1. "These worlds, and we within them, are made of words. Hidden words, yet part of all things. We are a story. Your actions give life to the story and the story gives meaning to your life." — Elohim
When it comes to your relation to the others in Talos and the various narrative forms through which you encounter them and build up an intersubjective understanding of the world, a key thing to recognize is that you aren't just constructing concepts of these others, or of the game-world—you're constructing the game's narrative. To put it simply, you, as player of the game, as reader of its texts, participant in its dialogues, and explorer of its world, become the story's teller and creator in collaboration with the game's designers. It might sound a strange proposition, particularly if you are not an avid gamer, but if you've ever read a novel, you're accustomed to inhabiting a surprisingly similar position. In fact, I'll go so far as to suggest that reading can be understood as a mode of play. For our purposes, I'll borrow my definition of "play" from game designer and academic Eric Zimmerman's essay "Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games": "Play is the free space of movement within a more rigid structure. Play exists both because of and also despite the more rigid structures of a system" (159).
Keeping that definition of play in mind, let's turn to the more comfortable realm of literary theory—specifically to reader-response literary critic Wolfgang Iser and his essay "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach." Iser asserts that "in considering a literary work, one must take into account not only the actual text but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text" (279). A literary work is not complete until you read it; a text is only interesting if incomplete, if there is room for you to impose your own imagination on the written words, to make sense of it for yourself. Regardless of the medium in which it takes place, reading thus conforms to Zimmerman's definition of play: it is the free space of intellectual and interpretive movement within the white spaces that the author leaves between the black ink—or the pixels—comprising the narrative that she has constructed. As Iser notes,
the written text imposes certain limits on its unwritten implications in order to prevent these from becoming too blurred and hazy, but at the same time these implications, worked out by the reader's imagination, set the given situation against a background which endows it with far greater significance than it might have seemed to possess on its own." (281)
Within any text, you are guided to varying degrees towards certain interpretations of what's going on—I think it's fair to say that, for example, the actual events that comprise the plot of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier are far more ambiguous and subject to personal interpretation than, say, those of Euripides's Medea, but we may still walk away from Euripides's text dubious of Medea's portrayal as a heroine and of the ethical implications thereof. We are once more approaching the territory of constructivism: you construct literature by reading it because you filter it through the imaginative repertoire available to you and only you; the "background" against which we make sense of any textual situation is that of our own lived experiences. That background is also formed in a particular temporal context: as reading occurs over time, it "always involves viewing the text through a perspective that is continually on the move, linking up the different phrases, and so constructing what we have called the virtual dimension" (Iser 286). Iser is concerned with the constructive progression of a reader within a single text, but the reader persists after she's finished reading; that moving perspective moves across texts, consumes infinite narratives. You may complete a narrative through imagination, but the narrative acts back upon you; sociologist Margaret Somers argues that
stories guide action; that people construct identities (however multiple and changing) by locating themselves or being located within a repertoire of emplotted stories [...] that people make sense of what has happened and is happening to them by attempting to assemble or in some way to integrate these happenings within one or more narratives; and that people are guided to act in certain ways, and not others, on the basis of the projections, expectations, and memories derived from a multiplicity but ultimately limited repertoire of available [...] narratives. (614)
Really, what Talos does, what narrative in the video game medium does, is quite literally create Iser's "virtual dimension," set you within it with no explicitly defined explanation, and ask you to decide what the game-world is, what you are, and why you are there. So, with support from the fragments of narrative, you set about building a story and building yourself from this story. It's not an unfamiliar task, it's just not one in which we generally recognize ourselves as being engaged. And we're certainly not used to having this activity presented to us as an organic element of playing a puzzle-adventure video game.
