The Turing Test: Reports from Europa

Turing1For a game ostensibly meant to challenge both the player and their avatar, The Turing Test sets itself up to be evaluated in a field with its own high standards. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a scientist, joined by an artificial intelligence with questionable motives, journey through a series of first-person puzzle chambers that require judicious use of a non-standard gun. This premise begs to be compared to Portal, but its philosophical musings on the nature of consciousness, corporate meddling and the “right” thing to do invoke everything from Alien to I, Robot. With such imposing company, this ambitious journey through Europa can’t help but fall flat, but the allure of its yarn and perfect level of challenge kept me engaged to the very end.

With a touch that’s a bit too on the nose, you play as Ava Turing, sent to investigate a radio-silent base on one of Jupiter’s moons. You’re compelled forward by T.O.M., an AI assistant ill-equipped to deal with the current base, which suddenly resembles what he refers to as a “Turing test” meant to ensure its participant is a human (why a grown scientist named Ava Turing needed a computer to tell her about the Turing test is beyond me). This becomes the central mystery through much of the game: why are the crew so insistent on keeping non-sentient beings out of their base, and what happened over the course of a 10-year assignment that led to this?

In the meantime, you’ve got a test to pass, or rather circumvent: your robotic friend isn’t capable of creative solutions, so it’s relying on you to make it to the end. The guiding principle behind each and every puzzle inside this base is the addition and removal of power, supplied by cubes and free-floating battery cores. The cubes have to be picked up and placed, while your gun can absorb and shoot out up to three cores at any distance, as long as the path between gun and outlet is unobstructed. It’s a decidedly simple concept, quickly grasped within the first few rooms and intelligently expanded with tools like industrial-sized magnets, robotic assistants and pressure plates. Most of these tricks have already appeared in other titles by now, but they’re tweaked just enough to make them feel just as worthwhile here.

Turing2Compared to its GlaDOS-powered sibling, the majority of Turing Test puzzles are on the easier side of things. It was only in the last few hours that I would get stuck in a room for more than five minutes, trying everything until a chance decision cleared the way forward. That might sound disappointing to the geniuses who got through the likes of The Talos Principle without any help, but for someone like me, the difficulty feels perfectly tuned. It’s never simple to the point of monotony, yet it also deftly avoids the steep, Everest-height challenge spikes that tempt me to bang my head against the table until a solution spontaneously emerges. The only major stumbling block occurs when a room’s layout asks for precise positioning: few things are more frustrating than already having the solution mapped out in my brain, yet the game isn’t happy with my box being a few inches to the left.

At the end of each set of rooms, you’re left to wander around a part of the base once inhabited by the missing scientists. Audio logs (without subtitles, a baffling omission in 2016), tablets and sheets of paper are strewn throughout, each revealing a sliver of their lives and contributing to a clearer picture of what went wrong. There’s almost too much to look at, as repeating pencils and coffee mugs can be picked up and examined alongside the details you should actually care about. You should also commit yourself to finishing every mid-chapter challenge room, as they are presented as optional yet occasionally contain details that are vital to understanding the issue at hand. It’s an uneven, messy way of incentivizing exploration, as the other side of a challenge will either house a dumb in-joke, flavor text, or a pained conversation that illuminates the base’s biggest secrets.

Turing3There were also a number of technical problems I ran into on the PC version, though most were fixed by Bulkhead Games before I even finished its brisk story. Though the game doesn’t support VR in any capacity, I noticed that my Vive’s eyepieces would power on for 10+ seconds every time I booted it up, even directing sound to its headphone jack before going back to sleep. Before a much-needed patch, screen tearing made it difficult to get a clean look at anything while moving, and the v-sync toggle didn’t actually work. I’ve also heard reports of disappearing power boxes and particularly nasty loading times for AMD CPUs, but they never came up during my own sessions. If any of these concern you, it might be best to buy it on the Xbox One instead.

It may lack Portal’s polish or the all-encompassing difficulty of The Witness or Obduction, but The Turing Test’s pleasant challenge and devotion to its story makes it an underdog competitor worth your time. After all, every game doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel: sometimes, all you need is a solid base and passion that masks the same steps we’ve come to expect.