Thomas Was Alone is a strange beast, a mystery of game design. The game deals in duality with iconoclastic glee. A simple game with complex ideas, an easily “pick-upable” concept that contains a not-easily-dropped philosophy at its core. Basically, a platformer with brains, and most shockingly, heart.
When the game starts up, you find yourself staring at a little orange rectangle in a small space cut out from a black background, a deceptively plain vista. Then, comedian Danny Wallace’s mummy-tomb dry narration cuts in to tell you all about this bitty quadrilateral. His thoughts, his hopes and dreams, the quirky observations he’s making inside of his four-sided head. But most importantly, the snarky narrator informs us that “Thomas was alone.” Thomas is a rectangle, and Thomas can jump, and is inside a computer. In fact, he is a computer – he’s an AI, taking his first steps toward cognizance. He’s excited and scared and curious about the wide world spreading out before him. He wants to know why the world is challenging him, why it’s teaching him new platforming techniques just as things get harder. His commentary on the tried and true platform genre tropes is as refreshing as it is cheeky, and it adds a level of meta commentary to unquestioned video game cliches with a Bioshock 1 level of sharpness.
The world itself does seem to be challenging Thomas – the landscape shifts, forms spikes, spills toxic water in great lakes. Just when Thomas begins to reach the end of what he’s capable of as a mere jumping rectangle, we learn another interesting tidbit – Thomas is, in fact, NOT alone. There are other incipient A.I. rectangles (and squares), in different sizes, shapes, and colors, and they all come with their platforming ability. They have names, and personalities (as the narrator informs us), with their own observations about the strange world they’ve been thrust into. Claire, a big fat blue square, believes her ability to survive and float in water qualifies as a super-power, and her endearing inner monologue reads like Batman crossed with a Powerpuff Girl. An entire plethora of characters keep joining the story, each bringing their own flavor to the proceedings, each of them voiced by a limber and perfectly cast Danny Wallace.
Eventually a predator appears in the form of an angry pixel cloud from hell, and the 2D heroes must face not only their own mortality, but the tentative family they’ve built. A tale of awakening artificial intelligence and the need for companionship unfolds, one that is way deeper than it has any right to be.
Thomas Was Alone is through-and-through a platformer, in the style of the oldest of schools. You jump. You traverse. You avoid pitfalls and water and moving spikes, perfecting your timing as you battle up the learning curve.
The trick, and the innovation of the game, is in how it gives you more than one character to move forward. Taking turns with the bump of a shoulder button, you learn to use each character’s special abilities to push the others forward, overlapping strength to cover weaknesses. When short Chris can’t make a jump, you can move Thomas into position as an impromptu step, or move Laura (who is essentially a living trampoline) into a spot where Chris can bounce off of her into a higher ledge. Claire can ferry other rectangles across water on her back, but she can’t fit through small passages or jump worth a damn. Sarah (besides being nutter-butters crazy), can double jump to new heights, and James is affected by gravity the opposite way as everyone else.
What’s best about the gameplay is that though it starts as a platformer, the plethora of characters and your options between them actually slowly morphs everything into a dastardly tricky puzzle game. No complaint – Thomas Was Alone is the great kind of puzzle game that makes your mind feel wonky, like it’s bending in new shapes to solve the problems ahead.
The graphics seem simple, at first. The characters, though fully realized by the narration, are little more than single-colored rectangles. The background is plain, cut out of inky, featureless blackness. But the longer you play, the more you begin to notice the details – the way every level is lit on a two-dimensional plain from only one direction, so that every shape cuts long shadows across the landscape that move dynamically. The softly swaying shapes in the background, the fine edges on everything.
The graphics are never going to displace something like the vistas of FarCry 3, but they are without a doubt charming. There’s something to be said about an uncomplicated concept elegantly executed.
Thomas Was Alone’s strongest feature is without a doubt its sound – starting with the narration. It’s hard to believe that rectangles and squares could be emotionally realized characters, but the well-written narration turns the trick nicely. Funny without being pithy, honest without being stuffy, Bithel’s script works wonders. Performed by Wallace (known for his turn as the voice behind spiky Brit “Shaun Hasting” in Assassin’s Creed), the narration ends up being half the fun of the game.
The music, crafted by BAFTA nominated composer David Housden, is dreamy and weirdly enjoyable. It feels like a strange alchemy of sounds, the Little Big Planet soundtrack by way of Daft Punk. It provides a perfect counterpoint to the narration in crafting a surreal atmosphere of discovery and reflection, mirroring the AI characters journey to self-discovery.
Thomas Was Alone is an excellent concept with wonderful execution, a puzzle game that makes you feel and a heart-rending story that makes you think logically.
Thomas Was Alone is a success. Do yourself a favor, and check it out.
A copy of this title was provided for the purpose of this review.