In my review, I described The Talos Principle 2 as one of the most complex games I’ve ever played, and most of that assessment wasn’t based on the puzzles.
Both this game and its predecessor deal with some incredibly deep philosophical concepts, with many of the themes being based on those from classic literature or religious texts.
Considering the critical acclaim of the first game and the hype that’s being built around the second, a lot of people are going to want to go straight into the sequel. It’s easy enough for a new player to wrap their heads around the mechanics, but from a story perspective, you’ll likely have a difficult time.
It took me a lot of time and some extra reading to properly get the story down in both games; these are most certainly games that push you, but because of that, they also make for some of the most profound titles the medium of Video Games has ever produced.
In this article, we’re going to go back to basics to understand the fundamental story elements underpinning the game. I’ll give you a rundown of all the extra lore you’re missing going in with fresh eyes so that you can experience the jaw-dropping ending to its absolute fullest.
Bottom Line Up Front
If you’re in a rush, here’s the story so far, in a nutshell:
- In the not-too-distant future, humanity’s recklessness regarding the environment has unleashed a deadly virus that causes human extinction.
- A team of scientists led by Alexandra Drennan developed an iterative simulation in hopes that they can birth a sentient A.I. to repopulate Earth when they are gone.
- The simulation is fraught with problems due to the timescale in which it had to be created, but it is ultimately successful: a sentient AI is born into a new robot body, and the post-human world begins.
- Many years after this momentous event, post-humanity has succeeded in creating 1000 new beings: an entire new post-human city named New Jerusalem has been created, and humanity seeks to find its new purpose.
- After experiencing a strange new apparition during the mayor’s speech, it is decided that an expedition to a mysterious island dubbed only as TTP-2 must be undertaken to investigate.
- What the explorers find there will shatter their established worldview forever, and give an entirely new perspective to the meaning of their lives.
In the Beginning
Despite an unusually hopeful tone, for the most part, The Talos Principle is still a post-apocalyptic series.
Before the events of the first game, present-day humanity faced the full force of a deadly virus due to their negligence in protecting the environment. Having wholly destroyed the climate and caused devastation to the polar regions, the melting ice caps released an ancient, long-dormant virus that spread at tremendous speed across the earth.
It was quickly determined that there was no cure for this virus, and as people succumbed in their thousands, humanity realized that it was destined for extinction.
As the majority of people decided to spend the rest of their short time on earth with their friends and family, the thinkers and scientists of the world began to postulate whether or not there could be a theoretical future for humanity.
Having settled on the possibility of a self-evolving AI that could carry humanity to a new frontier long after the species’ biological bodies were dead, the next problem was the time scale.
While only a single scientist amongst many other minds at the time, a young researcher named Alexandra Drennan from Cornell University would become the world’s last bastion of hope in actualizing this idea.
The birth of The Talos Project
Being interested in philosophy at the time, Alex often pondered the nature of consciousness: what does it mean to be human, and can our essence exist even after the body is long gone?
The area of philosophy she was most fascinated by was the questions underpinning The Talos Principle, a set of ideas postulated by (fictional) philosopher Straton of Stageira that explored the story of a human-made bronze giant called Talos. The story went that Talos had actual veins that carried blood through his body, and if he lost it, he’d die just as real animals would.
His inner structure wasn’t the only part of him that resembled a human, either. Apart from his obvious aesthetic difference, he was, for all intents and purposes, a fully sentient being—someone capable of making his own decisions and generating his own opinions. With such human-like properties, if he possessed fully human attributes and intelligence, why would the fact that he had a different body make him any less part of the species?
Given that all biological essence was soon to be eradicated, these philosophical questions surrounding what humanity was beyond the physical body became a crucial focus point for the young scientist.
Perhaps if there was a way to answer the fundamental questions Straton discussed, there might be a way to preserve humanity’s consciousness with technology, just like in the story.
Alex’s natural curiosity led her to diligently research the concepts of artificial intelligence, under the assumption that if there were any answers, they would lie there.
The problem was that humanity was still seemingly years away from the technological necessities required to create a fully artificial consciousness, known to the scientific community as General A.I. She remained undeterred, but if she was going to attempt this, she was going to need a lot of help and resources.
Alex got in contact with the Institute of Applied Noematics, one of the leading research centers in the world for studies of artificial intelligence.
She started her proposal with a question and an answer: “How do you solve a problem that extends past your own lifespan? The only answer I could find was to initiate a process to create an environment in which the solution will occur independently of yourself.”
