A Heartfelt Indie Treat
When it’s come to pushing forwards video games as a storytelling medium, a lot of the work in recent years has focused on building deeper human characters who have more nuanced and meaningful interactions with the people and universes around them. I have a huge respect for the developers who are making these endeavours, in fact I think it’s one of the most important things happening in video games right now, but it’s not the only way to create engrossing fiction. After all, if video games are still attempting to find their feet in terms of storytelling, doesn’t it make sense to start simple? That’s exactly what Mike Bithell’s indie puzzle-platformer Thomas Was Alone does.
Thomas Was Alone is set in a world where a team of programmers have accidentally stumbled across a way to create sentient computer code and birthed the inquisitive AI Thomas. Initially, you guide Thomas on the journey through his virtual world alone, but he quickly meets up with other AI buddies who you must control throughout the levels in your quest to run, jump, and fall to your goals. The twist is, the characters are all featureless quadrilateral shapes, and none of them speak aloud. Instead their thoughts are communicated to you by the game’s talented narrator Danny Wallace. The amazing thing about Thomas Was Alone is that despite what appears to be a complete hindrance of the characters’ abilities to express themselves, you become more attached to them than the characters in most other video games out there.
An embracement of simplicity is the driving philosophy behind Thomas Was Alone, and the characters are a big part of that. Each of them has a basic but clearly defined personality, and the way these personalities are presented through their charming, if not slightly naive musings, is endearing. While they may be simple, the game is also good about both introducing some degree of character development, and adding enough new sentient shapes to the mix at the right time so that you don’t become fatigued with any one of them. The ragtag collection of squares and rectangles that make up Thomas Was Alone’s cast look upon the world and think about each other in the same way that a young child might, and it melts your heart. From the curious and optimistic Thomas, to the impatient and frustrated Chris, you can’t help but enjoy their presence. However, the game owes a lot to not just its story, but the specific way the story joins together with the graphics, sound, and gameplay that accompany it.
The goal of each level is very straightforward, get your characters from the starting point to their respective portals at the end of the stage. To achieve this goal you must utilise the specific traits of each character to compensate for the shortcomings of the others. None of the characters can be said to have access to gameplay actions that the others don’t, they can all basically move, jump, and not much else, but their size, shape, jump height, and sometimes other characteristics are key to how you use them. Taller characters can jump up to platforms that others can’t or act as platforms for smaller ones to reach high places, shorter characters can fit through gaps taller ones can’t, and some other characters exhibit slightly more extreme properties like being able to ferry others across water or acting as trampolines. Not only does this make for enjoyable gameplay, but it helps build on the warming sense that the characters are succeeding through friendship and teamwork.
Their specific traits may sound too similar and basic to have a great deal of longevity, but as with the story, Thomas Was Alone’s uncanny knack of knowing just when to introduce new cast members and mechanics keeps it fresh. Unfortunately, there are a few weaknesses in the game’s puzzle-platforming that put a bit of a damper on things. Getting characters to climb onto small platforms or each other can be a bit of a fiddly job, and switching between characters never felt particularly natural for me. You can cycle through them one-by-one, in which case it can be a fair number of button presses to get to the character you want, or you can switch directly to another character using the number keys, which is easier said than done when you need to memorise which number corresponds to which character, and the cast of the game is constantly changing. This is a bigger problem later on in the game when you’re controlling more characters, and it’s a fairly frequent occurrence to have to make several consecutive switches just to walk them from A to B. Thankfully though, the game generally doesn’t set you back far if you slip up, and loads between levels are virtually non-existent.
The levels themselves are largely mazes of black solid space, fleshed out with smoking water and other hazards, while backgrounds consist of solid colours occasionally pulsing with basic shapes and patterns to create a cyberspace environment that feels stylish, but just a little uncaring towards the self-aware programs within it. The game’s UI is also pleasingly sleek and minimalist, and the soundtrack is a wonderful marriage of piano and chiptune, presenting an elegant backing for the gameplay as innocent as the AI themselves.
Overall, guiding your squad of squares through the world of Thomas Was Alone can occasionally seem like a bit of a job, but the game presents a handful of adorable personalities that make you want to reach into the screen and hug them. It might not be suitable for those who want a straight-laced, finely tuned puzzle-platformer, but if you have any interest in watching a team of childlike polygonal comrades come together for a thoroughly charming experience, Thomas Was Alone has a lot to offer you.