sympathy for a machine – the turing test

Yeah, it’s been a while, but between classes, assignments, and the never-ending quest for enlightenment through alcohol, I haven’t had much chance to actually just sit down and actually play something new. So, with the semester break coming up, I figured I’d get a head start and look into some of the newer releases, and by look into new releases, I mean go through the listings provided by the various podcasts I occasionally listen to.

Top of the list was The Turing Test, which when I first heard the title & description I let out a near audible groan. “Oh great,” I thought, “A game where we solve puzzles whilst an AI monologues at us in a subterranean science lab. Boy, I can’t wait for the jaunty song afterwards that recaps everything.” Whilst the game draws heavily from Portal, and I really should reign in my cynicism more often, the sheer surprise at the quality on offer here was a very pleasant surprise.

Set on a research outpost under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa, the plot follows Ava, resident icy pole on an orbital satellite that hangs above the other satellite. Sure, nearly everything’s a satellite if you think about it hard enough, but that’s besides the point. Freshly defrosted, Ava is put right to work by her friendly AI pal, TOM. Apparently, there’s a communications problem, and the scientists on the surface haven’t been heard from for over a couple of weeks, so TOM thinks it’s probably best for everyone that Ava go check things out and make sure it’s all hunky dory. Sure, the opening is cliche as hell, but it serves the pace of the game very well to not waste time and get on with the show.

The plot unfolds in rather predictable ways at first, to an almost suspicious degree, and I spent the first half of the game trying to predict exactly what the twist would be. Let’s say that I was close, but way off at the same time. I’m not going to spoil, but the second half of the game introduces a whole new suite of mechanics that add even more context to some of the brain bending things that I ran into in the first half.

From a visual standpoint, the game is pretty damn good looking, although it’s budget origins are visible in some places – the textures on coffee mugs look like they’re from the Unreal Tournament era, rather than running on Unreal 4. Overall, whilst the visuals don’t push the limit of fidelity, the overall aesthetic suits the tone and does the job well. What I will say is that performance wise, the game runs flawlessly on my rig, keeping a steady 60+ at 1080p. I did find it kinda funny that the game defaults to the highest resolution, which in my case is 4k, but that’s through DSP rather than having an actual 4k monitor.

A puzzle game is only as good as it’s puzzles, and this is where the Portal comparisons are going to come thick and fast, and it’s really tempting to just say that The Turing Test isn’t as good as Portal and call it a day. That would be really freaking shitty to do though, so let’s get into detail. The central mechanic here isn’t a gun that shoots blue and orange portals, instead you’ve got a gun that can pickup and move various flavours of energy balls. If you remember how Portal used the energy balls from Half-Life 2, The Turing Test refines them even further. Instead of floating around freely however, they’re either locked in a socket or in the business end of Ava’s gun thingy. different combinations have different effects, and their combinations have various uses. The funny thing is that The Turing Test isn’t reminiscent of Portal to me, it’s got a closer resemblance to something I haven’t thought of in years: Final Fantasy X.

It sounds bonkers to compare the two, but hear me out. Remember the Cloister of Trials in all the temples dotted around Spira, where you had to use various coloured spheres to pick your way to the exit? Now imagine that you pick up those spheres with a gun reminiscent of the Antichamber gun, drape it in a covering of hard sci-fi and some rather interesting questions about the needs of the many, and you’re in the ball park of The Turing Test.

That being said, whilst the puzzles are at times inventive, they do lack a sense that there’s only one solution, and more often than not I found myself second-guessing a solution and wondering if I’m cheesing the solution through carefully lining up jumps rather than perfecting platforms. It also needs to be said that I didn’t find the puzzles to be a major challenge, although that may just be a personal bias – I’m one of the few people who actually enjoyed hand-coding assembly language in TIS-100. What I will say is that the optional puzzles are a real treat, with the hardest one involving logic gates that had me making a couple of hand-written notes. I miss having to do that at times, and the rewards at the end of the optional puzzles is amazing at times, with a lot of them giving some extra exposition, or just simply there to mess with your head.

In the end, The Turing Test isn’t Portal. It’s got it’s own flavour, and it’s definitely worth your time. Some have argued it’s a little short, but similar to Portal, it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, and the final sequence had me actually reverse my decision on who the actual antagonist of the story is. The hardest part of recommending this game isn’t that there isn’t anything to recommend, it’s that if I were to talk about the things I love about it, I’d ruin it for everyone, and going in blind is definitely worth it.

The Turing Test is available on Steam for 19.99USD, and for the price of two pints, I’d say it’s worth it.