Why Games Need Stories
In Thomas Was Alone, you control up to seven quadrilaterals with, as the narrator puts it, different relationships to gravity. Some jump higher, some jump lower, and some can even double jump. Some are tall, some are small, some are large, and some can float. You have to navigate every shape into its respective highlighted goal, using their abilities in tandem.
The mechanics as developed in each new shape you encounter and each new level you must traverse have a steady, thoughtful progression for the most part. Very few levels are either too challenging or too easy. There are multiple ways to combine your shapes to reach the goals.
For example, you may be controlling a small green square block that cannot jump very high as well as a yellow rectangle that can leap huge distances and a medium-sized red rectangle that can jump twice as high as the green square. To get that square anywhere, you'll have to build stair cases with the other blocks or use them to get to buttons to make the path accessible to him.
It's a simple geometric game with solid colors and stark black levels. Your shapes affect the light as they jump, creating a nice streaking shadow effect.
The above would be the review if you played this game on mute and did not read anything. It would be a nice little puzzle game.
But what sets this game apart and earns it the score above is the characterization of every single shape, a story that builds to a revolutionary and tragic climax before becoming a metaphor for evolution.
Thomas, the red rectangle, is an AI that has accidentally gained sentience. Inter chapter quotations give us a backstory and context that a malfunction in a program gave free will and thought to many AI who released their brethren from the confounds of the system.
A English narrator gives us the perspective of each new shape Thomas encounters, including arrogant James and heroic Claire and grumpy Chris. As their story progresses and each character finds his or her calling, the puzzles the player completes become metaphors for their interactions and journeys.
The narrator's wit and care made me care about these objects in turn, making solving a puzzle without dying a moral rather than just a perfectionistic goal.
That is the achievement here. The game demonstrates, confidently and serenely, why strong writing and character development add an emotional and personal engagement to mechanics and art that would otherwise be purely abstract. It elevates the game into themes and ideas that give it true power as an interactive experience.
That being said, issues do exist. The middle, climactic levels of highest tension often rely on no-checkpoint, timed dangers that are frustrating rather than engaging. And the writer chose to make the female characters all act as support of some kind for the male characters, which feels a little off. When everyone is an object, making your female characters literally exist to propel or carry your male characters is off-putting.
Still, as a testament to the power of story to elevate a clever geometric art style and puzzle mechanics, Thomas Was Alone stands alone, as it were.