I’ll be honest: The Turing Test is likely not the longest game you’ll play this year.
If you’re a seasoned puzzle-solver and don’t get tangled up in the hunt for more lore, you’ll probably wrap it up in under five hours. Despite that, The Turing Test is a great game. But it’s not the puzzles (however rewarding) that make The Turing Test great: it’s the story.
This is the second puzzle game that Derbyshire-based games developers Bulkhead Interactive have released to date: their first being the enigmatic, fourth-wall-destroying Pneuma: Breath of Life and, while that game set its sights on exploring the nature of being, Bulkhead’s second takes us on a journey through the mind: questioning our motives, our fears and our very thoughts themselves.
When astronaut Ava Turing is awoken from her cryogenic slumber aboard a station orbiting Europa, the station’s computer personality, TOM, informs her that the ground crew have found a dangerous life form buried in the lunar ice and that he’s lost contact with them. It’s up to Ava, then, to descend to the planet and see if she can’t get in touch with the crew – if there’s anyone left to talk to.
Upon arriving at the planet’s surface, Ava swiftly learns that all is not as it seems. The crew, according to TOM, have totally remodelled the interior of the drilling and research station, shifting the modular bays around to create a series of puzzles that can only be solved by a human. They can only be solved with a mix of lateral and outside-the-box thinking that a computer just would not be capable of. The big question, then, is: why are they afraid of a computer?
To find out the answer you’re going to have to get your puzzle-solving head on. Solving puzzles in The Turing Test means getting to grips with the EMT – the Energy Manipulation Tool. The EMT allows you to transfer balls of blue, green, red and purple energy (each with different properties) between a variety of switches and power relays that control a mixture of doors, lifts, platforms and industrial-sized magnets.
Each puzzle is made up of a series of rooms or connected spaces separated by a variety of obstacles, most requiring power that you’ll deliver from one place to another with the EMT. Early puzzles will see you swapping blue energy balls from one switch to another through grilled windows or swapping out a bulky battery for an energy ball so you can climb a ladder to the next exit while later puzzles have you manipulating multiple platforms and rearranging energy balls on the fly, all while sprinting across light-bridges and having little out-of-body experiences.
The puzzles themselves are well crafted and tend to follow a steadily climbing difficulty curve, adding more and more complexity as the game progresses. Most of the time, The Turing Test does a good job of introducing new puzzle elements and providing a few simple rooms to try them out in but, now and then, it throws in a few curve balls that feel a little out of place; requiring the player to suddenly come up with strategies to puzzles they’ve never seen before that, in all likelihood, they’ll use once or twice then never again.
Unfortunately, the most challenging and rewarding puzzles aren’t the ones that you have to solve to complete the game. Every now and then The Turing Test really takes your human(?) brain to task by throwing in an optional side puzzle that, typically, can’t be solved with normal means (one or two of which I’ve still not solved). When I cracked the first of these puzzles I thought I’d managed to cheese it, somehow, but, after completing the next one, I realised that that’s exactly what you have to do in order to beat them. It’s incredibly clever and remarkably fulfilling to unravel these parts of the game, not least because the rooms behind these side-puzzles are where most of The Turing Test’s insidious little story gets told.
Talking too much about the plot of The Turing Test is to utterly ruin the most intriguing and spine-tingling aspect of the game (I’m not kidding about the ‘spine tingling’ bit, either: it may just be me but, in some sections, I had to check over my shoulder to make sure some sinister agent wasn’t watching me while I played) but the depth to which you experience it is entirely up to you.
As I said, the meat of the story can be found off the beaten path; through blink-and-you’ll-miss-them doors and in the minutiae of the crew areas that you occasionally find yourself in. You’re able to interact with and pick up just about anything and, due to their sudden technophobia, the ground crew have taken to writing their thoughts and feelings down and printing off information that they consider to be important. As a result, when it’s not holding the EMT, Ava’s hand is most likely to be found clutching hard-copy as you scan through it to discover exactly what’s going on on Eurpoa.
There’s a lot of reading – a LOT of reading – and most of it is pretty dry stuff: essays on computer science, theoretical biology and, of course, the Turing Test itself. But there are also subtle clues as to what’s going on – pictures, pill bottles, reports and the detritus of human life that the crew have left behind them.
For those gamers not that interested in exploration (or reading), The Turing Test includes an almost constant dialogue between Ava and TOM, with brief conversations at the beginning of almost every puzzle, that fills in the main and most salient points in the game’s plot. There are also handy audio logs dotted about throughout the game: some personal messages from the crew; others recordings of conversations from before the catastrophe. These can be found in most of the crew areas; spaces designed as moments of respite from the puzzle solving where Bulkhead can, instead, do a little story-telling.
Possibly the game’s biggest flaw is the disconnect between the narrative and the puzzle-solving gameplay: neither one of which ever really serves to inform or be informed by the other. The explanation that the game gives (only humans can get through the tests) rings sort of false – particularly as you begin to play through the game’s later levels – and, while one interpretation of the ending (yes, you read that right) might serve to help you understand exactly what’s been going on, it’s a logical leap too far and too late to really matter.
I mentioned, earlier, that The Turing Test’s story is insidious and I wasn’t joking. It’s the sort of plot with so many layers, so many questions and so few definitive answers that it’s likely to keep you up at night wondering exactly what is going on, who is the bad guy, who is the good guy and who, when it comes right down to it, was being tested here. References to and comparisons with Portal and Portal 2 are inevitable in a sci-fi puzzle game with a female lead, a computer antagonist and a funky gun (not to mention the whole “testing” thing) but, while The Turing Test manages to almost match Portal 2 in terms of style and graphics (though not in oddly whimsical charm), it absolutely takes the lead in building an intriguing and provocative storyline that will keep gamers (and YouTube theorists) talking for some time.
Before I go, let me say this: if you do happen to pick up The Turing Test (and I think you should), make sure that you don’t just play it once. Some games deserve a second playthrough because something might be different this time. But The Turing Test deserves a second playthrough because, the next time around, the different thing may well be you…