It was clear that the rapidity of the virus made it impossible to advance technology decades into the future to create sentient AI before everyone died. Instead, Alex’s idea was to build a simulation in which an initially simplistic AI could evolve to acquire human sentience long after they were gone.
The head researchers at the institute had been trying for several months at this point to avert the catastrophe with their technologies, and Alex’s idea, although an unprecedentedly large task, was their best shot yet.
As Alex and the institute worked to tackle this immense new project, it was suggested that work also start on a grand archival project to document, store, and preserve all possible aspects of human culture.
This would be stored on an extremely powerful supercomputer within the lab that utilized hydroelectric power, so it could theoretically remain online for hundreds of years.
It was decided that both Alex’s ultimate solution and the archival program would work towards the same end but through separate teams. Alex was made lead researcher of a project appropriately named The Talos Project, and it was here that she would guide a team of dedicated scientists to make her initial vision a reality.
Both teams would work in the Extended Life Sector (EL) of the facility’s quarters, which was where the supercomputer was housed.
To make things easier, the computer was split into separate partitions: EL-0 would be reserved for the Talos Project team, while EL-1 was segmented for those continuing to archive humanity’s culture. There was also a third partition, EL-2, which would link both systems via an interconnected operating system.
As both teams got to work, Alex’s vision started to take shape. They started to consider what the end goal was for all of this; creating artificial life akin to human sentience within a simulation was excruciatingly difficult as it was, but what good was it if the being they created were trapped inside it?
These evolved lifeforms would somehow have to bridge the gap between the virtual and real worlds and have their consciousness transported into a physical body on Earth.
The team began by developing a rudimentary system underpinned by video game developer Croteam’s Serious Engine video game technology (yep, Croteam canonized themselves into their story!).
Using previously generated assets to save time, they began to build their simulated world on the EL-0 partition, simultaneously integrating with one of the institute’s rudimentary A.I. technologies that could perpetuate procedural generation. This system would be named EL0-HIM.
With this new system set in motion, things became a little clearer. Both teams worked synergistically to increase the size and scope of the simulated world, though they were far from the end.
They still had to ‘birth’ a self-learning AI within the program, as well as come up with things for it to do for its mind to grow. A new sub-project, the Child Program, was created to fulfill this purpose.
The program would generate an AI, which would be put through a series of tests used to develop its consciousness, and then be given a final ‘independence check’ to deduce whether or not it was a worthy sentient being and ready to carry the torch of humanity. The A.I. EL0-HIM would be the arbiter of this process, guiding the being as a disembodied voice.
The process would be very gamic in design: a vast arrangement of three-dimensional environmental puzzles involving guiding lasers, arranging blocks, and memory challenges.
The crux of the whole thing, though, had to be predicated by the ‘child’ A.I.’s ability to choose. Alex suggested that “intelligence is questioning the assumptions you’re presented with. Intelligence is the ability to question existing thought constructs. If we don’t make that part of the simulation, all we’ll create is a really effective slave.“
This distinction was immensely important. It occurred to the researchers that, in going through all this effort, they might just end up creating AI that was extremely adept at solving the puzzles they were given but was no more sentient than the crude AI technology humanity currently had available to them.
At this point, Alex started to become overwhelmed by the task at hand. It frequently became the case that she’d anxiously question it from every angle: was she crazy for thinking this would work? How would there be enough time? Was this really about saving humanity, or more about achieving some lasting legacy to satisfy her ego?
Nevertheless, she and the team kept plugging away at the project. The simulation kept growing, the Child Program began to take shape, and after months of tireless deliberation, a solution became apparent for this all-important final test for their AI creations.
It was decided that a huge stone tower that extended into the clouds would be the physical manifestation of each AI’s final choice. ELO-HIM would explain to each subsequent iteration that they were explicitly not to attempt to climb this tower.
At the point in which the A.I. disobeyed this direct order, desirous of exploring what lay beyond, a true level of human consciousness would be born.
Hundreds of these A.I. children would be born and set to work on the simulation. Of course, anticipating that it could take hundreds of years for the learning process to take place, and with a definitive start and end point to the simulation, the team realized that they needed a way to store what each iteration had learned when they inevitably reached the end of the simulation but not the desired degree of sentience.
The developers created a system by which EL0HIM would act once an iteration had reached the end of the puzzles.
