First person puzzle games have been around for a while now, and only a few have left their mark to become revered classics.
From the now primitive, at the time revolutionary Myst, to the brilliantly designed and written Portal and Portal 2, developers have tried their hand at the sub-genre with varying degrees of success. Bulkhead Interactive gives it another go with The Turing Test, the follow up to their 2015 game, Pneuma: Breath of Life, and in terms of puzzle design, it mostly succeeds. Narratively, it offers heady concepts and ideas but the two aspects of the game rarely inform each other leaving a slightly disconnected experience.
Engineer Ava Turing is awakened from her cryosleep by TOM, the ISA’s assigned AI, to find the rest of the missing crew from the International Space Agency (ISA) who are investigating Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Once Ava arrives at the research station on the moon’s icy surface, she is tasked with navigating and progressing through several test rooms as she uncovers the mystery of the missing crew. The narrative comes mostly through dialogue between Ava and TOM as he “guides you” through the environments and optional voice logs, etc. I won’t go into further detail in order to not spoil the narrative which, on its own, is actually pretty good. With weighty themes and concepts, it’s well told and has a satisfying, if relatively abrupt, conclusion.
It’s where the narrative connects to the gameplay that it feels like it doesn’t quite fit. The gameplay of The Turing Test consists exclusively of solving puzzle rooms using the Energy Manipulation Tool (EMT) – a gun that transfers energy to and from different conduits. These conduits open doors, move platforms, provide power to giant magnets and so on. While the EMT is your primary tool, as the game progresses you’ll be using other objects in the environment to aide you in your tasks such as cameras and little robots that can also transfer energy.
If the concept of an AI talking to and monitoring a woman as she navigates puzzles with an energy based “gun” sounds familiar to you, it should. The Turing Test is very much influenced by Portal and Portal 2, but carves enough of its own path in terms of puzzle design and tone that the similarities fade away rather quickly. You won’t be able to manipulate the space around you in order to pass through walls, but instead to move things with switches and control panels in order to access other portions of the room. Transferring energy of the EMT consists of sucking up the energy ball like a magnetic vacuum with incredible reach and then shooting it out that energy to a different conduit in a nutshell.
The puzzles in The Turing Test get far more complex than that and some are truly stumping; one so much so that I had to consult another reviewer at GameSpew who had played the game on PC to see how to get through it. While this was the only time I truly needed assistance, it did point to an issue with the game that some might find troublesome. The game introduces so many new concepts and ideas regarding solving the puzzles that it could be easy for players to completely miss what they’re supposed to do. Granted, that lack of hand holding is something I enjoy in games, but smart design eases you into these concepts by showing you slowly. This particular puzzle uses an entirely new concept based on two mechanics used entirely separately prior. I will admit that this was the only section where I was truly stumped so it might just be this one puzzle that is jarring in context with the rest of the game or it could be as simple as me just overthinking (or underthinking) the puzzle.
With that one example aside, the puzzles in The Turing Test are all impressive and smartly designed. Some offer relatively simple solutions while others truly test your mental mettle. It’s the later that truly offer that elation and self-gratulation that comes from the “Aha!” moment one gets from solving a particularly difficult puzzle. The Turing Test is filled with these moments.
Most of the mechanics for the puzzles work as intended, however, sometimes the physics of the game don’t always work. There are often times you have to place a battery into a conduit plug or use them to pressure pads to open doors. These items apparently weigh enough to weigh down the pressure pads but can fly around with the physics of an empty card board box. This can happen at inopportune times as some of the puzzles require quick reflexes and timing. It makes an otherwise tight and polished experience slightly more frustrating than it should be.
The Turing Test is an Unreal Engine 4 game that is visually pleasing if not remarkable. At no point was I wowed by the graphics which isn’t necessarily a negative as much as it is an observation. The sound design is minimal as it’s a pretty sterile environment but all of the sounds help inform the puzzles and the actions I performed to solve them. The voice acting from Ava and TOM is well done, but not so much from the supporting characters who feel like first takes and I often wondered if they were the actual AI the title refers to. I do have to say that I didn’t like the music at all and about a third of the way through, I muted it completely as I found it to be very distracting while trying to focus on puzzle solutions.
If you’re reading this and wondering why I haven’t mentioned the real world Turing Test, that’s because it only has a cursory relevance to the story or game. For those that don’t know, the actual Turing Test was developed by Alan Turing in 1950 to gauge a “machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” It’s a pretty well-worn trope of science fiction since its inception with the most notable or recent examples being the films Blade Runner and Ex Machina. In those films, the concept behind the test informs the narrative and the characters whereas in The Turing Test game, it only mildly informs the narrative and not the gameplay. Had the narrative been able to tie the two together in a significant way, which it very well could have, I would have felt more strongly about the mostly two disparate parts.
While The Turing Test’s puzzles and the narrative often feel as though they run adjacent without every really connecting, the puzzles are so well designed and fun to complete that I can easily forgive the game’s few shortcomings. If you come to The Turing Test for the puzzles and enjoy the narrative as a separate experience from the game, I think you’ll come away enjoying a very good puzzle game, even if it’s not a classic.