Monday, February 02, 2015

Chris Suellentrop on "The Talos Principle"

The Talos Principle

Chris Suellentrop, a video game critic for The New York Times, describes a video game - The Talos Principle - in his article "Enticing All to See the Bigger Picture" (New York Times, January 27, 2015), from which I offer the following digest version:
Play enough video games and . . . you'll start to wonder what it all means. Is there a point? . . . [The game called] The Talos Principle . . . takes . . . [such] inquiries a step further[,] . . . prompting . . . meditat[ation] on the meaning of life . . . . [It] quotes Milton, Blake, Kant and Chesterton, among others, and expects you to piece together why any of it matters . . . . [It] begins with an amnesiac who awakens in a new world and tries to make sense of it . . . . The game [is one] of puzzles, [such as] . . . uncovering who you are and why a disembodied voice is speaking to you . . . . [Much] is opaque at first, [but] . . . core concerns - the nature of consciousness, the existence of God - are clear . . . . "Behold, child, you are risen from dust," a sonorous voice declaims before telling you he is Elohim, your maker. There are references to a temple, a garden, a covenant, the promise of eternal life . . . . [The Hebrew word] Elohim is the first . . . [reference] to God in the Hebrew Bible, but the mysterious voice of The Talos Principle clearly isn't meant to be That Guy.
No? He certainly sounds a lot like "That Guy." But Suellentrop has played the game and must know what he's talking about. Perhaps the game has a gnostic twist to it? But let's read on:
Uncovering exactly who . . . [this Elohim] is and why he has put you there requires solving a series of puzzles[, i,e.,] . . . hidden Tetris-shaped sigils behind locks and gates of escalating complexity. Beams of light, and later cubes and fans, must be arranged in intricate geometric webs to reach the sigils, . . . then . . . rotated and assembled into rectangles . . . [to] open doors that lead . . . to evermore [difficult] brain teasers . . . . [T]hese challenges are [pleasing], [but] The Talos Principle is as much a game about reading as . . . about puzzling through logic exercises. A series of computer terminals . . . placed throughout Elohim's world . . . . [offer] texts . . . [of] poetry, philosophical digressions or Internet chat logs . . . . [T]hese readings are routinely engaging, clever and thought-provoking[,] . . . [but e]ven more rewarding are . . . encounters with the Milton Library Assistant, the game's rough equivalent to Eden's serpent.
This is where the game begins to sound gnostic. A 'serpent' named after John Milton would surely offer good advice . . . right?
Elohim forbids . . . climbing a tower . . . contain[ing] knowledge of the world beyond. The assistant . . . [says] to ascend anyway. Like Lucifer in "Paradise Lost," the Milton Library Assistant is . . . more fascinating . . . than the remote and inscrutable Elohim[, and a]s the player . . . types on the game's virtual keyboards, . . . [the player's] fingers . . . [appear] robotic, and the assistant begins a series of questionnaires that ask the player to prove . . . [itself] a conscious being. The game partly functions as a reverse Turing test - a computer asking a human to prove its capacity to think, rather than the other way around . . . . [T]his game is deeply interested in the nature of artificial intelligence and the potential of machines to reason.
Suellentrop adds that in Greek mythology, Talos was a giant made of bronze. Maybe this is the game-makers' allusion to a robot brought to life (and consciousness?) by a supply of ichor - the blood of gods and other immortals - flowing through its single vein, but we should perhaps also note that this giant died from loss of ichor when the single vein was opened. Whether this is useful in understanding the game, I don't know - nor do I know what the Talos "principle" refers to.

But I wonder if being "conscious" is identical with being able to "reason." Does a Turing test - original or reversed - conflate these two? And is that important in playing this puzzling game?

Whatever the answers to these questions, The Talos Principle sounds interesting.

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At 7:58 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

In the movie "The Devil's Advocate," Al Pacino plays Satan, whose earthly name in the movie is John Milton. It's enough to make one wonder how closely the actual Milton associated himself with the Evil One, given the propensity of fiction-weavers to use the name "Milton" as code for the Tempter.

At 8:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

God the Father in Milton's Paradise Lost does make a rather negative impression, I must admit, leaving many readers to wonder about Milton's sympathies.

Jeffery Hodges

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