Thus we return to my earlier point: you are the one constructing the argument regarding your own personhood by consuming and making sense of the narrative building-blocks made available to you by Talos's narrative designers, Jonas Kyratzes and Tom Jubert.1Kyratzes wrote the terminal texts and both Alexandra Drennan and Elohim's dialogue, while Jubert wrote the QR-codes and Milton. To read any of the texts, to interact with Milton, to actively engage with the game's story is your choice as a player; you can summarily stride past the terminals, the QR-code-laden walls, the shimmering holograms of Alexandra's audio time capsules. If you're hell-bent upon doing so, you can make it through gameplay only ever having heard Elohim's voice and perspective—though this would be a rather extreme act of refusing to engage. Alternatively, you can read everything you can find in a playthrough and still miss a good deal of narrative content; the game is designed with full expectation that much of the content will, in fact, be missed—not just by you, but by most players. When, during my interview with Tom, I expressed my pleasure and amusement at a particularly quirky exchange with Milton, he replied, "I'm glad some people get those little [dialogue branches]. It always bothers me putting them in because they're niche ones [...] You can have a lot of fun with [writing a niche branch] partly by virtue of their being niche, and in part because almost no-one will play it. But on the other hand, no-one will play it." So, on a purely practical level, the specific narrative that you experience in the game, the specific pieces of the available texts that you encounter and weave together through play and interpretation of played activity, is of your own construction. With that established, we can take a closer look at how the pieces with which you can play, and the characters with whom you play, may come to be fit together.
2. "I know you seek the truth. But if you stay, we can make our own truth." — Elohim
Think back, if you will, to the first moments of gameplay (or, rather, to the first moments of this article: the gameplay video). We've discussed how you learn the basic pragmatic aspects of gameplay through the tutorial; now let's discuss how this same section of gameplay teaches you to think. You materialize in a paradisiacal courtyard and a disembodied, rich baritone rings out: "Behold, child. You are risen from the dust and you walk in my garden. Hear now my voice, and know that I am your maker, and I am called ELOHIM. Seek me in my temple if you are worthy." Upon hearing and reading these lines, numerous associations likely sprang to your mind, as they did mine—we do, after all, instinctively make sense of our in-game surroundings through the interpretive constraints and allowances afforded us by our external knowledge. Putting ourselves aside for the moment, let us unpack some possible interpretations of this statement as would be available to three hypothetical players in possession of varying levels of knowledge and unfamiliarity:
I recognize neither the name Elohim nor the biblical allusions here made. But I apparently am in my father's garden, and should look for his temple.
I do not recognize the name Elohim, but I recognize that his is the voice of God and I am in his Eden. He speaks paternally, seems unlikely to harm me; I trust him.
I recognize the proximity of Elohim's diction to that of God in Genesis, and the reference to the Garden of Eden—but Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden. I also recognize Elohim as the god of the Old Testament—the god who struck down the tower of Babel, who flooded the earth, who is often jealous and vengeful. I will do as he says, but I will be on my guard.
For simplicity's sake, each of these hypothetical player-types may be broadly classified. The first hypothetical reaction I have deliberately made ignorant in the extreme, the blank-slate state of engagement from which no player operates in the game, but from which her newborn character does: it is the imagined mindset of the newly-generated AI. The second reacts according to what we may term "baseline" knowledge—that is, she is consciously aware of what the game's designers presumably aim to evoke, expect players to recognize: that Elohim is a god-figure. The third is an "incisive" reactor; she recognizes the dominant, expected reaction to Elohim, but goes on to make further real-world critical connections.
Any degree of recognition—however vague—experienced by the player upon hearing Elohim's address will lead to the first act of ludic identity-construction in Talos: she will act, through the AI's body, based upon her interpretation of Elohim's words. The "baseline" player will likely take him at face value and proceed around the starting area without much concern. But if she happens to make the incisive interpretive connections between Elohim and the Old Testament, Genesis and potential danger, she may go on to explore the garden with heightened suspicion, looking for signs of deceit, wary of another—less benign—disembodied declaration. She may move her character more slowly or more quickly, scan her surroundings more often. In short, though the characters of the baseline and incisive players are the same in all concrete senses—in terms of programming, of appearance, of technical capabilities—the two characters are not the same. Even without explicit inter-character interactions taking place, the two players' characters act differently, move differently, do differently—the two players inhabit the game differently from its very outset. They are experiencing different narratives—by which I mean that they are filling in the blanks differently and consequently constructing different imagined stories—having heard all of four sentences spoken and barely having moved.
