The Talos Principle 2: Finding humanity in an age of robots
Years ago, when developer Croteam began planning a sequel to its hit puzzle game The Talos Principle, the idea that artificial intelligence might be a threat was the stuff of sci-fi movies and pie-in-the-sky thinkpieces. The Talos Principle 2 is releasing in a different era, one where everyone has access to sophisticated AI tools like ChatGPT.
But Croteam writers Jonas Kyratzes and Verena Kyratzes say the comparison is less apt than you might think—that our contemporary AI models have little in common with the sentient robots that inhabit its world. And even if they did come alive, Skynet-style, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.
"We have been developing this story for so long that when we wrote the first draft, a lot of the current AI discourse wasn't as developed (or as heated) as it is nowadays," says Verena. "But one thing that we are very passionate about is that AI shouldn’t be perceived as something threatening.”
“ChatGPT and DALL·E and similar programs aren’t actually artificial intelligence in that sense. They’re not truly sentient in the way that a human is sentient,” Verena continues. “We wanted to tell a story where a machine is just as intelligent and capable of complex thoughts and emotions as a human being, and portray that as a good thing—because why should that be inherently scary? Intelligence should be celebrated, not feared."
The Talos Principle surprised everyone upon its release in 2014. Here was a challenging puzzle game in the tradition of Portal and Antichamber, complete with a thoughtful sci-fi story that explored the meaning of humanity and the nature of artificial intelligence—and developed by a studio that's best-known for its work on the over-the-top Serious Sam shooters.
With The Talos Principle 2 releasing nearly a decade after the original, we sat down with writers Jonas Kyratzes and Verena Kyratzes to discuss what new ground this sequel will break, why it took a while to come out, and what it's like to make a game about AI in an age of AI.
Spinning off Serious Sam
As a franchise, The Talos Principle came from an unlikely source—yes, the Serious Sam series itself. The core idea for The Talos Principle stemmed from a prototype weapon that Croteam created for Serious Sam 4 called the Jammer, which could disable objects like forcefields, weapons, and even entire enemies from a distance. When playtesting a set of prototype levels, Croteam decided that the mechanic was fun enough to justify its own title, which eventually led to the creation of the first The Talos Principle.
According to Jonas, the sequel’s origins were a little more straightforward—the difficulties came from the details.
The team knew what the story of The Talos Principle 2 would be from the very beginning. "Speaking from a narrative standpoint, we had a pitch for The Talos Principle 2 ready ever since we made the first game," says Jonas. "The broad strokes [of The Talos Principle 2] are all foreshadowed if you look closely enough, so we knew from the beginning that we weren't done with this world. We'd told the story of the birth of this new humanity, and now we wanted to tell the rest of the story."
The Talos Principle is a sci-fi game with a philosophical twist, and its sequel is no different. Like similar titles—say System Shock or The Witness—it takes place in a closed-off, lonely setting with mysterious origins.
In the original The Talos Principle, you explored a series of serene puzzle chambers. Your only companion was a faceless voice that called itself Elohim, an enigmatic entity that instructed the player not to explore the enormous tower at the center of it all.
Though The Talos Principle 2 still features plenty of puzzle rooms for the player to solve, Verena says there are also more characters that the player interacts with face-to-face this time around.
"The audio logs and terminal texts from The Talos Principle make a comeback, even though the logs are now from different characters," Verena says. "…Since we're telling a story about society, it was important to actually show the player that society and let them participate in it…The second game has a lot more interactive characters, who all have their own opinions about the world and its future. At its heart, The Talos Principle 2 is a character-driven narrative."
Though Jonas and Verena weren't able to reveal much about the sequel's story, we do know that it takes place in an all-robot society seemingly devoid of humans—presumably the world implied by one of the original game's endings. According to the writers, The Talos Principle 2 involves these robots grappling with the questions posed by their growing society, such as whether humans are worth emulating in the first place. "Simply put: The Talos Principle was about the infancy of non-biological humanity, and The Talos Principle 2 is about them growing up," says Verena. "For us, it was the next logical step."
