Making ‘The Talos Principle,’ a Thoughtful Puzzler From a Shooter Studio

June 17, 2015 | Phil Owen

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Damjan Mravunac of Croteam, the Croatian studio behind indie first-person puzzler The Talos Principle.

The Talos Principle is an oddity of a game, both for the player and the people who made it. Aside from PC juggernaut Valve, there aren’t many games in the first-person puzzle game subgenre. For the developers at Croatia-based Croteam, Talos is odd because the independent studio has been known for one thing, and only that one thing: the Serious Sam series of frantic first-person shooters.

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When they began building the puzzles that would eventually make up The Talos Principle, the folks at Croteam weren’t intending to make Talos itself. They were instead building these puzzles for Serious Sam 4, and later decided they warranted their own game. And so they put the brakes on SS4 and focused on the business of puzzle-making for a while.

“It was complicated at first. We had a certain mindset in our company,” said Damjan Mravunac, Croteam’s CMO. “We had to step away from this mindset, and we had to completely empty our heads and take a fresh approach.”

Talos features a posthumanism narrative about an artificial intelligence living in a computer simulation after humanity had been wiped out by a plague — Serious Sam games have stories but, well, they aren’t that. As you set out in the body of this AI, a voice in the sky calling itself Elohim will tell you solving these puzzles is His Will. You’ll also encounter a series of computer terminals on which you can read about the now-dead humans who created this world, as well as interact with another entity, one which is convinced that God is not so good. This X-factor of a being insists you take the “sigils” you earn for completing puzzles — these are actually Tetris pieces — and use them to climb the mysterious tower that Elohim forbade you from exploring.

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The puzzles themselves — there are more than a hundred of them — are at first easy to grasp and then dramatically ramp up in complexity as you go. They’ll begin with things like a jammer that can turn off force field doors (or any other device in the world that operates on electricity), and tripods that can redirect lasers that activate switches — a blue laser will activate blue switches and red lasers activate red switches, and you’ll have to arrange these redirecting tripods creatively to get the lasers where they need to go.

More and more wildcards enter the fray as you go along: Boxes you can stack things on, big fans that can throw things (or you) long distances or cause things to hover high in the air, a machine that records your actions and then when you stop recording creates a separate physical manifestation of you that you will then have to cooperate with to solve a problem.

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“To do a puzzle in Talos, you had to think way in advance,” Mravunac said. “It wasn’t like random, ‘Oh, I’m going to put this door here, this jammer here, and this cube here’ and see if it works. We had to design this starting on paper.” To plan, they even built some of the puzzles with LEGOs, and then a puzzle designer was tasked with translating the physical designs into the game and figuring out if it adhered to the rules of the game.

On top of the normal series of puzzles, which are cordoned off into small areas in puzzle hubs and reward you with the sigils mentioned above, there are additional puzzles for which you earn stars upon completion. And these are quite devious. Though some are just a more difficult puzzle within one of the puzzle areas, others initially appear unsolvable as you encounter, say, a red laser switch in an area that contains only blue lasers. Eventually you realize their secret: you’ll have to use tools from multiple puzzle areas to unlock these stars.

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“They’re insanely, insanely hard. I hate our level designers,” Mravunac said, noting also that he had only managed to get six of the 30 stars found in the game. “But there are people who can solve them, apparently. I wasn’t one of them.”

First came puzzles, then came story. Croteam had an idea for a story they wanted to tell, but as Mravunac noted, the narrative told in Serious Sam “was not like War and Peace or something” — they realized if they wanted to do justice to the philosophy-filled concept they had bring in outside writers. Enter Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes, relatively late in the development process after most of the puzzles had been designed, to whip Talos into a full work of art.

Jubert and Kyratzes wrote all of what you read on the computer terminals, and those serve as an excellent change of pace. Just when the mental effort from solving a puzzle might start to wear on you, there will be more posthumanism treatises to read, or the AI in the computer will want to argue with you about the nature of being a person some more. And what you learn from the terminals in turn give meaning to the puzzles.

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Now, some of the Croteam folks are again grinding away on Serious Sam 4. But that grind is different — they learned things from making Talos they never would have otherwise, lessons they can take back to Serious Sam. And Mravunac said that switching it up for a while, making something so fundamentally different from what they’re used to, has proven to be intangibly helpful moving forward.

“It was a big rebirth for Croteam. We felt very replenished. We tried something new and the new game was a success. And now I think we are ready to go back to Serious Sam, actually are a little big eager.”

The Talos Principle is available on PC via Steam and other digital retailers for $39.99, and on select Android tablets broken into six episodes for $4.99 each. A PS4 version is forthcoming this year, as is a new content pack, Road to Gehenna, which will further Talos’ story.