity of the body for the afterlife: so long as some material element of you persists, you go on living. In short, this spiritualized materialism is in stark contrast with typical materialist, or minimalist, ideas about human life.

But to call this clever structure an artistic reversal of our expectations is to overstate the case. Even as it plays with ideas of materiality and spirituality, the game takes as its ideological basis the primacy of the material world. Indeed, as Kyratzes notes, one of the signs of Elohim’s madness is his muttered repetition, “The dam will not break, the Talos Principle does not apply.” In a similar vein, a Steam Forum post Kyratzes wrote before The Talos Principle was released suggests the influence of Carl Sagan and Daniel Dennett, along with Karl Marx. “Marx is one of the premier materialist thinkers,” wrote Kyratzes, “of time certainly … or the question of how does history work, how do societies evolve, how do societies function.” The material world is the canvas for everything else, certainly, but that’s not all there is.

The Talos Principle combines different themes and ideas to produce a novel product

Again, to call the game’s digital abstraction a straightforward reversal of expectations is overstating the case. But by blending the essentially physical with our more abstract qualities (like belief and identity), The Talos Principle combines different themes and ideas to produce a novel product, another variation of Hegel’s combinatorial synthesis, where the original idea and its antithesis combine. This idea is near to Kyratzes’ heart. “Synthesis is one of the main themes of the game,” he says. “It’s mentioned in several spots that it’s really about synthesis—Human culture is about synthesis! It’s trying to take all these elements from mythologies and philosophies and synthesize them into one thing, because everything that we have is syncretic to begin with. It defines us as a culture, as a civilization. Every single aspect of what we have is transcultural, is syncretic, is not authentically pure in some sense.”

One of the models for this kind of syncretism is William Blake’s singular The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Originally written and printed in 1794, The Marriage refashions the traditional good versus evil dynamic by siding with the Devil; if “Good is the passive that obeys Reason” and “Evil is the active springing from Energy,” then Blake is firmly on the side of an exuberant Hell. But, as Kyratzes notes, “The way that it plays with the synthesis of Heaven and Hell” was inspirational, along with the complexity of said synthesis. “Hell is not the good guy and Heaven is not the bad guy,” he says. Rather, even as it uses the idea of reversal, the book celebrates connection and dialogue—a choice quote from The Marriage is the aphorism “Opposition is true Friendship”—by playing the Devil’s advocate.

“What fascinating ideas, how excellently argued.”

On a personal level, Kyratzes expresses this sense of oppositional friendship through his enjoyment of the works of the Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton. “I find those books, orthodoxy, very fascinating because I disagree with about ninety percent of what’s in them. And at the same time, I think, ‘What a wonderful way of talking about this. What fascinating ideas, how excellently argued.’” Chesterton enters into Talos through a hidden terminal, and the work cited comes from his book Heretics, a collection of essays which takes to task Britain in 1905 for its, to his mind, fallacious intellectual theories, which he names heresies. Against these kinds of theories he sets the man with no beliefs beyond expediency as the opposite of both orthodox and heresy: “The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty.”

Chesterton argues that belief is that which fuels these convictions and conclusions. “Man can hardly be defined … as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus,” he wrote. “Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas.” Within the context of Talos, it is one of the many definitions of what it means to be human which work simultaneously in concert and against each other. Is the sine qua non of our humanity a functional activity—our ability, say, to solve puzzles—or an internal, intellectual activity? Again, Kyratzes does not agree with Chesterton, but there is a respect for the writer’s intentions. “He’s arguing for things that are ludicrous at times!” Kyratzes says of Chesterton. “But he’s arguing for humanity.”

However, Kyratzes admits that he was limited in his choice of texts thanks to the wall that is copyright law. One writer that he wanted to include was the British philosopher and science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon, whose novel Star Maker contains several apt (or material) definitions in its glossary, such as the following on religion:

…it includes the feeling that even the will to fight in life’s battle against the forces of death should be complemented by an ultimate piety toward something superhuman, and even super-vital, a piety toward fate, or the whole of being, or some inconceivable deity.

Again, copyright concerns prevented the inclusion of any of Stapledon’s quotes. But the context of the above definition—which is compared to communism as a way of elucidating shared qualities between the two—speaks to the kind of syncretic spirit Kyratzes infused into his terminals.

But thematic blending goes both ways: not only does the oppositional friendship of various texts contribute to The Talos Principle’s own sense of purpose, but it also frames the videogame as a whole as a response to these texts. When I bring up Milton (Blake’s epic poem about the poet returning from death to correct various errors he made in life) Kyratzes responds, “There’s definitely a connection there that is intended. It’s too much to say—perhaps too arrogant—but there is an element of wanting to interact with Blake as Blake interacted with Milton.” Blake’s own Milton is at once a commentary on Milton’s work, a refutation of some of the blind poet’s beliefs, and a dialogue between centuries and religious beliefs. It’s an example of the way in which art imitates life. Poems beget other poems, which beget other works—like The Talos Principle—undreamt of by the original writer.

“I can’t quite say that we’re going to correct Blake’s mistakes,” says Kyratzes, “because that’s insanely arrogant and I would never think in those terms—but at the same time there’s a sort of…” Here he trails off. “I’m trying to square, trying to put together the fact that the world is a material thing with the immense beauty and power of what Blake saw.” But this is an ongoing conversation. “It’s a process that’s not complete yet,” Kyratzes says.

But this is what art does. As Cormac McCarthy said, “books are made out of books.” Novels eat other novels while films steal ideas from literature, just as books adapt techniques and ideas from movies. An apple is never just an apple, but one stolen from the Garden of Eden. Just as the human race is one long chain of descendants—individually distinct yet united by kind—so too is the artistic project one of continual repetition and innovation. Even The Talos Principle, despite the novelty of the videogame medium, is but the latest link in a chain going back to Blake, Milton, Cicero, and Homer.

“books are made out of books.”

“We have all kinds of ways of really using the same tools as literature, which puts it in a very different relationship somehow—in a sense closer in the tools that we can use—than film,” says Kyratzes. But he is quick to qualify this answer. “At the same time, historically speaking I think games have come so late and, economically, in such a late stage of capitalism, that we really maybe don’t have the relationship with previous art forms that we should have.” To put it another way, Kyratzes picks apart the spirit and the matter of the medium. On the one hand, we idealize the artistic reach of games like The Talos Principle; on the other, we are not free from the mundane conventions of the modern world. Not only videogames, but books and movies are marketed and sold as products to be consumed, not experiences or arguments to be treasured or reflected upon.

But this is not to argue that videogames offer nothing new, even as they participate in the age-old project of reference and reinterpretation. Kyratzes notes that digital adaptation can allow for a new approach to exegetical interaction. “The interesting thing is, when you [adapt a text] you can interact with the text in text,” he says. “It’s a different kind of text because it’s interactive text, but it’s interacting in a sense with the original static text.”

While talking about Blake or Chesterton, Kyratzes would frequently pause and explain a tangent by saying, “Sorry, I’m drifting off,” or, “but I’m rambling.” But this is The Talos Principle in miniature: a collection of texts and ideas—an invented Ancient Greek philosopher, a seventeenth-century poet, and twentieth-century Christian apologist—joined through a variety of connections to form something new, but not unfamiliar. If Kyratzes rambles, he rambles in the Garden, treading out new links between old landmarks, complaining about some of the design choices but enjoying himself nevertheless.