Halfway across the solar system from the little planet we call home, Ava Turing is woken from her cryogenic sleep. Something’s gone wrong and communications to the team down on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and the station’s AI needs you and your human mind to help investigate.
It’s a story that’s got all the hallmarks of a sci-fi thriller, with man versus malevolent machine, and the above trailer would certainly suggest a fast-paced rollercoaster journey along those lines. It’s a trailer that bends the truth though, because though you can run around the levels, complete puzzles and immediately dash through the opening doors, the first few chapters occur at a much more sedate pace.
You move from one room-based puzzle to the next as slow or as fast as you like, manipulating and moving power sources around to open doors and new paths for you to pass through. The AI, with the friendly acronym TOM and falsely computer-like voice, tells you that these are Turing tests. Being able to “think outside the box” and throw a power source box through a window so that you can pick it up on the other side and slot it in place seems to count for a lot in this world.
The EMT – Energy Manipulation Tool – meanwhile, adds another layer to this, with balls of energy not constrained by boxes which can be sucked up from afar and then fired away. Combining the two forms of energy, different tools within the world, platforms, windows and more allow for increasingly complex puzzle design, occasionally revisiting a particular layout but twisting it in a new way.
With puzzle solving and an AI chatting to you along the way, The Turing Test is quite naturally going to draw a lot of comparisons to Portal. There’s also the stark, clinical setting, with lots of white panelling coloured strip lighting and an excessive amount of hexagonal bokeh lens flare – that said, I love a hexagonal bokeh effect. However, its story has a very different tone, as Ava works her way through the Europa facility, trying to discover what’s happened and where the members of the science team have all disappeared to. Instead, better parallels might be drawn to The Talos Principle, a game whose narrative questions what it is to be human, to be alive, to be conscious.
The first few chapters of The Turing Test starts to head down a similar path, but where The Talos Principle was, to my mind, a very dense and almost impenetrable philosophical study at times, the game keeps things much lighter and more easily digestible. The focus here is very much on the puzzles, and its through the discussions between Ava and TOM that you start to learn more about the mission, about self-awareness and start to find the first few tendrils of the game’s underlying mysteries.
The tests here are quite far removed from the Turing test that we know from modern day philosophical thinking, and as TOM lays out what the test is, it also explains the flaws in the test, the Chinese room thought experiment and more. Yet the question remains until the third chapter just what it is that’s preventing TOM from completing these logic-based puzzles, especially for such an advanced machine and one that ought to be able to best the original Turing test. I’ll not spoil it for you, but with even a basic knowledge of computers, it made me smile.
While TOM and Ava occasionally talk during the puzzles, each chapter of ten rooms leads to a particular part of the facility, whether it’s the command room or the crew quarters. Again, there’s glimmers of an underlying mystery surrounding the crew’s disappearance that can be gleaned from some of the things you can find, whether they’re audiologs or email chains talking about an exciting discovery on Europa that could change mankind forever. Unfortunately, it’s at these points that the game can feel like it’s talking down to an audience of dullards, with a small team of scientists smart enough to be candidates for a decade-long stay explain certain ideas in a painstakingly simplistic fashion.
That’s a relatively minor note, in what’s otherwise shaping up to be a quietly gripping game. Those same notes of mystery are a big part of why I’m eager to play more of the game and unravel its gradual mystery. And then there’s the retro computer terminals, tucked away off to the side within each chapter that pose both a greater, more unconventional form of puzzle to get to them, and then reward you with more complex and more challenging views into the game’s story.
The game asks whether or not machines can show convincingly human-like awareness and behaviour, but its real goal is to immerse you in its multi-layered story and, above all else, get you thinking.