Simple Platformer With a Great Story
There’s no shortage of retro-styled indie platformers these days, so it often takes something a little extra to make one really stand out. In the case of Thomas Was Alone, the game uses a style that goes back all the way to the days of the first Atari where simple dots & blocks comprised the characters on the screen. The game has a simple conceit; get the characters to their exit doors. The controls are equally simple; Run left, run right, and jump. And the puzzle solutions are all rather simple as well. Did I say the game is simple? Yes, yes it is…so what’s the hook? Why should I care? Well, believe it or not, it’s the story.
Thomas Was Alone begins with a narrator speaking those exact titular words. As you begin to move Thomas (who is a simple red rectangle) around the first level, the charming British lilt of an unseen narrator describes how Thomas feels, what he’s thinking, and what he plans to do. At first it feels really silly. After all, this red quadrilateral has no outward emotive abilities, no face to make expressions, no voice to make sounds (other than the 'boing' of his jump.) But the story quickly takes over and the lack of any visual emotions becomes moot. It readily becomes apparent that Thomas is an emergent Artificial Intelligence stuck within a software program, and he soon runs into other colored rectangles, other AIs who each have their own unique personalities & ambitions. As you move through the game, you take control of all these colored blocks of varying sizes, speeds, & abilities, and the game gets a lot of mileage out of mixing and matching them to create platforming puzzles. Sometimes you’re stacking them up to form rudimentary stairs to reach higher platforms, other times you’re squeezing the smaller rectangles down narrow paths to hit a switch. One character, Laura, can act as a trampoline for others. Another character, Sarah, can double jump. And all the while as you progress through the game, the narrator is unrolling a charming & melancholy story about these often desperate characters and their quest to escape the confines of the computer program they are stuck in.
The game is rather short, and with very few puzzles giving me any pause as to how to solve them, I flew through it pretty quickly. That’s not a bad thing though, for if it were any longer it probably would have overstayed its welcome. The game knows what it is, and doesn’t really try to be anything more. The story is extremely well written, and the narration by Danny Wallace is pitch perfect. It seemed to me that the gameplay was simply a vehicle to tell the story, and so keeping the puzzles simple so that the story can keep unfolding makes sense.
I found myself enthralled and propelled through the game by the story, which would have been just as at home in a book as much as it was in the game. The simplicity of the gameplay might turn off some of the more fidgety gamers out there, and some might have a legitimate argument that what’s offered here isn’t worth the $10 price tag, but I found the charm and humor on display was well worth it for me. For about the price (and length) as a night at the movie theater, you could do a lot worse.