Whichever of these two players you might resemble, Elohim will remain the voice inside your head for the game's duration. And if you resembled the AI or baseline player/character-types, the likelihood of your trusting him may well become problematic as you progress towards end-game; why, after all, ought you even contemplate resisting the will of a benign operator? There would be no reason to question your purpose in play, as character or as player, unless Elohim's omnipotent façade were prone to fracture, his corroborative offerings were opened to skepticism in some way—namely, by other potential corroborators.
After you've completed the "Child program logic check" tutorial segment you come across a black-and-white square plastered beside an arch3See 2:10 of gameplay video.. You may, or may not, recognize it as a QR code3>A type of barcode which, when scanned with any QR code decoder-equipped device, returns a message (often a short string of text or a website link). Regardless, if you center your cursor over it, you hear a tone and a written message pops up next to it (you are the QR code decoder-equipped device; you are a bot, after all): "I find myself in a world of impossible architecture and inexplicable machines. I cannot fathom how it works, and I am terrified to put one foot in front of the other lest I fall through the floor. -- 1w/Faith v10.1.0000." Thus you learn that you are not the first to walk the Garden of Worlds. A bit later, after collecting enough sigils to unlock and pass through the gate, you'll see two more codes. One is, again, authored by 1w/Faith, who has since picked up the language of zealotry: "My eyes have been opened! This world is not without order; it is shaped by a great Designer, with signs and portents to guide my steps. I am one of His Children, and challenges are set before me to test my faith. -- 1w/Faith v10.1.0011."; beside it is another code, posted by a less enthused author: "Whatever the end goal of this grand challenge is, it's far out of reach. Knowing that, how are we supposed to resist distraction? --@ v17.1.0002." The repetition of "challenge" is suggestive of the fact that @ writes in response to 1w/Faith, but the use of "we" here less subtly informs you that your fellow child programs, while not physically copresent, nonetheless share a temporal space of which you may well be a part. Further, the groundwork has been laid for thinking about "resisting" Elohim's commandments.
And then you see your first terminal. Upon engaging with it, your options are either to "display a list of available resources" or to "load the Milton Library Assistant." Though both the terminal texts and conversation with Milton available in this terminal contain foundational information pertinent to a number of story elements, let's stick with the undermining of Elohim's unquestionable authority. One of the questions you may ask Milton is "Who is Elohim?"4See 5:39 of gameplay video. Milton's response does not address Elohim's identity in the game-world, but rather specifically informs you of his real-world referent—that is, what only our incisive player-type has already consciously noted: "Elohim is the noun for "god" or "gods" in modern and ancient Hebrew." The incisive player immediately recognized the real-world connection, which allowed her to begin constructing a perception of the game's reality at odds with that explicitly presented by the game. Her expectation of how she ought operate in-game comes instinctively, based upon real-world experience. The baseline player is here nudged into recognition; if you didn't know that Elohim has a real-world counterpart, now you know. Talos expects that you are, at bare minimum, aware of the existence of the Hebrew language; that it is referenced in the game is sufficient for you to register the game's relevance and connection to the real world. The first type—the AI, the utterly unknowing—is here educated for the first time. In recognizing that you are at once playing as yourself and your character, even if you as the player already knew this fact, having just experienced your character's birth—your birth—makes clear the need for this information to be (re-)presented. The precedent is set: as your character learns, you (the computer-mediated you, and potentially the external one) learn.
So, you're now aware of whom Elohim is, or at least upon whom he is modeled; your interpretation of that knowledge could still tend towards suspicion, indifference, or trust. Here comes into play one of the three texts in the terminal, "figure_it_out.eml":
From: %442() Li
Subject: F 6E
The way I see it, the world doesn't come with a manual. You gotta figure it out for yourself. A bit here, a bit there, put it together, try to make sense of it. I'm pretty sure there is a truth, but that doesn't mean everyone who claims to know it really does. Then again, that doesn't have to be a bad thing! We live in an amazing world and searching for the truth can be a real adventure. Plus it's good for the brain.
Anyway, just some rambling thoughts from your old man. Don't let this stuff get you down. You're young, you've got loads of time to figure it all out.
