January is a great month for catching up on last year's games, and I've been using the lack of new releases to make my way through Croteam's fiendish puzzler, The Talos Principle. Everything is not what it seems in The Talos Principle, but if there's one constant, it's how difficult the puzzles become as you progress. This has resulted in some occasional cheating.
To be clear, I don't think there's a problem with cheating. You should play games however you like! Be happy, people. But if you're reading Kotaku, if you clicked on this article, chances are the idea of walkthroughs and guides make you, in most situations, a bit uneasy. Most of us cheerfully embrace the thrill of conquering whatever challenges are placed in front of us. Puzzles are different too. There's not much finesse required, typically; it's all in your head. It provides a particular satisfaction that's radically different from employing finger dexterity.
Some games occasionally feature puzzles to mix up what the player's being asked to do, but The Talos Principle is all puzzles, all the time. In the opening moments, it's clear what the next dozen-or-so hours are going to be about. You're gonna be directing lasers, stacking crates, disabling turrets, and more. Believe me, it's far more interesting than it sounds, especially when it's revealed an omnipotent voice in the clouds is watching and observing your every move. Yep.
The Talos Principle's brain teasers take place in small arenas, and the game doesn't go out of its way to keep things hidden. All of the pieces required to solve any given puzzle are right in front of you. Putting them in the right order, thus allowing you to move on, is altogether different.
When a puzzle is presented to us, early experimentation is a delight. Poking and prodding results in ideas, albeit usually wrong ones. Bad ideas can lead to good ones. Good ideas can lead to solutions. And, weirdly, we often work out the solutions to puzzles by taking a break. The Talos Principle is filled with hundreds of puzzles, and it never forces you to spend time on any specific one. Another puzzle is usually only a few seconds away. How often have we walked away from something that's totally stumped us, only to realise the solution was so frickin' obvious?
But this bothers me. Gosh, it bothers me so much. It's impossible for me to complete more than a puzzle or two before I have to return to the scene of the crime. "I can't let this beat me," is the irrational thought running through my head. So it's back to the puzzle room that broke me. In both cases, I ran out of ideas. There was no more experimenting to be done, and I headed to YouTube. I tried to watch only until the solution would slide into view, then I did the rest.
One time, the solution came out of left field. It never would have occurred to me it was possible to bend the game's mechanics that way. I remember feeling the same way during a Braid puzzle, too. If you can't imagine having thought of the solution, is that really cheating?
Another time, it was clear I'd become mentally exhausted, and forgot to employ one of the more common solutions to a basic part of the puzzle. That's on me, Talos. But in a game with literally hundreds of puzzles, am I supposed to get emotionally hung up on failing one or two?
I wouldn't take the same approach to most other games, though. If I was dying over and over in a shooter, I'd keep playing until success was achieved — or I'd give up. I wouldn't skip the level.
I've slammed my head over and over into a puzzle before. Have a look at my notes from Fez:
It looks like gibberish, but it's beautiful gibberish. I'd come in to work and compare theories with other people in the office. If someone else was further than me, I'd ask for a small hint. I wanted to feel the rush of adrenaline stemming from solving a problem on your own, but I'm not opposed to a nudge in the right direction. The Talos Principle could use some better hints.
To unlock hints in The Talos Principle, you actually have to solve a series of puzzles, and even then, you only get a handful. So far, I haven't used any of them, wary of deploying the hints inappropriately. I suspect it's going to mirror my approach to playing survival horror games, though. In any given Resident Evil game, the credits will roll with my character packing a million pieces of ammunition and health. In The Talos Principle, it will be a box of unused hints.
But puzzles are weird. You sometimes have to get inside the head of the designer. "What do they want me to do?" becomes part of the metagame. We've come a long way from the trial-and-error days of the earliest adventure games, but the root of the problem still exists. It's not a problem, necessarily. All of us aren't mentally wired the same way. How else do I explain being able to breeze through algebra but completely bomb at geometry in high school? It's tough to imagine how a game could have an option to make a puzzle become "easy." How would that work? A designer can drop the HP count of an enemy but the concept doesn't really apply to puzzles.
Enter a contradiction! I've had absolutely no problem cheating in a few other games. Specifically, visual novels. Readers turned me onto the genre with 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. These games are all text 'n puzzles. Unfortunately, not only are some of the puzzles overly boring and complex, finding the game's "true" ending is, in fact, its own puzzle. The true ending is crucial to understanding what's really happening, and I decided to look up how one unlocks it. My jaw was on the floor the entire time. It also remains unclear how a human discovered ever the ending, and I felt zero guilt for following the guide step-by-step.
Games aren't all about entertainment and fun for me. I want the whole emotional spectrum, including frustration, challenge, and regret. Something's gotta give every once and a while, though. I want to see everything The Talos Principle has to offer, so I'll cheat a little bit. Where that line falls is different for every player, every game, and every experience. Where's yours?