The Talos Principle, Corporeality, and Mortality

I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.

– Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

What is the Talos Principle? Not The Talos Principle, the game itself, but the idea expressed by the phrase. There is something of an answer in the various text documents found throughout the game:

Have you heard of the Talos Principle? It’s this old philosophical concept about the impossibility of avoiding reality – no matter what you believe, if you lose your blood, you will die. I think that applies to our situation more than we’d like to admit. We could close our eyes and pretend that everything’s going to be all right… but it won’t change the physical reality of what’s going to happen to our [illegible]

Though Straton himself never used the term, his remark about the inescapable materiality of life – that like the bronze giant Talos, “even the most faithful philosopher cannot live without his blood” – ultimately became known as the Talos Principle. What seemingly enraged many of his contemporaries and a significant number of later thinkers is the principle’s simplicity and unassailability, which (according to a fragment found in Miletus) “cut through their rhetorical webs, which sought to tangle the listener with fanciful words and thoughts of the heavens, like Alexander’s sword through the Gordian Knot.”

The myth of Talos tells of an ancient, bronze guardian who protected the island of Crete from invaders. When Jason and his famous Argonauts approached Crete, Talos attacked their ship. In response, Medea – a witch and Jason’s lover – convinced him by either enchantment or a curse of madness to remove the nail that sealed his only vein shut. Talos then bled out.

The principle behind the myth of Talos is an expression of our inability to escape the material world. Regardless of whether you believe in the soul, we are still physical beings – to remove our bodies is to remove us from this world. This principle is the foundation of the game’s background story: humanity has become extinct after a massive global plague. But it is also the overarching goal of the game: the ending sees the player’s AI character, named Talos, leaving the Edenic simulation and given a body so Talos might truly live.

Unveiling Turing

For all of the attention The Talos Principle’s status as a philosophical first-person puzzler has garnered it, it nevertheless has a simple story that, like a fairy tale, touches upon complicated topics: religion and spirituality, post-, trans- and vanilla humanism, and mortality. Like the best of science fiction, it does not merely present a fascinating look at the future but incorporates contemporary, even timeless, concerns about identity and mortality into its narrative. But it does so primarily by leaving these details in the background: the collection and reading of the various audio diaries and texts are not necessary to complete the game’s version of a shaggy god story, but they do deepen the game’s significance and add a sense of context and meaning to the puzzles, the garden, and Talos’ ultimate disobedience. But the fact that humanity has gone extinct, and that Talos represents the last desperate legacy of a dead race to preserve its soul, its mass of texts and ideas – “Ye shall know them by their fruits” – is a compelling image that can speak to any player.

The game’s tragedy is, of course, that the vast majority of those texts are gone, lost to data degradation and the slow entropy of passing centuries. According to Milton – the game’s debate partner and the intelligence in charge of the archive – only ten gigabytes of “uncorrupted resources” out of a staggering 5.4 petabytes remain, less than a fraction of a single percentage. Even then, depending on the player’s choice, what little remains may not join Talos as he leaves the simulation – the terms of my debates with Milton, for example, left us irreconcilable, so neither he nor his archive were uploaded at the end. Regardless of the choices the player makes, one of the end goals of the Extended Life project has already partially failed; depending on the player’s choices, there is the very real possibility of its failing entirely. Alexandra Drennan’s hope that “you can find something in all those files – a song, a book, a movie, maybe a game, just something that you’ll love – that makes you realize just how much poorer the universe would have been without it” might very well be a false one.

Fortunately, the textual goal is not the project’s only one, as we are more than the sum of our species’ art. Amidst all of the quotations from the poet William Blake, I was surprised to not see one especially relevant to the game’s emphasis on the massive inheritance every human, including Talos, is born into: “Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead.” Or, as Alexandra puts it, “Every single part of my body, every single strand of my DNA is part of a story that stretches back millions of years. I exist only because of the choices and sacrifices made by so many others.” But she continues, “I don’t know who they are. And what effect will my choices have on those who come after me? Maybe that’s what it means to be human.” These lines help to establish the significance of the player’s character: the latest iteration of a pattern that stretches back to time immemorial, from the modern day to when we walked across Africa, built cities in the fertile crescent, and, shivering, crossed the Bering strait. But they also help to establish the core identity of Talos: it (he? she?) is the latest link in this very human chain, a part of humanity by virtue of its origins.