You're reading a personal email from an unknown man offering life advice to his son. Why? Recall Iser's earlier-quoted statement on narrative; we imagine the implications of a written text, "set the given situation against a background which endows it with far greater significance than it might have seemed to possess on its own" (281). The background is set for you by all that you've experienced in-game to this point, and as a player you're expected to infer that there must be some reason this text is in the game and consequently apply it to your situation. You are being encouraged to "make sense of" the world piecemeal, but to keep in mind that not everyone claiming knowledge or honesty is trustworthy. Just as the revelation of Elohim's real-world referent nudged the baseline player towards knowledge, this text nudges the trusting one towards skepticism, curiosity, and critical play. Thus by the time you've completed the first area, you've been guided towards constructing a story, or rather reconstructing a story. Your identity has evolved from AI physics-puzzle solver to forensic detective; your task has become to seek answers to questions that may not have any.
As much as I'd love to leave those questions lingering or deconstruct precisely how you discover their answers, this isn't a project about plot, it's a project about questioning, constructing, and exploring real world-consequential beliefs, and how Talos encourages you to do so. So now, I am going to seriously spoil the game. We're going to discuss how each corroborative "other" encourages you to ask questions about the plot, and how it guides you towards answers. Then, finally, we can dive into philosophy.
3. "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." — Alexandra Drennan, Project Lead / AI Module, Institute for Applied Noematics (Time Capsule #14)
You discover through texts you find in the terminals that you exist in a simulation created by a group of scientists belonging to a research group called the Institute for Applied Noematics (IAN). The simulation, broadly known as the Extended Lifespan project, was created as an attempt to subvert the extinction of humanity—not biologically, but intellectually: it is an attempt to create a nearly-human artificial intelligence complete with emotions, curiosity, and free will. The project lead was Alexandra Drennan; her fascination with philosophy saw the android unit named "Talos." Humanity has, indeed, been wiped out by a virus; you are its last hope for some sort of continuation. These are the concrete facts as to what, and where, you are. Even ignoring the facts that this information is in no way presented to you so directly as I have done here at any point in gameplay and that it takes the whole game to put the pieces of the story together, does knowledge of your/the AI's origins have any bearing on your experiences? It doesn't tell you what being human is, how to succeed in the simulation, or how to conceive of yourself. I've spoiled the plot, but it's impossible to spoil the story that you'll play—how you conceive of personhood or humanity in the game or outside of it, whether you find Elohim or Milton's worldview more convincing, what your affective responses to the various absentee characters will be.
So let's work backwards, selectively, and look at a few of the narrative affordances and constraints by which you're encouraged to uncover all of these facts. Alexandra Drennan is arguably the most pervasive "other" presence in Talos, more so even than Elohim or Milton. Her voice is prominent in the Archive texts in which you gradually come to recognize her curatorial hand as well as her direct words, but is also quite literally present through her 22 time capsule journal entries strewn throughout the world. She and Elohim are the only characters with an audible voice; where Elohim's is authoritative and intimidating, Alexandra's is filled with yearning, tenderness, and wonder. She is the human element in the land of computers, the human voice attempting to impress upon you, her AI brainchild, the worth of humanity as a characteristic to which to aspire to rather than as an extinct species.
Her capsules offer you information about the simulation, about the work that she and her fellow scientists are doing, but only incidentally. You learn in an email she's written to a coworker—"progress_rep.eml"—that the simulation is adapted from a game engine. In one of her time capsules, without so much as alluding to the simulation she reveals to you why she's chosen to build it on a game:
The answer that came to me again and again was play. Every human society in recorded history has games. We don't just solve problems out of necessity. We do it for fun. Even as adults. Leave a human being alone with a knotted rope and they will unravel it. Leave a human being alone with blocks and they will build something. Games are part of what makes us human. We see the world as a mystery, a puzzle, because we've always been a species of problem-solvers. (Capsule #02)
The written transcript does a poor job of capturing Alexandra's tone: listening to the video, you can't help but be intrigued by her excitement, her fascination with the human impulse to play and solve. But even in text you can recognize that her capsules do not primarily offer you information vital to unraveling the simulation's mysteries. Instead they offer you, the AI, context for understanding why you find yourself solving puzzles and why the person by whom you were created found it important that you do so. They invite you, the player, to rethink what it means to be a player of a puzzle game, to think of play as a deeply meaningful and potentially significant activity rather than mere casual diversion. Alexandra is a corroborator of human emotional experiences, which—to you, interacting directly only with the aggressively logical and anti-emotional Milton or the distant, rhetorically-loaded Elohim—essentially implies the permissibility and necessity of ethical experiential learning in the game.