Though it is a puzzle game, the original The Talos Principle opted to focus on a variety of mechanics instead of dialing in on one central conceit, including a memorable device that allowed you to create a “ghost” version of yourself that would repeat your previous actions, flipping switches and the like.
Jonas and Verena say that The Talos Principle 2 employs a similar approach, adding new mechanics like gravity wonkery and "mind transference" to the proceedings. But don't worry: You won't have to beat every puzzle in order to complete the game—especially the ultra-hard "Gold" puzzles, which will push your problem-solving capabilities to their limit.
"Almost every single area of the game introduces a new mechanic, and interactions between those mechanics," Jonas says. "The foundations of the gameplay are unchanged, but what you get to do this time around is entirely new." He adds that The Talos Principle 2 removes some of the "more irritating mechanics" from the original, though he doesn’t specify what ones.
Asking big questions
The Talos Principle isn't particularly influenced by any other games. Instead, Jonas says that it's influenced more by the idea of science fiction itself—as well as the unusual circumstances that led to its creation in the first place.
“[It’s] a world of its own, really, with its own unique and eccentric priorities that organically grew out of its development,” says Jonas. "The Talos Principle 2 is built around the principle (no pun intended) of continuing to follow the internal logic dictated by its design and story. This leads us to a game that feels familiar in many ways, but is still a markedly different experience."
Still, that's not to say that the writers don't have reference points that guide their work. He points to the 1996 Sierra game Rama—itself based on Arthur C. Clarke's classic sci-fi series—as a major influence on his own writing. "It gave me the desire to someday experience a game where I get to be a part of a scientific expedition to a mysterious place," says Jonas. "I've carried that desire with me for almost 30 years."
Jonas notes that the original The Talos Principle overwhelmingly focused on questions that pertain to the individual, specifically the nature of humanity itself. The Talos Principle 2, by contrast, is almost exclusively concerned with larger societal questions. During development, the writers didn't seek out AI as a hot-button topic to tackle—Verena describes it as "more of a side effect than the point of the exercise." He also says that the team behind the game have a lot of different opinions on subjects like AI, so they tried to balance those different perspectives in an impartial way when designing the game's robotic world.
"It seemed logical to us to move on from there and ask questions about society as a whole," Verena says. "What is the duty of the individual towards society—and, in turn, what does society owe the individual? What is the responsibility of society towards the world that it inhabits? From that follows questions about progress, expansion, and nature. Is progress necessarily 'evil?' Is nature inherently 'good?' We’re telling a story about non-biological humans—machines—so what would be their stance towards new technologies, and towards their legacy as inheritors of human civilization?"
A long-awaited sequel
Given that The Talos Principle 2 arrives about nine years after the release of the original, it's only natural to ask Croteam why it took so long—especially when you consider they had an idea for the sequel in mind from the start. But as Verena and Jonas put it, there's no secret to the long development time. Games are hard to make, and new technology makes the process more complex with each passing year. Croteam's other output (particularly Serious Sam 4 and The Hand of Merlin) also contributed to the lengthy development time.
"The biggest challenge [in making The Talos Principle 2] was simply the scale of the thing," Jonas says. "We're not a huge studio, and it's a big world with a lot of characters and puzzles in it. But we planned it out as best we could and tried to stick to the plan."
Croteam experienced other difficulties in putting the game together. For example, Jonas says finding the right voice actor for specific parts can be a lot harder than you might think. Though several of The Talos Principle 2's key roles were written with specific actors in mind, the team struggled to cast the character Alcatraz, who is usually the voice of caution in the game. (That role eventually went to Ian Porter, who Jonas describes as the right person for the part.)
Technological leaps in game development and development tools also significantly impacted The Talos Principle 2. Jonas says that the team used Unreal Engine 5 to make the game, which made many aspects of its development easier, especially since the game is much larger than its predecessor. "Could we have made this game a decade ago?" says Jonas. "Yes, but it wouldn't have looked as nice."
The Talos Principle 2 is available now on the Epic Games Store.