The Turing Test is predicated on the simple idea that “thinking is as thinking does:” if to all available witnesses a machine intelligence appears to be thinking, then we might as well call it a thinking entity. In short, it’s a conceptual variation of the premise “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” What The Talos Principle does is provide different ways of gauging human behavior by focusing on not merely how we think, but on the role we play. First and foremost is our presence in a civilization, a society – pace those who follow Thatcher in giving the definition while denying the existence of the defined. Like all of us, Talos is thrust into the world without his consent, and is given an inheritance that, like us, he did not ask for but that he must regardless receive. She (I will be playing with Talos’ pronouns throughout this piece) is in the same position as any of us when we are born, and so she plays the same role we play as humans – then why not call her human?

The other elements that Alexandra enumerates in her audio logs further the Turing theme: thought is repeatedly analyzed in a self-reflexive manner, acknowledging the game’s status as a puzzler: “we don’t just solve problems out of necessity ­– we do it for fun! . . . We see the world as a mystery, a puzzle, because we’ve always been a species of problem-solvers.” From this basic premise, she goes deeper: “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.” Again, both of these ideas refer back to The Talos Principle’s status as a puzzler game – the latter quote highlights the way in which the layout of individual puzzles can mislead you as to their solution. But both quotes do double duty: puzzle solving becomes an analogue for the modes of thought that help us to operate in our day-to-day lives. For example, is the game’s garden really just that? Or do we question that assumption and come to a realization about its true nature?

But it is Alexandra’s final musings on the subject that capture the heart of Talos’ experience:

Is there anything that we associate more closely with intelligence than curiosity? Every intelligence species on earth is attracted by the unknown. . . Even the word apocalypse… even the word apocalypse means revelation. It seems like our ancestors always imagined that, even at the very end, we would solve one last mystery.

At once, this log foreshadows the game’s ending, where the apocalypse – literally translated as “unveiling” – reveals the world beyond the simulation, while also emphasizing the simulation’s goal: in order to prove that an AI has developed to appropriately mimic human intelligence, it must develop a curiosity synonymous with disobedience and bring an end to the simulated world it was born in.

In one way, the game conceptually cheats by having this AI piloted by an actual human player: questions of identity can be boiled down to the fact that the intelligence piloting Talos is unassailably human. But by giving the player puzzles to solve and a mystery to unravel – the lack of an immediately available backstory goads the player into asking “who am I?” or “what has happened?” – the player performs the same functions, for different reasons, as an actual AI might. Solving the puzzles demonstrates the same kind of logical thinking that Alexandra hopes for, while reading the archives and trying to understand the game’s backstory similarly demonstrates curiosity. In essence, the player plays as an ideal AI, doing the things we expect of a true AI. It depicts the Turing Test not from our usual perspective of looking from the outside at the entity, but from within: we are the intelligence, we are being tested, and if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

The game’s religious theme works similarly. While many of the details are a bit on the nose – the deity figure is named Elohim, a Hebrew word prevalent in the Old Testament meaning “God” or “gods” depending on its usage, while the simulation is represented as a new Eden, and the digital assistant is named after the poet who wrote “Of man’s first disobedience” – they dovetail neatly with the game’s status as a puzzler and with its thematic goals. In this day and age, we are unused to thinking of religion as a rational endeavor, but it was conceived as such for centuries. In the middle ages, the theological ordering of the world was an exercise in reasoned debate and argument, while the constant process of choosing to be good in the world was seen as a triumph of the intellect over nature. More directly, the act of gathering together tetromino shapes – or sigils of Elohim’s name – references the Jewish mystery practice known as the Kabbalah and its ordered systems of thought and debate, where one method of practice involves meditating on the name of God and its attributes. Elohim himself directly makes this connection between reason and religion once you have finished all of the primary puzzles: “Your faith has guided you well.”

But though it presents a religious context, the game does not try and foster an understanding of belief within the player beyond this connection between belief and rationality. Rather, the religious apparatus is similar to the ruins that dot the landscape: it is a part of the world that Talos inherits. This is not to argue that the game is a pro-religion or anti-religion text in its use of religious tropes to tell a story – only that it evokes them to frame the kind of choice the player must make at the end of the game. By using the Eden story and all of its concomitant baggage, The Talos Principle once again sets the player’s character in the role of a new Adam or Eve, intended to follow the model of the original. In essence, it’s a mythic version of the Turing Test: if it walks like a human, talks like a human, and disobeys God like a human, who is to say it’s not human?

