The Turing test was a method designed in 1950 for determining if an artificial intelligence could successfully fool a person into thinking they were talking to another human. In order to pass this test, an observer would have an electronic conversation with both another human and the computer. If they were indistinguishable in their conversation to the point that the observer couldn’t differentiate, the test would be passed - a feat that has been achieved with mixed success since. The background is important here, since The Turing Test spends a lot of time philosophising on the whys and wherefores of this test as you play.
As Ava Turing - yes, really, and no, the coincidence is never mentioned - you’ve been awoken from cryogenic sleep by TOM, a ship AI which wants you to go to a nearby planetary base and check on the status of the rest of the crew who have been non-responsive. Upon arrival at the base, you find that the entire building has been re-engineered into a series of puzzle rooms. TOM is pretty vague about why, stating that the crew have done this in order to stop him from following them - although this seems to be ignored later on in the game. TOM therefore needs Ava to navigate the base, progressing from room to room and level to level by completing a series of increasingly difficult puzzles.
The nature of these puzzles is consistent throughout - open the door to the next area. Armed only with a trusty energy manipulator gun which sucks and restores power orbs to various sockets around each area, you’re able to switch on lifts, open doors, and activate light beams. The Turing Test eases you in gently, allowing you to get to grips with its relatively simple control system organically, and discover what you can and can’t do within the confines of each environment. There’s no death here, no penalty for falling from great heights (in fact, you may need to do just that on occasion), and no sense of urgency - the game wraps itself around you like a comforting blanket, with each successive room acting as a microcosm to solve before moving onto the next. There’s no crossover between rooms, so there’s no need to worry that you’ll need to go back to a previous puzzle in order to attack the next one. Everything is snugly encapsulated in bite-sized chunks, making it perfect for a quick blast.
The puzzles themselves involve you swapping energy from one power source to another with your gun or energy blocks to open doors or activate devices around a room. Pressure pads and different types of more unstable energy make an appearance later on to increase the difficulty, but The Turing Test’s aim is to make you think, not to frustrate. It hits the sweet spot of FPS puzzle games perfectly, at least for people that would otherwise avoid them due to their inevitable difficulty spike. This game wants to tell a story, and while it will challenge you to progress at times, the compact nature of each room means that success is only a re-jigged energy supply away from the next intriguing conversation with TOM. From the screenshots, comparisons with Portal are inevitable but misguided: the sterile environments may be comparable, but here is a game that is far tighter and far more forgiving in its approach. This comes at the cost of creativity in many respects, as each successive level is only slightly different to the last and your scope for progression is clearly defined by the developers which limits experimentation. However, for a game that is at its essence all about opening doors, you’ll find yourself pulled along from room to room with admirable deftness.
Almost every new area will advance the narrative as Ava and TOM discuss where the crew are, and why they have altered the base (though how they did this is skipped over with good reason; presumably they had a lot of time on their hands before Ava woke), as well as the fundamental tenets of the Turing Test itself. These latter conversations are the most interesting, and as you delve deeper into the base, you begin to share Ava’s unease about exactly how benevolent TOM really is. The voice acting from both parties is superb, with Ava’s more inquisitive chat meshing perfectly with the plummy tones of TOM, who sounds like the offspring of J.A.R.V.I.S. and Derek Jacobi. It’s surprising, then, to find that the dialogue on some of the audio files you discover is almost incomprehensible. While subtitles are available if you want to decipher what is being said through the muffle and crackle, it seems odd to make the motivations of the crew so difficult to understand in a game where the narrative is the main thread pulling you through each challenge.
Each of the seven chapters is composed of around ten different rooms, and each also has non-puzzle areas where you can familiarise yourself with the rest of the crew via their belongings and work which are scattered about. The reminders are useful in providing a little context, as well as in breaking up the somewhat repetitive nature of the gameplay. There are also optional “restricted areas” in each chapter which offer a more subversive puzzle to solve, with the reward being a bit more information about the crew, or possibly a different metaphor for the Turing test itself. They are slightly trickier, but well worth attempting.
It would be easy to write off The Turing Test as an inferior clone of Valve’s masterpiece, but that would be doing Bulkhead Interactive a huge disservice. Accompanied by an excellent soundtrack which is at once both mournful and suspenseful, they have crafted a taut experience which challenges without disheartening, and what the slightly po-faced narrative lacks in humour it makes up for in intrigue. It’s an elegant, engaging and streamlined head-scratcher, and one that will keep you guessing until you power up the very last door.