Platforms: PC, PS4 and Xbox One
Developer: Bulkhead Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
One constant within sci-fi is the creepy A.I. whom you are never sure is entirely trustworthy or has perhaps become truly sentient. It’s a topic that has been debated time and time again; could an A.I. ever truly be human? What does it even mean to be a human? Will Skynet happen? If so is Arnold Schwarzenegger going to reveal he actually is a Terminator? All important questions. The Turing Test, though, is less interested in Terminator and much more intrigued by questions of humanity, free will and what constitutes true thought. Heavy stuff, indeed.
Set on Europa an A.I. known as T.O.M. awakens one Ava Turing from her cryostatis aboard an orbiting vessel and asks her to head to Europa’s surface to investigate what has happened to the ground team, whom T.O.M. has lost all contact with. Arriving at the base Ava discovers it has been somehow reconstructed into a sequence of puzzles so that she now has to figure out how to progress through each room. T.O.M. presents a theory to explain why the base has been changed, postulating that these are a series of Turing Tests designed so that only a human can pass through them. For some reason the ground crew are trying to keep T.O.M. out, and as a human Ava would appear to be the key to getting through to them. As T.O.M. explains, she is capable of lateral thought and can therefore come up with solutions he can not. On top of that it seems that some sort of life has been discovered on the surface of Europa.
The problem is one of pacing. Almost every room within The Turing Test features a snippet of conversation between T.O.M. and Ava that gets played as soon as you walk through the door. That’s perfectly fine. However, the entire thing feels like it was written like one long, in-depth conversation between the two of them and then awkwardly cut into pieces before being spliced into the game. You walk through a door, listen to the fascinating exchange and then it just stops. You finish the puzzle and enter the next room and the dialogue between T.O.M. and Ava picks up again like there was never an interruption. On the earlier puzzles this isn’t too bad since you’ll fly through them, but there are going to be times when the story comes to a grinding halt as you try to amble around and figure out the solution. The Portal games got around this by having the protagonist mute, and the other characters talking at you rather than to you. It wasn’t an elegant solution, but witty and solid writing hid the cracks. The Turing Test, though, doesn’t quite pull it off.
Another problem is that Ava can feel like a bit of a moron. Despite it being several hundred years in the future and despite dealing with an advanced A.I. and despite being an astronaut and therefore presumably quite intelligent Ava is somehow oddly unaware of numerous things. She seems utterly unaware of what a Turing Test is, what the mission is and requires T.O.M. to explain many, many things to her which simply should not need explanation. She’s also strangely willing to let things slide and doesn’t react as strongly as you might think to certain revelations, although in fairness there are narrative reasons for this so I can’t be annoyed too much at this.
But you know what? T.O.M.’s obscenely smooth voice quickly makes you forget about the many logical cracks in the story as it soothes you into a relaxed state. Throughout the narrative The Turing Test attempts to tackle a lot of sci-fi staples, including questions about humanity, what makes a person and whether an A.I. can become essentially human, before wrapping up using the kind of ambiguous ending that writers always seem to think is clever To be brutally honest it’s never as smart as it would like to believe. Its philosophical pondering isn’t particularly deep, nor do they provide anything new to anyone that’s already entrenched in science fiction, but that doesn’t stop it from being engaging enough to keep you going. Although it hits a lot of tropes along the way it still manages to execute its tale rather well, and does bring in some fun ideas of its own along the way. The ending, as said, is left ambiguous with many conclusions to be drawn from it. I’m still pondering the possible meanings behind it, and any game that does that is a winner in my book. It’s the kind of finale that needs to be mulled over, and in my case possibly even written about.
All of this rambling is the pretty dress-up of a puzzle game that wants to test your mind from both a story perspective and from a logical thinking perspective. It isn’t long before you get your hands on a gun of sorts, which immediately makes you think of Portal. However, instead of creating insane tunnels that bend space to their will it can suck up balls of energy and then slot them into specific recesses in order to power things. Want to open a door? Grab a ball of energy from something else and put it into the slot, and the door opens. Simple. As you would expect, though, as the game goes on more and more elements are introduced to keep track of. Power bricks can be slotted into recesses to power things as well, or dropped to act as a weight on a giant button. Magnets can be used to move those power bricks around, too, plus there will be moving platforms and different types of energy that get added into the mix. Later on the game opts to more radically shift the mechanics as well, introducing some cool new concepts that really help mix it up. The puzzles build and build, increasing in both complexity and physical size. You might start off in tiny rooms, but it doesn’t take too long before you’re working out chambers composed of several sections.
Where The Turing Test struggles a little is in the fact that when it introduces new elements it has a tendency to toss in a couple of incredibly easy tutorial puzzles that don’t feel needed. They just bring the pace of the game down. There’s also just some puzzles that are much less interesting and could probably have been trimmed out of the game without a problem. Still, it mostly manages to nail what it’s trying to do, by which I mean it wants you to feel smug about figuring out each solution, but at the same time it never wants you to actually get completely stuck because then you wouldn’t get to experience that lovely narrative. As such if you’ve led a life of puzzle-solving you might find The Turing Test a bit less challenging than expected.
But when it’s good, it’s pretty damn good. As you hit the later stages of the game chambers become quite sizable, and so your initial few minutes will be spent just running around, examining everything, following wires to see what will get powered on if you stick a glob of energy in the receptacle and how everything roughly interacts. A plan will form in your head which will most likely be utterly wrong, but it should hopefully set you on the path to success, or at worst the path to headaches. It doesn’t take long to get into the groove of things. If I grab this ball of energy and use it for this, that will push that cube, then from up there I can grab that original ball of energy and use it for that, and if I move that energy bridge and then turn it off it can drop that power block into the giant button, and then that will power this…As more elements get added it never feels overwrought or bogged down in pointless complications. Every new mechanic slots neatly into the existing ones, and since the puzzles aren’t horribly difficult there’s a nice sense of progression. You’ll probably get through the entire game in around five hours or so.
Every ten chambers you’re given the chance to soak up some environmental storytelling, such as exploring some living quarters. These give you a welcome moment of respite from the puzzles and a chance to flex other parts of your brain as you attempt to build a profile of the people who have now gone missing. Sadly the developers also use this opportunity to drop audio logs into the mix, from which you’ll glean insight into what has been going on without the unreliable narration of T.O.M. It’s a little bit of a shame to see audio logs get used since they feel awkward within the story, but it’s understandable I suppose.
The stupid thing is that if The Turing Test existed in a world that had never known the Portal games it would probably be hailed as brilliant. Sadly, though, that isn’t the world we live in and Portal does exist, and from that existence has come something of a renaissance for puzzle games. In this world The Turing Test is merely great. But then, that’s still a good bit of praise, isn’t it? It’s story might be a little cliche and the puzzles might never hit the same level of brilliance as Portal’s, or indeed reach the fullness of their the game’s own potential, but The Turing Test still tells an engaging tale with fun gameplay. It therefore earns an outright recommendation from me.