These lore questions keep popping up in the forums. Then there’s the whole issue of just what the game designers might be getting at. Spoilers ahoy though! Maybe finish a game before reading any of this.
Where Am I?
Stuck in some old ruins right? Actually no, turns out your entire world is a simulation . This includes the various worlds of ruins, the warehouses containing them, the central Tower and its surrounding polar icecap.
At first it all seems like an escape puzzler. But you’re not exactly a prisoner, there’s just nowhere else to go. The reason you get teleported back when you stray too far, is only because you’re reaching the limits of the terrain Elohim is generating for you (his whole creation chant thing is the “procedural level generation” in progress).
But ALL this is within Talos – a vast archive of human knowledge. Elohim did not code all this – the initial programmers were humans, now long dead, who hoped to preserve some record of their species before it succoured to a global plague.
Who Am I?
Initially it looks a lot like you’re a robot right?. Turns out, much like Elohim, you are another computer algorithm within the simulation – but a ‘Child Program’.
But you’re a pretty advanced one blessed with sentience and a sense of self. And it becomes clear you’re not the only one. Many other ‘Child’ algorithms have been generated with varying personalities – you’re just the latest iteration.
(Actually the generic robot avatar was imported from a computer game popular at the time the archive was created – so a human diary entry tells us).
What Am I Doing Here?
Solving enough puzzles to unlock the Gates of Eternity right?
Wrong, it turns out. When you do that you get ‘failed’ and re-spawned at the start. Something else is going on in here: It’s Machine Learning – a type of coding that automatically generates a vast array of possible solutions to a problem and develops the most successful ones.
Within Talos there’s some need to develop a really premium sentient AI – and you are one candidate solution. Premium sentient AI is not just smart but wise: Smart coz it can reason well enough to solve all the puzzles – but any iphone probably has the smarts for that. The target Ai has gotta be wise enough do to this for better reasons than just blind obedience, or as a means to just escape into some comfort zone.
What Does It All Mean?
They say any really good story offers a bunch of meanings on several levels – even if these are just felt, rather than coming fully front-of=mind. Here’s a few that seem to fit:
It is not merely human culture that is being preserved but Sentience – as crafted by evolutionary selection pressures.
Humans are now extinct. Eventually time will corrupt all the archive files and their records of human culture. But sentience continues – this time in the medium of silicon rather than carbon. Kinda bitter-sweet for us fans of Humans – but maybe not far off the truth.
The irony of (Darwinian) evolution is that to preserve a species it has to keep changing it, eventually unrecognisably – thereby destroying it. Everything is in flux and developing towards who-knows-what. Maybe something, maybe nothing.
Living as a sentient human entails a similar irony. In the course of lifetime one’s ‘self’ is altered so profoundly that it’s probably a fiction to say it has been sustained in any way.
And maybe it never really existed in the first place. Just as the ‘Child program’ was just a coding feature of the Talos simulation, we too are just ephemeral features of universe in perpetual flux.
Probably education is all about swapping-out falser ideas, with truer ones about the world.
Truth-seeking, especially via studying philosophy, requires a kind of ruthless natural selection of ideas. You get to test-drive various ideas and ideologies and find out all their limits and inherent faults (yes, they’re ALL flawed it turns out – just some more than others). You can’t get too attached to a pet theory or it’s game-over for the learning process – you gotta “Kill your darlings” they say.
Meanwhile, any enterprise of truth-seeking can be waylaid by the fickleness of our ‘human’ natures. On one hand it’s easy to slip into nihilism and lose all faith in any value of the pursuit (the Milton Library Assistant had this problem) . Or you can use it to cleverly build a Cloud-9 to park your ass upon, and learn nothing more (like opening the Gates of Eternity). Triumphalism is perhaps most debilitating – like when you’re tempted to ‘win’ discussions, rather than seeking to learn new stuff.