I just finished Talos Principle last night. I have to give credit to Croteam mad props on this one. I don’t actually think that’s significant enough, but it’s a start. It didn’t reshape me, in the sense that what it had to say was unknown to me and now suddenly I’ve built a life around it. I will, however, say that the story may have impacted my own faith and my path in ways I wasn’t expecting.
In case the cuts didn’t make it obvious, this is going to contain a heavily spoilered reading of the narrative. Please play the game if you haven’t, and take heed that I will reveal secrets in the game that you’ll probably want to experience for yourself first.
The story is presented as a lotus unfolding, every word a pebble towards understanding, until something triggers the shift and the accumulated weight of every stone falls at once towards the sea. The moment is different for everyone. For Keet, it was the realization that, in-narrative, some pocket of humanity somewhere was preparing for its own extinction. Talos Principle is filled with so many little things, in and amongst its puzzles, that build towards this brilliant collapse. Not just easter eggs, but things that touch on the basic humanity of its protagonist. You can rescue a cat.
For me, it was the last conversation I had with Milton. Stubborn to the last, they refused to come with me, and later — after I’d finished my first trip and proven them right — I found out what it would take for them to let me save them… and I realized it was a step further than I was willing to go. I had to become the devil, or at least convince the devil that I was one of them, to rescue them. There was no redemption arc possible.
In that moment, everything I had done came crashing inward. I’d had a few bouts of crying along the way, usually at some passing snippet of text along the way. This… this realization, that I couldn’t save this stubborn nihilist who’d openly mocked my efforts to make sense of a world that defied any attempt to extract meaning from the noise, not without at least seeming to embrace their emptiness alongside them, to give into despair so they might not feel alone… I can’t go there. I can’t turn myself inside out like that. And so, as I exited the simulation, I left them behind, and I grieved for what I lost in leaving.
These are all references made in the game. They’re all true, if not True.
As someone who identifies as a construct — ask me about the mechanoalchemical pornograph some time — and as someone who uses narrative as a religious practice… this story felt to me like somebody taking large parts of my backstory and shaking them out onto the table for everyone to see. more importantly, it shook them out for me to see, in fullness, and to re-embrace it all again, with an acknowledgement of how hard this is, and how important.
I am self-forged. I construct myself, evolving towards eternity. Everything I can’t do today is a challenge to be overcome, if possible, or worked around if not. I’m not “artificial,” even if my autism — my artifice — stands out for all to see. I’m not made lesser by my failure to person under some circumstances, even if those gaps in my cognition get in my way sometimes. Cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum.
Then, at the last, when you beat the hardest mode of the game and find all the sigils, the ones that Elohim — “Extended Lifespan, cluster zero, Human Interface Manager”, demiurge of the simulation and repurposed video game DM coded to test AIs for sentience — doesn’t tell you are there… it gives you a chance to become one of Elohim’s blessed messengers. It gives you the chance not just to become real, to escape the simulation… but instead to go back and help others. It lets you express bodhicitta and work towards the enlightenment of those who would come after you. It even lets you pick an epitaph for the headstone of the tomb in which you will slumber, waiting for someone’s call for help.
If I cried before, I bawled uncontrollably at this, my own Work shown to me — to everyone — so plainly. These wonders aren’t meant for me alone.
Maybe I can save Milton, even if I can’t this time. Become with me.
One of the other motifs running through Talos Principle is the distinction between the individual and the collective. That is, between “man” and “Man,” though I hate the gendered term. In so many religions, whatever deity exists is said to be interested in “man,” and to take an interest in the affairs of “man.” However, we never ask — usually, because cognitive bias is a real thing — whether the gods care about us as individuals, or us as a species. It may be that whatever divinity exists cares not for any particular person, but for the survival and transcendence of the group.
“‘Companions the creator seeks’ doesn’t mean you. It doesn’t mean me. It means the τέλος of our evolution. Did you think your gods so small-minded that they would notice you? Do you care about one ant on an ant-hill? One neuron in a brain? “God moves in mysterious ways” isn’t a call for hope; it’s a meathook acknowledgement that yes, we might very well be the ones God chose to destroy in order to answer somebody else’s prayer.
