Can rectangles make you cry?
Prior to playing Mike Bithell’s independent puzzle platformer Thomas Was Alone, I’d never had to ask myself that question. Of course they couldn’t, I’d probably have scoffed in response. How could mere shapes, flat and boringly symmetrical ones at that, ever be able to evoke such a heartfelt reaction?
However, after actually playing Thomas, and being exposed to a delightful and heartwarming tale of scattered, unique individuals putting aside their differences and finding solace in a newfound friendship, I’m no longer so sure. Even now, as I stare at the white fuzz and sharp corners of my computer screen, I’m having trouble expressing exactly how transfixed and overjoyed I felt while playing.
One thing, however, is for certain. The answer to a certain other question, one by the name of “are games art?”, has become easier to answer.
Thomas is a small red rectangle and, as you’d likely have guessed from the title, he is alone. A rectangular AI trapped in a digital world without any companions at all, he lives a bleak and unfulfilled existence, allowed only to jump around the minimalistically designed 2D environment in vain. However, that all changes when the very code of the system around him malfunctions, allowing him to cross over into the territory of other AI residing within the world.
Gradually, he meets up with many of these other squarely shapes, none of them looking, performing or behaving quite like he does. Each has not only a radically different personality, but also distinct physical strengths and weaknesses. Chris, a short orange square, can’t jump very high at all, but he’s small enough to fit through tight spaces. Claire, a huge blue square, is a similarly short jumper and doesn’t even have the benefit of a petite build, but she has the miraculous and unique ability float on water. The goal in each level is to align each character with their respective white silhouette scattered around the level, and to do this, player will need to switch between the different shapes and have them work together to make up for their shortcomings.
The story amongst all of this is conveyed through a narrator, in this case the enthusiastic and incredibly talented humorist Danny Wallace, who has officially confirmed my theory that British people are born with a gene that makes them funnier than anyone else. During play, he voices the inner thoughts and feelings of the various shapes, and paired with Bithell’s wonderfully written script, he succeeds brilliantly in bringing these shapes to life, projecting onto them relatable flaws and distinct personality traits that make them wholly sympathetic and lovable. How ironic that a game starring flat shapes has some of the most three-dimensional characters you’re likely to ever see in a game.
However, it’s the way that they’re characterized through gameplay that makes Thomas’s story truly remarkable. When you first meet Chris, it’s easy to understand his insecurities and cynical outlook on life. He can’t jump very high at all, meaning he has to rely on others to get atop platforms and cross chasms. Of course he should feel inferior and thus insecure. Once you play as him and see the world through his eyes, it just makes sense. Similarly, a green square named James, whose gravity is completely inverted and thus walks upside down, feels like an outcast, as if he doesn’t belong in this world.
Those are just a few examples of the ingenious way Thomas fleshes out its story and character through play and contributes to its overall theme of friendship. Once you’ve used every character to aid one another and position themselves in all the right places, a satisfying sense of bonding is immediately felt. You catch on to the notion that these characters are putting aside their differences in order to form an intimate and caring group, one whose members gradually ease up to the idea of friendship, viewing the world and their futures more optimistically in the process. It’s an absolute marvelously feeling of character growth that rivals some of the best examples of character development seen in other mediums, and as a sort of take-away lesson, it may very well have players contemplating and reflecting on their own lives and experiences, which is a titanic achievement for any game.
What also helps elevates Thomas Was Alone from merely a great experience to a transcendent one is its soundtrack. It simply cannot be overstated how effective David Housden’s score is, which is ironic considering its understated nature. With masterful grace, he’s adopted what I like to call ‘the NES music mentality.’ Rather than try to emulate the orchestrally complex but rather forgettable game scores of today, he’s left the musical gruntwork to simple electronic beeps alongside the occasional piano and violin, instead focusing on creating melodies that feel concentrated and emotionally resonant to their core. It’s clear that Housden and Bithell were certainly on the same page when it came to the narrative, as the music perfectly gels with each chapter’s themes and progression.
If there’s any fault with the game’s story here, it’s in the final tenth of the game. Without wishing to spoil, the narrative takes a sudden U-turn in its last levels, introducing an entirely new plotline and completely readjusting its focus. Although the characterization and writing continue to be strong in these moments, the game begins to explore themes that seem unnecessarily complex and detached from the core theme of friendship that’s been in place up to that point, going so far as to actually contradict it in some ways. It feels distractingly desynchronous, an attempt to squeeze more out the game’s premise than is reasonably possible, and the ultimate ending, coming across as brief and muted, is a supreme letdown and feels like potential sequel set-up.