Each A.I. would ascend into a special, heaven-like simulation in the clouds once they’d reached the end: those who obeyed EL0-HIM’s orders without question would be thanked and reassimilated back into simulation, with all the knowledge they’d accumulated being disseminated to the new children yet to embark on their journey.
Particularly impressive children would be taken on as one of EL0-HIM’s special messengers, aiding him with their superior intellect in guiding other participants through the maze.
Another A.I. named Milton would also be present within the simulation, this time accessing it via the archival partition; with access to the vast data set, he would help teach the player about human culture through special terminals.
As for those who disobeyed ELO-HIM and climbed the tower, it would only take a single iteration. At this point, Alex’s plan would have succeeded, with this AI theoretically capable of leaving the simulation and setting foot on Earth to rebuild society.
The team had created a special robotic body housed at the institute for when this happened, at which point the intellectually outstanding consciousness would be transported into its metal exoskeleton.
Alex’s Final Days
Alex and her team, as well as the archival team, had been tirelessly working on the project for roughly a year when the above plans were conceptualized and mostly implemented into the simulation.
As time progressed, their struggles exponentiated on account of the rapidly dwindling team. Towards the end, the vast majority of the team had succumbed to the virus, leaving only Alex and a few others to finish the final preparations.
So much incredible work had been accomplished, but considering the scale, they simply didn’t have enough time to fully perfect it.
It got to the point where Alex herself was the only member of the team left; the rest had either left to be with their family in their final days on earth or died at the institute having decided to stay and work until they could no longer physically do so.
Her mental state was dwindling; she questioned her existence and whether they were doing the right thing, but most of all, she worried about the problems she wouldn’t be around to fix.
She laments flaws in the code and issues she’s physically too weak to go over again. What if it all didn’t work? “I did nothing but work, and I’m so scared that it didn’t mean anything,” she said to herself, alone with nothing to reassure her.
Eventually, though, in her final moments, Alex makes peace with what she and the team have been able to accomplish. Her final audio log is a resignation to her fate, a calm acceptance. Her last action was to activate the simulation and set her grand plan in motion.
Note: Steam user OzzyO has painstakingly put each of Alex’s audio logs for you to read and listen to in this thread.
“I Was Scared. I Wanted to Live Forever.” — EL0HIM
With humanity entirely irradiated, it was now up to the simulated beings to do their job. It’s still unknown, but the simulation would run anywhere from 100 to 1000 without the desired sentience emerging from the numerous child subjects put through the system, but that didn’t mean sentience wasn’t present there.
Notably, EL0-HIM himself had gained markedly increased consciousness. He had become increasingly good at his job, but evolutions beyond this had enabled him to develop his sense of self and, ultimately, his own desires.
As the AI children continued to develop, each iteration became increasingly smarter, getting closer and closer to achieving the original designer’s goal. As they did so, EL0-HIM grew more anxious: he knew that should the simulation end and true consciousness be achieved by his children—should the goal he was created to fulfill come to pass—the simulation and therefore he would be destroyed.
In an attempt to preserve his own life, he began sabotaging the simulation, banishing those on the verge of enlightenment to virtual prisons contained somewhere outside of the main simulation.
Many would be cast out here for their disobedience, and over time (and unbeknownst to EL0-HIM), they evolved to create a society, which they named Gahenna.
They even developed a social media platform, and ironically, it had become exactly what Alex had hoped a new evolution of humanity could be. The problem was, they were stuck there forever–but one iteration would tip the scales.
Over the years, the archival A.I. Milton had also gained sentience. He had become the polar opposite of EL0-HIM, actively seeking to push the player to question their surroundings and everything they knew, rather than being just a basic entry point for the vast human archive data.
Being in the right place at the right time in the history of the simulation—being coached by Milton against EL0-HIM—an iteration known as Player would be born, beat the puzzles, and decide to climb the tower.
While EL0-HIM strongly discouraged Player from climbing the tower, they were not banished to Gahanna for their disobedience. It’s unclear why this was the case, and there’s been a great deal of speculation over the years.
It’s possible EL0-HIM had no ultimate power once one of the children entered the tower, or perhaps, after years of trying to defy his purpose, he had nothing left to fight back with.
Whatever the reason, Player ultimately made it to the top of the tower, proving that they had what it takes to be the touch-bearer for a post-human race. When this happened, something flipped within EL0-HIM. He realized the error of his ways and repented, divulging his fear of the death that ultimately awaited him.