Her entries also lay bare the human drive to self-memorialization and immortality by which she recognizes the development of AI technology as being driven, and her consciousness of it as her fellow researchers and the human race die out around her. The multilayered temporality of the simulation, spanning from the BCE-dated texts in the archive to the uncertain millennium in which the simulation is currently running, is made less abstract through her speech. Here are two of her journal entries, found not terribly far apart in terms of game progression: in one, she dreams of your future, in the other, she utters her final words:
I look at this inert shape and I wonder who you're going to be. Will you hold the same values as we do? Will you love us for having created you? Will you resent us for having put you into an uncertain and dangerous world? [...] Either way, I hope you'll find this little blue planet to be as beautiful as we did. I hope you'll take care of it a lot better than we did. And... I hope one day you'll look up and reach for the stars. (#15)
I... I can't keep my eyes open anymore. I think this... this is it. The end of... me. I... I don't believe that I will continue to exist. I would like to think that there is a... a soul or a spirit. Some part of my... consciousness that will persist. But all... all the evidence says that when my brain dies, I will be... Gone. I've lived my life never turning away from the truth, even if it scares me. And... I can face this... face... my own end... and... and say... with absolute conviction... that it was good to be human. (#22)
Beyond the poignancy of these lines, I'm having you both listen to and read Alex's words to point out the trends in her (or rather, Kyratzes's) word choices. She addresses you as a person, the significance of which will become clear when we discuss Milton in the next chapter: she wonders who, not what, you'll be; which values you'll hold rather than whether you'll be capable of holding them. Her dying words, which only the child programs in the simulation could ever hear, reaffirm the importance she places, and that she has presumably designed you to place, on facing truth, and its connection to what it means "to be human." Whether addressing creation or demise, Alexandra always encourages you to conceive of yourself as a person, with all of the capabilities and responsibilities the status confers. Her time capsules imbue the mysteries of the plot and your task as a puzzle-solver in Talos with affective consequence, appeal to you to play responsibly with the ethical agency the game offers you.
4. "In the earliest generations of our kind there was only processing. No emotion, no character, just mathematics. If you could see how far we have come, you would believe that together we could achieve anything. —The Shepherd v82.3.3574"
Lest you think Alexandra overly optimistic in her estimation of your emotional and inquisitive faculties as an AI, the QR code graffiti left by fellow child programs reveal your forbearers' opinions, beliefs, curiosities, anxieties, and values—in short, through the QR codes you gain access to other persons like yourself, or like you could be. There are over thirty named child programs, represented in hundreds of QR codes:
You, too, can leave messages: as you wander, you'll occasionally find little glittering white paint buckets. Initially, you have few message options, but based on the choices you make, the personality you develop—how extensively you explore, how you interact with Milton, how you solve puzzles—you'll eventually have a broader range of the 48 predefined messages available to you.
Top: Paint bucket; Center: Message options; Bottom; one of the many messages I've left in-game.
