I saw two inventive, perception-centric games at PAX last week that got me thinking about how much we take for granted when playing games in a first-person perspective. In one of them, you're playing as someone who think he's a god. In the other, you're getting yelled at by one. Both of them challenge you to believe in what you're doing.
The game where you're embodying a would-be deity is Pneuma: Breath of Life, being made by Deco Digital. It's a first-person puzzler with an unorthodox gimmick for solving its environmental conundrums. As I wandered through its beautiful rooms, I encountered an eerie series of eyes mounted on lamps. These lamps trigger various mechanisms in the rooms—opening doors, moving platforms—when I looked at them. After a few easy introductory areas, things got trickier. I had to figure that I needed to walk backwards towards a door that I couldn't see anymore but had to believe was still open. Another puzzle put me on moving platforms where I had to look at one eye then another and another in rapid succession to make my way to the exit.
It's the kind of puzzler I love to hate, where I spend incredibly long minutes trying to figure out what's utterly obvious after I've solved it. Producer/artist Joe Brammer told me that "If a solution seems tedious, the player's probably doing it wrong." But, because our brains all work differently, he can't say just how long it'll take to finish Pneuma. "One puzzle took a person 20 minutes to finish and the next player after him figured it in two. It's all up to how you think."
The Talos Principle aims to make players question why they think the way they do. It's another puzzle game that happens in the first person but one that's got philosophical underpinnings. The character I controlled here was an advanced AI construct, being tested, it seemed, to see if he's worthy of freedom. The puzzles required me to use a mix of gadgets to bend lasers from one point to another. I had to use jammers to interrupt forcefields, weights to trigger switches and connector nodes to target the lasers to multiple points.
In between the puzzle areas, I'd run into hologram videos and computer terminals with messages from other entities about the nature of life and my own existence. A disembodied voice from the skies spouted vaguely bilblical sounding proclamations at me. One computer terminal questioned whether I was even worthy to input commands into it. Heady stuff on multiple levels. The Talos Principle comes from Croteam, best known to the shoot-first, ask-questions-never run-and-gun Serious Sam shooters. Croteam narrative designer Jonas Kyratzes and Tom Jubert said that the desire to make The Talos Principle came from wanting to make something deeper, more and more ambitious as the game-makers got older. Depending on the choices you make while figuring out the 100+ puzzles, players will wind up with one of several alternate endings. Jubert—who has also writing and narrative design to FTL and The Swapper—studied philosophy and hopes that The Talos Principle will cause players to question how they move through the world around them at least a little bit.
With a focus on story, perception and puzzles, the two titles above share an intriguing commonality that's not seen all that often in video games. We'll get to see how successful the execution is when they come out. The Talos Principle hits PC/Mac, PS4 and Shield Tablet later this year; Pneuma is due out on Xbox One in January 2015.