The Archaeology of The Talos Principle

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An “ancient” aqueduct in The Talos Principle. (image: Croteam.)

The Talos Principle combines photorealistic settings of Rome/Ostia/Pompeii (and ancient Egypt and elsewhere) with diabolical puzzles and a plot chock full of ancient and modern philosophy, a debate of fate v. freewill, and considerable exploration of reality and the virtual. Although The Talos Principle was published at the end of 2014 for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, in May 2015 for Android, and in October 2015 for PlayStation 4 by Croatian game developer Croteam, developer of the Serious Sam series, I didn’t play it until March 2017. I regretted waiting so long. As soon as I launched it, I was hooked by the most stunning visuals I had ever seen in a game set in antiquity, with the opening screen, scene, and first level of puzzles set among the plastered bricks and wall paintings of a reimagined Rome, Ostia, and Pompeii. As I played, I was distracted from the puzzles by the art and architecture. The story also drew me in with its masterclass in Western philosophy, a re-introduction to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and a thorough debate on artificial v. real intelligence.

I was curious about the integration of archaeology and philosophy into such a beautiful and engaging game, and worked up the courage to write to the game’s writers, Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes. I received a gracious reply from Jonas on behalf of the team, and I have reproduced my questions and his answers in full below:

1. I never thought I’d play a game that featured the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Is this discovery of texts something you knew about in advance of writing it into the story, or did you learn about the papyri as you were writing the story? Were their other items from antiquity that you decided to leave out of the game, and how did you decide what to keep?

I was aware of them, and figured they fitted the themes we were exploring rather nicely. It’s also always highly pleasing to tie as many real elements into a story as possible, particularly when you’re also working with invented historical elements like Straton of Stageira.

It’s possible that there were other items we considered including, but I must admit that I can’t remember right now. I mostly remember various texts we couldn’t include due to copyright.

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Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1.29.

2. I showed my archaeologist friends who work in Rome and Pompeii screengrabs and a video walkthrough of the first level of the game (and its puzzle areas). They were amazed at the level of detail and texturing of the plaster and brick. Trajan’s Market makes an appearance, too, along with mosaics and wall paintings. Did you work with existing laser scans of these features, and if so, what was the source? I’ve played other Rome-based games (e.g., Ryse), but the photorealism of Talos actually fooled the experts. I’m also wondering why Diocletian’s Palace (Spalato/Split) did not make an appearance (or maybe it did, and I totally missed it!).

The graphics were created by Croteam using photogrammetry, for which they visited the actual locations themselves. (My wife, who is obsessed with Pompeii, immediately recognized a ton of details.) I can’t help but think this would be a fantastic technique for creating a 3D simulation of Pompeii. Has anyone done that? I want that.

However, in terms of why things were done as they were, you have to keep in mind that The Talos Principle happened messily and unexpectedly. Originally, it was just a series of puzzles for Serious Sam 4, which is also where some of the graphics come from. The puzzles turned out to be fun, and some people at Croteam kept making more of them, until slowly an entire new game emerged. We, the writers, were only brought in when quite an elaborate structure had already been created.

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Ostia reimagined in The Talos Principal.

3. As writers of the game, you chose to have Elohim and the world’s human makers situate the puzzles in historic places, facsimiles that approximate Rome and ancient Egypt for example, yet are not actually Rome and Egypt. Why did you settle on these environments instead of other cultures, or something completely futuristic (as one sees in Portal)?

Continuing from what I said above, we didn’t really make any choices about the world we were presented with; rather, as a kind of reverse archaeology, we had to make sense of what was there and extend meaning backwards in time. We had to ask ourselves: what could this be? Who could have made this? (Of course, over the many months we worked on this, Croteam did make sure that things then conformed to the story we’d created.) The player then experiences our journey backwards.

We did, in interviews, describe the game as being archaeological, both in how you have to figure out how the elements fit together, and in how it has a multiplicity of layers you can dig into. So that’s very much intentional, but also a reaction to the object, so to speak, we were presented with.

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The Great Pyramid in The Talos Principle.

4. As game developers, where do you draw the line between realism/fidelity in visuals and historical facts, and entertaining gameplay? Who did you think your audience was going to be for Talos, and have you heard from other archaeologists or historians who were either impressed by (or critical of) the game?

I don’t think we, the writers, spent much time thinking about who our audience might be, beyond people who might enjoy puzzle games. And since Croteam rather admirably let us do our own thing, we felt comfortable going quite far in terms of complex ideas.

(Personally, I’d love to play or write a game that’s extremely accurate in terms of historical facts, not because I think that’s necessary to create good art, but because those facts are frequently so much more interesting than what writers end up inventing. This is also true of movies. However, for Talos, we were anyway dealing with a half-fictional history, and intertwining real and fictional elements was part of the fun.)

I haven’t heard anything critical, though that might just be because nobody’s gone out of their way to be unpleasant. I have heard good things from several sources, which is extremely pleasing. My favourite bit of trivia, however, is that one of the translators, who was something of an expert on Egypt, contacted me about the DLC, Road to Gehenna, asking why one of the texts was referring to a god called Sobel, when the correct name is Sobek. Which gave me a chance to explain that the characters had conflated the god (Sobek) and the edge detection algorithm (Sobel), which is actually evident in the rest of that text. Everybody paid a lot of attention to detail.

5. Last question! To me, the Easter eggs in The Talos Principle are like archaeological artifacts: things that are hidden that have their own meaning and context when discovered. How did you decide what to include and where to include them (e.g., the “money man” in the church or the Pink Floyd prism and music). Archaeologists are always interested in the context in which things are found, and sometimes we discover weird things that are completely out of place. Some of the Easter eggs were very much like this.

Croteam have a thing for Easter eggs, which can sometimes get out of a control a little – but it’s part of why we love them. Thankfully, with Talos we came up with a backstory that is explicitly intended to make sense of this strange videogame world, and which allows the Easter eggs to function like archaeological artefacts. We didn’t place those artefacts ourselves, that is, but at least we made space for them in the narrative.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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