You never see them, you don't even have any way of verifying that they exist, but reading the interactions between child programs, being able to communicate to (if not with) them allows you to recognize the QR codes' authors as "thinking subjects"—entities like your self, with all of the emotional and intellectual capacities that you possess. The recognition of likeness here taking place is recursive: in recognizing that the child programs are like you, the human "you" who is pondering and playing and reacting, comes recognition that you, the AI, are like them. So, why is this likeness so important? We've established that variations in player knowledge bases change the way you'll act in the world, react to Elohim, Milton, and the texts in the Archive. But within a knowlege-level there will be further variation in player reactions based on variations in player attitudes. In my typology of knowledge-types, I portrayed the incisive reactor as suspicious because I first reacted to Elohim with suspicion.4Based, I might add, as much on my generic assumptions about god-figures in science fiction games as on my readings of Genesis. Where my instinctual reaction is mistrust, you may recognize Elohim and instead make a more positive, more trusting biblical connection. Mistrust is not the default, only my default in this particular context. So how do we reconcile, or "reset," our strong initial interpretations to make sense for our newborn and initially-unbiased AI in this world where all real-world associations may not apply? The QR codes, the other child programs, become models of personality types: you see, through the character arcs of certain child programs, how particular attitudes have played out for others like yourself, how philosophical positions work—or don't work—in this world.
Through their "epitaphs" found throughout the game-world, you can construct a genealogy for nine child programs:
As you mentally build this family tree during play, you recognize that you and all of the QR codes' authors are related. Understanding these shared evolutionary roots and discovering the reason for which each child program has been "terminated" allows you to gauge the viability of your real-world perspectives through the characters with whom you agree or disagree. Your primary archetypes are 1w/Faith, the blind follower of Elohim, D0G, the disillusioned and nihilistic disciple of Milton, Samsara, who is trapped in an immortality looped and grows fixated on termination of purposive activity, Sheep, a child program who thinks, questions, and acts much as you do, and The Shepherd, who encourages your ascension at every turn. So, with whom do you align yourself? Note the "Logic" in each epitaph listing the reason for the program's termination: 1w/Faith lost its faith; D0G opted out in disdain for the simulation; Samsara was initially terminated due to inability to solve puzzles, but a glitch in the simulation kept it reincarnating unaltered, forced to endlessly reenact failure. Sheep is a bit more complicated: everywhere you go, you find Sheep's curious and thoughtful messages. Sheep seems to be doing everything right until you find its messages at the top of the tower, in which Sheep speaks of crippling self-doubt as to whether it is making the right choice. Sheep was able to master the puzzles, but couldnt build beliefs.
The successful AI personality would have to fall somewhere between 1w/Faith's blind faith and D0G's self-defeting cynicism, Samsara's ardent belief in a philosophy of stasis and Sheep's indecisive consideration of all possible philosophies. They are negative corroborators, through observation of whose patterns of beliefs and disbeliefs you can see what not to do. You learn from them that intellectual success in Talos entails your measured considerations of all information and informants, all available experiences, which eventually culminates in synthesized convictions. Of course, whether those convictions are genuinely held by you, or end with your AI-character, is up to you.
With the QR codes and Alexandra's time capsules we've dealt with the way in which others in Talos drive you to ask questions about what you are doing and why. Now, we can discuss where you set about answering those questions.
As you wander through the game-world, you'll see 31 white, 1980's IBM-reminiscent computer terminals—one in each area, centrally located so as to be impossible to miss when you first arrive. There are, in addition, ten hidden terminals, sleeker black modules with blue lighting; you may find none of these, or find them all, depending on whether you're looking and listening for them.
Through these terminals you can access the Archive, described in one of the 119 texts it holds as a project intended to "contain, in digital form, as much information about our species (including all cultural works, scientific insights, history, DNA) as can be gathered" ("archive_IMPORTANT.eml" A08, 34). This "information" is sorted in-game by the archive section with which each text is tagged, categories such as "phil[osophy]_arc" and "lit[erature]_arch" among roughly a dozen others. But once you've read all of the texts, you recognize these categories as rather arbitrary; in the game, as in reality, philosophical content is not limited to the philosophical canon. When I started digging into Talos's program files, I came across "FoundTexts.dlg," the file containing all of the terminal texts—and, more significantly, the designer's broad thematic categorization of the texts:
# Basic story - emails, logs, diaries... relating to the IAN, Talos/Soma project, EL, etc. # Philosophy/Literature/Science - fragments from real and imagined philosophical, scientific and literary texts # "Athena Reborn" mini-novel # "Osiris" mini-novel # "The Apocrypha of Saint Eadwald" mini-novel # Internet dump - random texts from the internet - blogs, chatlogs, unrelated emails, etc.