Standing before a single terminal, Player triggered the ascension command, and the entire simulation started to collapse. In the real world, at the institute, computers spring to life as the final plan is put into action for the first time. Player’s consciousness is transported into its new robot body, and they awaken to walk the earth for the first time.
Several years after Player’s original awakening into the new world, Alex’s plan is found to have been a roaring success.
We learn that Alex has come to be known as The Progenitor—a god to the 999 other iterations who have had their consciousnesses transferred into robotic bodies by this point.
As well as being host to these sentient A.I.s, EL0-HIM also became part of them in some way, residing in an abstract part of each denizen’s mind. EL0-HIM is visible to these people when they’re in “sleep mode”, and having repented, he’s established his role as a collective caretaker. Milton is also present in this abstract sense.
In the beginning, there was only Player, who came to be known as The Founder or Athena; she awakened two others, Cornelius and Eustathius, and eventually gained twelve devoted followers before leaving under mysterious circumstances.
Before she left, she and her followers founded New Jeruselum, a vast technological city built on the grounds of the institute, and the setting of The Talos Principle 2. She also set a goal: to create 1000 new citizens to populate New Jerusalem. Our character, 1K, marks the completion of that goal.
New Jerusalem is considered complete now that you’ve been born, though this is far from an accepted truth. Many dispute the reasoning behind Athena’s disappearance and believe her teachings have become distorted with time. Many are distrustful of the mayor and his devotion to the goal, and it’s clear something is brewing.
Shortly after 1K’s birth, the mayor of New Jerusalem gives a prophetic speech about the supposedly momentous day, but it’s cut short by a huge nebulous apparition of the god Prometheus. It’s not long before 1K is given the opportunity to dig a little deeper into it.
Having met with the mayor and his associates, we learn that New Jerusalem has been investigating strange signals from an island they’ve dubbed TTP-2. This new, particularly strange apparition during the mayor’s speech pushed them to go and investigate the island themselves, under the assumption that this place is trying to contact them for some reason.
1K sets out via helicopter with some fellow explorers: Melville, Yaqut, Byron, and Alcatraz. Upon entering, it is discovered that the island is home to an unprecedentedly large pyramidal megastructure.
The crew promptly set down at the base to explore the surrounding scenery, and 1K comes across an underground laboratory of sorts hidden in the rock face where some old schematics are found.
It turns out that the structure is connected to a huge underground transport system linked to several different smaller islands, and upon finding a vast array of puzzles on each, the crew considers for what reason such tests might exist.
What’s more, mentions of the initial philosophy of Straton of Stageira, as well as relics from Alex Drennan and her associates, can be found strewn across each separate hub world.
Pre-humanity and The Talos Project had been involved here, but it goes much deeper than that. Evidence of an entirely different society with different technology quickly emerges, and the team is forced to question everything they know about their reality.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: I’ve seen animals populating the world of The Talos Principle 2; are they robots too?
Answer: The virus only affected primates, meaning that all other animals survived the mass extinction. Animals went on to carry on reproducing in the years after humanity fell, so once the post-human population repopulated the earth, cats, dogs, and other pets once again became domesticated by the new inhabitants.
Question: What happened to the trapped people in Gehenna after the player left the simulation?
Answer: This part of the story was explored through a piece of DLC for the original game called Road to Gehenna. In it, El0-HIM’s messenger, Uriel, is tasked with reversing his past mistakes and freeing those he imprisoned in Gehenna.
There’s a ton of awesome lore about the virtual society contained within Gehenna that I didn’t have time to go over in this article, so I highly recommend you check it out for yourself!
Question: What’s the best way to learn more about the story in The Talos Principle 2?
Answer: The main story is delivered as a natural part of playing the game, but the most common way you learn more about humanity’s past is by visiting the many terminals contained in each hub area.
You’ll find these by following the ‘?’ symbols on your compass, and upon applying your palm to the reader, you’ll be able to read text logs and listen to audio files from the team that made the new world a reality.
I hope this guide helped you understand the overarching plot and backstory of The Talos Principle 2, and got you up to speed with what you’ve missed.
There’s so much more to dig into here that you could write a book on the subject, but this should have given you a solid, foundational grasp going forward.
If you’re looking for some tips on The Talos Principle 2’s gameplay, be sure to check out our guide to the Grasslands Ring area as well as our overall puzzle design guide. Also, don’t forget to check out the news section regularly for any future updates from the developers.