The Turing Test 2017-07-25 06:08:18
The words “first-person shooter” used to be anathema to many adventure gamers, what with the tendency of games like Doom, Quake and their progeny to emphasize frantic action, explosions and often mindless bloodshed. But then Portal came along a decade ago to arm the more cerebral gamer and show us that guns don’t make transportable rifts in space, people do. Yes, equipped with a very special kind of ammo and a more thoughtful mandate, we learned that weapons could be used to solve tricky environmental obstacles as well, fighting not for peace, just peace of mind. Other games have picked up the gun-toting-puzzle-solving mantle since then, but arguably none have ever bettered it (other than Portal’s own brilliant sequel).
The latest such challenger to the story-driven physics puzzler throne is The Turing Test, a game that wears its inspiration proudly on its sleeve. It’s thoroughly derivative in every respect, except for its own gameplay gimmick around which the entire experience revolves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as there’s something to be said about honing a tried-and-true formula if executed properly. And for the most part this game succeeds in delivering an engaging problem-solving experience, provoking thought on two levels at once, though its sci-fi story seems ill-fitted to the actual on-screen events, and its central mechanic wears out its welcome before the end of its substantial 8-10 hour play time.
The Turing Test is named after the trials of its protagonist, Ava Turing, but her name, in turn, is really a nudge-wink allusion to Alan Turing’s famous test of a machine’s ability to think and behave like a human being (or to be more precise, a test of whether a human can tell the difference). This theme is prevalent throughout the game, as it continually explores the notions of morality, free will, logic vs. emotion, and self-preservation vs. the greater good. While this is interesting enough as an intellectual exercise, it’s surprisingly disconnected from the actual gameplay on anything but the most superficial level. The discourse between human and A.I. was vital to the Portal experience, but here it’s mainly narrative white noise, affecting nothing tangible until an easily predictable “twist” in the middle and finally a confoundingly absurd endgame scenario.
Players control Ava, an engineer for the International Space Agency who is awoken early from cryosleep aboard a ship orbiting the research station on Jupiter’s moon Europa. All communication with the ground crew has ceased, and the facility’s artificial intelligence T.O.M. (Technical Operations Machine) sends Ava to the moon’s surface to investigate. Once there, she quickly discovers that the entire base has been reconfigured into a series of sixty-plus obstacle courses – challenges that can only be completed by a human being, not a sentient machine. This is your test.
Over time, the questions of why the crew has gone to such measures and why T.O.M. needs Ava to be his physical representation are touched upon, but never truly justified. The former is nicely explained in a way that should make you ponder questions with no easy answers, only to render it irrelevant at precisely the point it matters most. To its credit, the game also makes an attempt to rationalize its lab-rat setup, just not convincingly. For one thing, the sheer enormity of the complex precludes a small team of scientists from achieving such a construction on their own, but more importantly, we’re told that these are puzzles that can only be solved with creative thinking a machine is incapable of. Plausible theory, torpedoed by the fact that nearly every obstacle is overcome by making thoroughly logical connections between mechanical operations. In fact, I’d wager money that a machine could come up with solutions to each puzzle way faster than a person could. Really the sole purpose for your presence comes down to one simple fact: Ava has hands and feet, and T.O.M. does not. Saying that would have saved a lot of inconsequential chatter.
So okay, the thin premise doesn’t hold up, and the whole man vs. machine thing proves to be nothing more than a stimulating philosophical backdrop in the end, but really the puzzles are what The Turing Test is all about. I’m tempted to say that the result is a mixed bag, but in truth the only problem is that the bag doesn’t have enough to mix. Oh, there’s no shortage of quantity, but every single stage depends on one particular conceit: transferring energy from one end of a level to another. Energy comes in two different forms, module blocks that can be picked up and carried, and balls that can be shot and remotely retrieved from your gun. You’ll find various obstacles blocking the way and gain access to a few other room-specific tools, and often these are repackaged in clever ways as you progress, but there’s definitely a sense of déjà vu before all is said and done.
The tasks start out simply enough as you learn the standard controls, primarily WASD to move, left/right mouse clicks to fire/retrieve (or equally intuitive gamepad operations). Once you’ve mastered the basics in single small rooms, then you’re on your own to figure out how to power up light bridges, use levers to rotate columns, maneuver heavy ceiling magnets, weigh down pressure plates, remote-operate robots and cameras, channel laser beams, and synchronize hydraulic lifts, eventually spanning numerous rooms and multiple floors. Energy balls also come in three different flavours, each colour having its own distinctive characteristic. New hurdles are parceled out slowly but surely, so you shouldn’t ever feel too overwhelmed, but make no mistake: the difficulty does ramp up. A mechanical engineer could probably blow through them with ease, but I ended up looking at a walkthrough twice, so maybe I’m a robot after all.