One of the hardest things to pull off in any narrative medium, be it film, literature, and especially games, is getting the viewer/reader/player/whatever to connect with your characters and story. Even characters with fully developed back stories and clear motivations for all their actions can fail to have the intended audience give a crap about them, due to poor writing, being unrelatable, being just plain unlikeable, etc. It’s a wonder then that one brit managed to pull it off with a story starring a bunch of rectangles.
Thomas Was Alone (PSVita, PS3, Windows/Mac OS X)
Developed by Mike Bithell (Win/Mac) & Curve Studios (PS3/Vita), Published by Mike Bithell
Thomas Was Alone is all about the subversion of expectations. At first glance, it seems like your typical, boring, stereotypical indie game: minimalistic art aesthetic? Check. Soundtrack based around somber guitars and violins? Check. Slightly sarcastic narrator? Check. All that was missing was a possibly innovative but probably annoying central game mechanic that, by game’s end, becomes like more of a gimmick and you’d have the perfect contender for any average middle-of-the-road indie game. Thomas Was Alone quickly dashes those thoughts in your head and quickly becomes one of the most interesting games to come out in recent memory.
It starts off fairly simple: you are a red rectangle. A witty narrator portrayed by Danny Wallace informs you that this rectangle is named Thomas, and he’s tired of being lonely. He’s new to this world but soon learns the way it works and makes his way from portal to portal, with the narrator explaining his inner thoughts as we follow him. He’s very intelligent and is always taking note of the world around him. Not long after popping into existence, he comes across Chris, and it’s here where the game’s real narrative chops begin to show.
Thomas’s journey consists of him meeting an increasing cast of friends who each have unique, fleshed-out personalities. Chris, the short orange rectangle is stubborn and uneasy around new people. John, meanwhile, is a cheery and friendly tall yellow fellow (as all tall people are). The list of characters goes on from there, and each is more likeable and relatable than the last. It’s through these characters that the game deals with issues that many of us used to and maybe still deal with today, from shyness, being an outsider, unrequited love, fear of being used, and even the feeling that because you have a different lifestyle the people around you may reject your attempts at friendship, and that’s just off the top of my head.
What makes all this talk about serious real life issues succeed is Mike Bithell’s ability to talk about these issues with subtlety and tact. Even better, there is a distinct lack of an air of pretension around the whole affair. Any other writer trying to tackle these issues would be either extremely blunt or deliberately obscure. Thomas Was Alone does neither, and that is to be appreciated.
Another key point about the characters that he enhance the entire experience is the fact that each character’s unique abilities are necessary to be used to solve any puzzle they are involved in. This fosters an even further connection, as you truly begin to feel like your band of shapes are a close-knit team that could not function if one was missing. Even the characters that you end up building you plans around helping overcome an obstacle targeted purely at them feel like just another crucial cog in the machine.
Speaking of the gameplay, just like it’s visual style, it’s fairly simple. Each character has characteristics unique to them and them alone. John leaps far and above all the others while Claire functions as a barge. Another character acts as a trampoline and can be used to boost the more vertically challenged of the party. That’s just three of them and those aren’t even the most interesting gameplay-wise. All these varying abilities and jump heights combine into a series of puzzles that is always just challenging enough without ever teetering into frustrating.
As I’ve previously mentioned, the game employs an extremely minimalistic art-style. Everything is a variation of some sort of rectangle. Colors are simple but eye-popping, especially when paired with it’s shadow system which adds just another layer of character to it’s visuals. Going hand-in-hand with these visuals is the fantastic score by David Houseden that knows just when to be slightly whimsical and when to be extremely powerful and somber, with it’s final track being one of the better ways to send off a game I’ve ever heard. Also of note is that in the PSN version of the game Tom Bithell provides a commentary track, which is always, I repeat, ALWAYS welcome.
Unfortunately, there are a few nitpicks that hold the game back. There were a few points in the game where the tedium of trying to move one or two members of your group up a flight of stairs started getting fairly annoying. Not only that, on the PS Vita version, the game’s one (and thankfully, only) use of the touch screen, which is to switch to different blocks by touching them, can lead to some issues. Specifically, when using the stick to move, there is a tendency to accidentally touch the screen ever so slightly, causing a switch and possibly a death. The game’s biggest issue, however, comes in it’s weak third act. It doesn’t do much that the rest of the game has already done better. Maybe if it had more time to develop, but as it’s stands, a much better ending point came an hour before it actually did. Still, these nitpicks, apart from that weak 3rd act, can be easily ignored.
Thomas Was Alone is one of those games we don’t get often enough. We don’t often get games that tackle the emotions that are always rattling around in our head on a daily basis, let alone this subtly. Not only that, it has delivered one of the most convincing romantic sub-plots in gaming history, which is something I always want but rarely get. Which is really true of the entire game. Something I’ve always wanted but only just now got.