Showdown Leftovers : First Person Puzzlers
You’re sat down after days of feasting and merriment, perhaps feeling the effects of a little too much indulgence. You need something slow paced, but still mesmerising to play. Something engrossing, but not too taxing on the twitch reflexes that have been dulled by the almost literal ton of turkey you’ve eaten. A world for your slightly pickled mind to gawp at in wonder. A place to escape to away from the pressures of Christmas and the loud noises of the TV/pet/family members. Does this sound like just the thing you need? Then, my friends, I have just the thing for you. Take a step into the world of first person puzzle games.
There were many greats before it, but as many of you may know, Portal, released in 2007, brought first person puzzling into the spotlight with a bang. Its mix of taxing and ‘just right’ puzzles with an enthralling story and a heart filled with dark humour made it a worldwide hit, with a sequel and countless mods and clones seeking to replicate its success. Today I’m going to look at two first person puzzle games that have grasped my attention in the last couple of years.
Todays participants are Antichamber and The Talos Principle.
I should probably state straight off the bat that Antichamber is, without a doubt, one of my favourite games of all time. I first played it at Rezzed 2012 and immediately fell in love with the mood of the game. Antichamber started off life as an Unreal Tournament mod created by Alexander Bruce, and thanks to his hard work has slowly evolved into a full retail game.
The first thing you’ll notice about the game is its odd colour palette. The game is made in unreal engine, and while the rooms are often minimalist in nature, the game still manages to look striking, especially when some of its mechanics are put into action. The rooms are mostly made up of blacks and whites to begin with, but this changes as the game goes on, and colour is often used to either highlight certain things to bring to the players attention, or to indicate that you are in a certain area. The game immediately drops you into a somewhat alien world where the rules are not as they first seem. The only narrative is pictures and messages dotted around the rooms, and the world seems determined to get inside your head from the very first seconds of the game.
Careful attention has also been taken in regards sounds and music too. Certain audio cues will point you in the right direction, but slightly more interesting is the audio ambience that plays in various rooms, which has the ability to make you feel uneasy in one room and then ridiculously relaxed in the next. In some areas this gives the feel of walking through a set of really engrossing museum exhibits as a child where your brain would be overcome by the sights and sounds that have clearly been manufactured by human hands, not nature, but still felt awe inspiring anyway. The feel and the mood of the game are things massively important to Antichamber, and even if you took out the puzzles and just walked around the maze that makes the game world it would be quite an experience, if a rather short and unchallenging one. Which brings me nicely to the meat of this mood sandwich : The puzzles.
The first 15 or so minutes of the game is mostly spent being gently toyed with, as the game makes you realise the rules aren’t what they seem, and are possible to change at any moment. After this, the puzzles themselves start proper and they range from simple to complex to ‘how the hell did I figure that one out’ and for some of the challenges figuring what to do and executing it are two different things. Thankfully, for those puzzles where execution is part of the challenge, you don’t need twitch reflexes, just good observation and timing. In some cases you might not be able to progress because you don’t have the right tools instead of the right knowledge, and while a few times the game may even warn you of this fact, often its not particularly clear, meaning you might come back to the same place once or twice before you’re able to complete it.
Its at this point where Antichamber unravels slightly, as the mid game often means you’re backtracking quite often, and sometimes looking for a specific puzzle or room that you just either figured out how to beat or have a new tool which means you can beat it. Thankfully, the end game, once you have all the tools, settles into some really quite tricky puzzles, along with several bonus rooms that you can access after beating some particularly tough challenges. Antichamber’s ending is yet another ‘WTF moment’ that, in my opinion, caps off the game nicely.
At the beginning of this piece, I said that Antichamber’s world seems determined to get inside your head. However, Antichamber at times is also determined to teach you as well, not just about the rules of the game and how they’re going to be changed, but maybe a little about life as well. Some people may just bounce right off this and call it smug and self centred, just in the same way some might call the graphics ugly and unpolished, but I found it genuinely thought provoking, just as I found the sights and sounds of the game to mix together to create a near perfect mood. Antichamber at its heart is a divisive game in many ways, but its one I recommend everyone gives a try at least, and I hope you will find it as awe inspiring, interesting, and challenging as I did.