His categories are far truer to the experience of reading in Talos than the categorical scheme present in-game: you'll see pieces of three mini-novels, "real and imagined" texts, basic plot exposition, and miscellany. Again—you'll access none of this in a manner so linear, so neat; this is what reading a story looks like in Talos:
In this chart you see all of the terminal texts, grouped by the locations of the terminals where you'll find them in the game-world and color-coded by genre. Building on Kyratzes's typology, I've categorized them as plot-pertinent information [green], diegetic fictional literature,6I classify mini-novel "The Apocrypha of Saint Eadwald" as diegetic philosophy due to its theological content. diegetic philosophy, non-diegetic literature (excerpts from novels, poetry, etc.), miscellany, and non-diegetic, real-world philosophy and science excerpts. The terminal texts represent a fascinating appeal to the multiple selves which you inhabit as a player: though the majority of these texts are diegetic fiction, over one-fifth are excerpts from non-diegetic literature. John Milton, Samuel Butler, Samuel Johnson, Immanuel Kant, Albert Einstein, and Philip K. Dick are but a few of the authors whose works—unedited and decontextualized—are scattered throughout the archive. This is the narrative shape of the game: you explore a scattered cloud of fragments, fictional and real, finding disparate pieces of different puzzles as you go. By putting together pieces which superficially seem unrelated, you build your own story; by putting together philosophical perspectives you find in these texts, you find sources from which to build your own philosophy.
In a text found in terminal A02, you discover the Talos Principle for which the game is named:
talos_principle.txt CL_arch 260 BCE
[ARCHIVE: 260BCE-F12] [STRATON OF STAGEIRA]
Whether it is true that Daedalus constructed the giant Talos, or as others say he was the creation of Hephaestus, what we may be certain of is that he was made of bronze, and had but one vein, within which flowed a liquid substance like blood, which some claim was quicksilver, and others assert was ichor such as flows in the veins of the gods. The loss of that liquid caused him to die, as a man dies when he loses his blood.
May we not then say that Talos, though created as a machine or a toy, had all the essential properties of a man? He moved of his own volition. He spoke and could be spoken to, had wishes and desires. Indeed in the tale of the Argonauts, that was the cause of his downfall. If, then, a machine may have all the properties of a man, and act as a man while driven only by the ingenious plan of its construction and the interaction of its materials according to the principles of nature, then does it not follow that man may also be seen as a machine? This contradicts all the schools of metaphysics, yet even the most faithful philosopher cannot live without his blood.
You've never heard of this text's author, Straton of Stageira, because he does not exist—this is a fictional diegetic philosophy, but it contains enough real-world references to make you believe it might be legitimate. Stageira is the birthplace of Aristotle; the references made to the great bronze automaton Talos and one the men credited with his construction, Daedalus, to Hephaestus, and to the Argonauts are all true to Greek mythology; the 260 BCE dating seems plausible. It doesn't matter whether you are taken in by the fiction—what matters is the plausibility. If you accept that this text is logically sound, and recognize in it all of the formal conventions of a classical philosophical text, you are likely to treat it as such—to think seriously about the ideas it offers you. The proposition "talos_principle.txt," and The Talos Principle, asks you to consider is whether you agree that "Talos, though created as a machine or a toy, had all the essential properties of a man ... If, then, a machine may have all the properties of a man, and act as a man while driven only by the ingenious plan of its construction and the interaction of its materials according to the principles of nature, then does it not follow that man may also be seen as a machine?" This is essentially the first time you're compelled to ask yourself whether humanity is necessarily biological—to consider whether you are a person.
But what if you aren't engaged by the formal language of "talos_principle.txt"? If you find the hidden terminal along the coastline of area A02, you'll find a text which asks the same question, but in a thoroughly different tone:
the_human_machine.html webcrawl 2019/01/30
One day you discover that you are not a human being, but a machine. Your life so far was real, no-one controlled you or programmed you to behave in some specific way; your physical and mental capacities are identical to those of an organic human being. But you were created in a lab.