Face to Face

There is another poem whose absence from Tom Jubert’s and Jonas Kyratzes’ script surprises me, as it perfectly combines into one work the game’s focus of a shared inheritance of the past, our irreducible materiality (read: the Talos Principle), and the importance of each individual person: Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

Ostensibly, the poem is a narration of the time spent on the ferry that took passengers to and from Brooklyn and Manhattan Island; at its heart, the poem is an unassailably jubilant assertion of our shared experience:

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

The poem describes the way we all share in the same activities, the same emotions, the same sights and sounds. Though Whitman’s Brooklyn is different from today’s, and though the East River is no longer populated by skiffs and steamboats, the essential continuity between him and us lies in the literal refrain of our actions: looking, standing, hurrying. We are connected because we do the same things and enjoy both the perennial beauty of a ferry’s drifting over the water and the crowds we travel with. Indeed, Whitman recognizes a version of the Talos Principle before it was ever formulated:

I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.

All verbs are an acknowledgement of our bodies, of our materiality. Our bodies are also a mark of distinction, the easiest and best way of identifying ourselves – through action and inaction, through stylistic choices like hair-styles, colours, and tattoos, while our very features can testify to the specific histories we have inherited. But at the same time, our bodies are marks of our commonality: they are the only way we can share in an experience felt almost a century-and-a-half ago.

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,

The Talos Principle and the Talos Principle both understand that we are irreducibly material and are subject to, like the bronze Talos, death; but that same materiality allows us to engage with each other, to see each other face to face. Though the end goal of the process (that is, that of the game itself) is to create an intelligence that can solve problems and is curious to the point of disobedience, that intelligence is then taken from the simulation and rewarded with an actual body as its final step towards humanity. And, as the credits roll, we see the embodied Talos overlooking the setting sun and the ruins of a city: “Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.”

The structure of The Talos Principle neatly mirrors the end of humanity: where the latter succumb to the unfortunate end necessitated by the principle – they do not bleed out, but die from a new plague – the former ends the game by being equipped to participate in the world via a new body, made in man’s image. As in Transistor, the irony of a game that sets itself in a digital world only to emphasize an escape from that world’s disembodied confines should not go unnoticed. But unlike Transistor, which dealt with the ultimate inability of a digital world to satisfy our need to know (figuratively and literally) another, The Talos Principle broadens this horizon to an individual’s interaction with our human world. A great deal of the text documents found in the various terminals are emails or blog posts, and are essentially communications with the outside world; many of these express the desire to go offline and spend what time remains with family and friends. One of these emails is made all the more touching when the hexadecimal code (representing data decay) is deciphered:

From: <<heaven in>>
To:<<hell s>>

Subject: <despair>


I hope you get this, the internet’s been disappearing unpredictably. I want you to know that I’m going to try and get to you. I know it’s far and there’s not a lot of time, but I think I can manage. I want to be with you, and fra%&$%/ on the road trying to get to you seems better than just staying here, so far away from you. At least I’ll be as close as I can get. Remember $§&%$&

But hey, don’t be sad. I might make it. I’ve thought about it and the distance should be crossable on time, assuming the s&$46474 don’t kick in before $§%§%.

See you soon. I love you.

The deciphered lines – “heaven in hell’s despair” – are from, unsurprisingly, Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble:”

Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.

This is but one beautiful example, a single facet of an infinite gem, a synecdoche for the Gordian knot of intertwined relationships that weave an important part of civilization. But the subtext of these emails and blog posts emphasizes their authors’ materiality: man does not live through digital media alone, but through analogue engagement. This is not meant as an attack on, say, the internet, but is rather an acknowledgement that the present can only be experienced literally in person.

But the end is not the end. Though Alexandra admits, “To participate in the project of civilization is to accept death,” the Book of the Dead scattered throughout the second world neatly summarize another corollary of the Talos Principle: so long as the dead leave some kind of a body, they have eternal life. In the seventeenth century, Henry Vaughan wrote the following of the books in what became the Bodleian Library in Oxford:

They are not dead, but full of blood again;
I mean the sense, and ev’ry line a vein.
Triumph not o’er their dust; whoever looks
In here, shall find their brains all in their books.

In the same vein, as Cicero argues in his Tusculan Disputations, a legacy can give us a life after death:

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? None ever encountered death for their country but under a firm persuasion of immortality!

We survive death so long as something of us remains: our work, our children, our accomplishments, our seal upon the wax of the earth. Again, this is a corollary of the Talos Principle, and the point the game tries to make through the embodied AI: we are beholden to the physical world for our survival. Talos is this last, literal body – so long as she exists, humanity has not died. But the genius of the analogy is made clear when we realize that we are in the same position: a member of the human race, heir to the vastness of what came before us, and ready to continue that pattern here, in the present.