The Talos Principle is a game made by Croteam, makers of the action packed Serious Sam series, out to prove that they can make more than just adrenaline fuelled run and guns.
Like Antichamber, it drops you into a strange world with unusual rules, but from the outset this world oozes polish and colour. Croteam’s Serious Engine has always been able to make some ridiculously pretty landscapes but Talos dials the charm up to eleven from the first moment, and the polish doesn’t stop there. The game begins with a voiceover by a booming, enthralling but unseen figure, and this voice accompanies you through the game. The audio ambience also adds a great spoonful of mood to the world, and its clear that a lot of time has been spent crafting the world for us.
There are further touches around the world too. Hidden lines of dialog you can only get by being in the right place at the right time. Little easter eggs of audios and visuals. You can write notes to other players in the form of QR codes and other players can write their own notes for you to find as well. You could spend hours just wandering the landscapes of the world and taking in all the little details, sights and sounds, as the puzzle areas are built into these landscapes, and brilliantly, quite often if you get in the right place you can look into the puzzle areas from the outside, or look out of them from the inside. Every single dead end or corner of the world seems to scream at you invitingly to investigate it, and you are often rewarded for your explorations.
I’ve wittered enough about the environment, lets get on to the real substance of this game : The Puzzles. The Talos Principle is the opposite of Antichamber in that it’s world is designed to be wholly real and possible, as opposed to Antichambers instantly unreal setting. This means that instead of the first few puzzles getting you used to the world, Talos gets right into the nitty gritty with its first few puzzles based around getting you used to its jamming mechanic, where you basically use a moveable object to turn off various entities within the world, be it security systems, doors, or seeker drones.
Completing a puzzle gets you a sigil. Completing a set of sigils allows you to unlock something, which could be a door that leads to another set of puzzles, a new area or an item. Sigils are coloured according to difficulty and puzzles are signposted so you always know what puzzle will unlock what, where that puzzle is, and how hard it is. In addition, while you can follow a logical progression with the puzzles and how they are structured, many puzzles can be skipped if you want to progress in a certain way or if you get stuck on one. In general, especially in the starting zones, the easier puzzles are the only ones that need to be completed in order to progress in the main game, while the harder puzzles offer bonus rewards for completion.
Talking about the starting zones, it takes a while for it to sink in just how big The Talos Principle is. I was merrily going through the starting areas, admittedly taking a lot of time exploring on the way, and then I realised that the first ‘temple’ of puzzle areas was only a tiny portion of the whole game! Add to that Steam Workshop support, user created maps, additional puzzle sections as DLC, a free ‘public test’ demo that you can download that gives you a great taster of the full game, the ‘Sigils of Elohim’ free puzzling DLC that you can play to unlock more in game rewards…There is so much content here, and so much of it brilliantly put together, that the game takes quite a while to get through, especially if you take your time with it and explore.
Exploring is what you really should be doing, because the game rewards you so well for it, with thoughtful little pieces for you to ponder away at. Its here that some people might find themselves turned off by the philosophical nature of the game, as the game drip feeds you thoughtful dialog designed to make you set back and think about what it is saying, even for just a second.
The writing of Talos is going to be divisive, I feel, because so much of it is about introspection and philosophical thought. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s ok, because in my opinion, good writing is supposed to split opinions, and not everyone is going to like it. The thing is, even if you look at every piece of writing with disgust, if you only use the terminals to insult the world, not to converse with those in it, even if the voices of the game sound like nails on a chalkboard, even if you hate all of these things, the puzzles of the game combined with the environments they are set in still make The Talos Principle such a great thing to play through.
Todays winner is…The Talos Principle!
Antichamber is great, in its own way, but you can feel at points along the way, it is hamstrung by being indie. At the time, these little flaws were endearing, and many of them still are, but I feel putting it up against something like Talos is almost unfair. Croteam have put their all into this little gem. I have to be honest, never in my wildest dreams did I think it could be this good. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would have this much solid, gripping, polished content. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would make me think long and hard about what it said at many points.
I referenced Portal briefly at the beginning of this article as one of the greats of puzzling. I sincerely hope that The Talos Principle gets the same sort of reception and success as Portal once did. A game of this calibre deserves it, and Croteam deserve it for making this little Christmas cracker in an often overlooked genre.