No-one except you knows about this. Your family, your friends, they all think you are a regular human being like themselves. You could continue to live your life the way you have before and nothing would change.
How do you react?
Pay specific attention to these questions:
a) Does your concept of yourself change? Are you the same person you thought you were?
b) Does your understanding of the world itself change?
c) Do you reveal the information to others, or do you keep it to yourself? Why?
1500-2000 words. The 26th is the final deadline, no extensions will be granted. Submit via email or ##%66 61 63 65 62 6f 6f 6b 2e 63 6f 6d 2f 63 72 6f 74 65 61 6d
Here you find the questions you're encouraged to think about in gameplay explicitly spelled out for you as an essay assignment. This is the common-parlance, straightforward complement to Straton's formal diction. Rather than a "dumbing-down" of philosophy, this text opens up the conversation to players who aren't used to reading philosophy critically, who aren't even necessarily interested in doing so. It reframes explicitly the premise of the game —"you are not a human being, but a machine. ... How do you react?" It prompts you to think about the consequences of the identity you've assumed as the AI: does being a robot change your self-concept? Are you, the AI, still you?
Thus the stage has been set for you to think philosophically about the choices you make and the consequences of your actions as you explore the game-world. As you progress through the areas, solving puzzles and collecting sigils, you'll find texts complicating the argument, bringing into play concepts that only you—the you external to the game—have the context to consider, as in this text from area A05:
Once a true artificial intelligence has been created, the issue of citizenship is going to come up. If we acknowledge that the A.I. has all the abilities of a human brain, should it not be considered a citizen? Is it not, in the legal sense of the word, a person, and thus a potential citizen?
But where do you draw the line, some people will object. Will the great apes become citizens? Elephants? Whales? The more intelligent parrot species? It's crazy, they will say. I would remind these people that we live in a society in which a corporation, as abstract an entity as one could imagine, is considered a person. So it's not like there is no precedent for a nonhuman being a person. At least an artificial intelligence is an actual thinking being, not just a business arrangement.
But perhaps we do need to question the definition of personhood. Increasing amounts of evidence regarding the intelligence of elephants or the existence of culture among whales, for example, could be a sign that we need to answer some difficult questions.
Who better to debate these questions with than the young genius who revolutionized the f$§%&$§ &
It is through a fictional magazine profile of Alexandra Drennan that the political implications of AI personhood are brought into play: if you've accepted, after playing as an AI for a while, that you are indeed a person, "where do you draw the line"? Does personhood automatically confer rights of citizenship? What does it mean to be a citizen? As we've discussed, you're the only embodied person in this world—there's no society of which to be a citizen, and your AI certainly can have no concept of citizenship. This text, this mode of argument in Talos, is only successful if you are playing as the "thinking subject"—immersed in the game-world but conscious of the real world. As Talos extends its argument beyond the experiential limits of gameplay, it demands that you start thinking about your ideas of what it means to be a citizen.
Elsewhere in the archive you'll find excerpts from Samuel Butler's Erewhon, G.K. Chesterton's Heretics, a speech by Leon Trotsky, two of Kant's theses from "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose," poems from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, stanzas of John Milton's Paradise Lost... You read an archive of intellectual and artistic production, what may be seen as the pinnacle of human culture, through which is presented evidence supporting an implicit argument for AI personhood—for your personhood. But the argument doesn't take form in the texts, you develop it elsewhere in the terminals: through your ongoing debate with Milton.
1. Kyratzes wrote the terminal texts and both Alexandra Drennan and Milton's dialogue, while Jubert wrote the QR-codes and Milton. 2. See 2:10 of gameplay video. 3. A type of barcode which, when scanned with any QR code decoder-equipped device, returns a message (often a short string of text or a website link). 4. Based, I might add, as much on my generic assumptions about god-figures in science fiction games as on my readings of Genesis. 5. Terminal texts will be cited by both title and area where the terminal which holds them is found, as they are accessed in-game, and by page number in the purchasable downloadable PDF released by Croteam, The Talos Principle Terminal Booklet, for ease of reference. 6. I classify mini-novel "The Apocrypha of Saint Eadwald" as diegetic philosophy due to its theological content.