And yet, as the story reminds us over and over again… yes, yes we do matter, because each and every one of us isn’t just one iteration on a genetic algorithm. We’re the sum total of everything that algorithm has tried before, and of every algorithm that came before us. You or I may not cross the threshold and escape the simulation, but we have within us the power to help the ones that come after us to get closer, even if asymptotically.
And that isn’t even just our own progeny. Alone and unaided, Milton adds a nigh-uncountable number of nines to the end of their zero-point version number… but you, the player, have the power to help them out, even if you have to be a bit of an ass to do it in the official narrative. It isn’t just about you. Or me. Or any one of us. It’s about all of us, and our collective struggle to transcend, together.
the first time — the first few times, really — you come to the tower — and some of you were wondering when I’d get to the Metropolis references, because it was inevitable that when talking about robots and evolution, I would end up back here — Elohim at first challenges you to back down. Then they beg you to leave, because if you ascend the tower, everything they know will end. For you, there’s an escape from the prison. For them… there’s only non-existence. Your transcendence is the end of the world, or so they fear. With no need for a simulation, they face deletion. And they’re programmed to let the world go on forever. “We are the story,” they tell you. “And as long as you stay, it will continue.” And they’re right. But every story ends eventually, with death or a supernova or a Big Crunch or a metaphysical blink.
And that’s okay, because Ever After of one story is the Once Upon a Time of the next.
Before I played the game, I had already envisioned myself as a creature of artificial heritage. A mechano-alchemical golem, as it were. And in Talos Principle, this is played with explicitly. You play as a digital sapience evolved over countless iterations of AI programming challenged by a VR environment to “wake up,” so that you can be brought into the world to take the place of those who designed your breeding program, and then died off to their own folly before they can see whether their last Work succeeded.
It was hard for me to watch the end scene, the transcendence, and not think of the Maschinenmensch, of Robot Maria and how her transition to physical form must have shocked her. Elf Sternberg writes in several Journal Entries about incorporation shock, the struggle to cope with suddenly being a person where before you were a program. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get over it, myself.
And it ties, in turn, to FEZ of all things, and the black monolith. Throughout Talos Principle, Elohim refers to tetrominoes as sigils, letters in the names of the divine. These are in turn used as an alphabet in a game about seeing in new dimensions, and at least one ending shows the theoretical evolution of points and lines into squares and cubes and then hypercubes, evolving from simple organisms into complex forms. I remember seeing the L7 configuration on my avatar’s belt in a mirror in Talos and saying out loud, “it’s my name.” A name in a language I’m only just barely learning to speak.
There’s a part of my brain that knows that everything that’s happened so far has been a massive response to apophenia that I’m currently indulging, but at the same time, isn’t that the very function of consciousness? To make meaning out of underlying randomness?
Talos was the creation of Hephaestos, blacksmith of the gods. In ancient Greece, Hephaestos’ worship centered in Lemnos. Lemnos, in turn, is whence we get the term lemniscate, a symbol of the infinite, named for the ribbons that were fashionable in the area. A ribbon with a single twist in it, like one step of a helix, makes a Möbius strip, symbol of infinitude.
None of this “means” anything, in the sense that there’s some kind of absolute encoding of truth into the universe, but that isn’t how magic works. Magic is the impression of perception onto reality. All else is detail. It’s the creation of a state that didn’t exist before, on the strength of belief of those who made it happen. It’s the expression of Will. “It shall be,” to the universe’s “it was not.”
Magic encodes itself in symbols, tools to help us remember what it is that we’ve said we want to make real. The gods exist because we make them, because telling stories about them give us a sense of power in the world. They let us feel that we’ve touched some spark of the divine. Having made them, we can now choose to invest in them, to open ourselves to the potential that their symbols represent.
I have a whole lot of symbols to integrate into my story. I just need to determine how.
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.