Such narrative missteps would likely have sunk lesser stories, but I’m happy to report that the tale of Thomas and friends is so strong that, when taken as a whole, the story is far from a letdown. In fact, I dare say this is some of the best storytelling in games we’ve seen this generation, and definitely something that other developers should aspire to. Although an incredibly short game, lasting at most around 3-4 hours, it manages to maintain a brisk pace and not once feel as if it’s beginning to drag.
But lo, I haven’t discussed Thomas’ core gameplay yet. At times it can be a legitimately ingenious puzzle game, one that requires you to carefully coordinate each character’s movements, usually to form stepping stones for other characters to climb ledges or leap chasms with. It can certainly be tricky, but once you’ve analyzed the level layout and made everything click, executing the solution and matching everyone up can yield a feeling of mental satisfaction not unlike that of beating a room in Portal. Although your difficulty mileage in puzzle games will certainly vary, I can at least say for myself that there very few situations where I got outright stumped, and even when I was, a little perseverance and extra strain on the grey matter usually did the trick.
Even when the puzzles are less complex or when the game throws a few varied surprises your way, the drive to continue playing and get to the next level never ceases. You’ll be compelled to further unravel the story, for sure, but there’s also simply a gratifying nature to running and jumping around the world, to glide along the floor and deftly catch a ledge. Thomas plays very smoothly throughout, so the fact that the game is equal parts platformer and puzzler is no problem at all. If anything, it’s what lends the game its absorbing pace and variety.
Unfortunately, there are points where Thomas can be a bit tedious to play. Once you’ve gathered a sizable roster of characters, switching between all of them can be lethargic to say the least, and there will be many a case where you’ve figured out the solution to a level but still have to navigate each person through their route, all the while impatiently tapping your foot. The jump button isn’t the most responsive around, which can lead to characters sometimes drooping off a ledge despite you having squeezed X with the might of an anaconda. It should also be said that levels aren’t safe from the possibility that you’ll screw yourself over. More than once I had to restart a level because either the stubby Chris got stuck in a room that he had no way to get out of, or I forgot to leave Claire behind so someone can cross a pool of water. Nitpicks for sure, especially considering how infrequent they were, but issues nonetheless.
It should finally be mentioned just how great Thomas looks. There is no Havok physics engine or complex lighting effects to be found, and yet the game looks immensely pleasing to the eye. Bithell took the minimalist, corner-clad look of the game and ran with it, creating a consistent and distinct visual style to the game. Although the environments tend to be rather monochrome, sporting mainly greys, blacks and whites, this is definitely fitting with the story’s theme of finding friends in a seemingly boring world, and indeed, the backgrounds contrast very well against the colorful main cast. As the game progresses, you’re treated to levels that look increasingly vibrant and varied, evoking an almost spiritual feel in places, and the minimalist animation throughout is nothing but charming.
The “are games art” debacle will likely rage on for eternity, and no definitive answer will probably ever be drawn. However, the next time us pro-interactive entertainment people valiantly step onto the stage with our arguments in hand, I’d encourage that in addition to the pre-packaged Shadow of the Colossus and Bioshock answers, that we also dedicate a pedestal to Thomas Was Alone.
Thomas Was Alone is an exercise in beautiful simplicity and a seamless marriage of story and gameplay. Mild niggles about the gameplay and ending aside, this is about as captivating and purely enjoyable as gaming gets. A game fundamentally about friendship, it’ll absolutely make you laugh, wonder, gasp and yes, perhaps even cry. In a world where the disposable God of War: Ascension can cost $50 million to make, the conversely memorable Thomas’ shoestring budget is proof that there’s still an irreplaceable spot for creativity, talent and ingenuity within the industry. Thomas can be proud of the fact that he’ll never be alone again, as I will be right by his side every step of the way.
(Reviewed on Playstation 3. Review code provided by Sony and Mike Bithell. Many thanks.)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 9/10
Gameplay/Design – 8/10
Visuals – 9/10
Sound – 10/10
Lasting Appeal – 8/10
Overall – 9/10
(not an average)
Platforms: PC, PS3, PS Vita
Developer: Mike Bithell, Bossa Studios, Curve Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Rating: Everyone (ESRB), 12 (PEGI)