Thomas Was Alone
May 16, 2013, Author: Andy Corrigan
If you took to heart the superfluous ramblings of Quantic Dream’s David Cage, then you’d be led to believe that creating an emotional connection with a player is only about graphics. The argument makes sense; with beefier graphical power comes a more realistic character model, and with it a wider range of relatable facial expressions.
Even so, the number of polygons you’re able to shove into a virtual elderly-man’s doughy-eyed face is not proportionate to the amount of emotion the player will feel.
We know that it’s not true. Many animated, visually simplistic movies are just as emotionally affecting as any live-action romp; the first ten minutes of Pixar’s Up was as gut-wrenching as anything I’ve ever seen in cinema and stands as a prime example.
Likewise in games, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and even Journey, without a single line of dialogue, were both better written and provided me with infinitely more emotional payout and attachment than either of Cage’s grittier efforts. I held back the tears as the former ended, and felt unbridled joy come the end of the latter. With his games I had enjoyment but ultimately felt nothing following it.
His argument can be put to the test once more thanks to Thomas Was Alone, a simplistic puzzle-platformer where the characters, each made up of a single polygon, will absolutely capture your heart.
Thomas wasn’t alone for long…
Thomas Was Alone starts, unsurprisingly, by introducing you to Thomas. He, as you might have gathered, is alone. He also happens to be a tiny, bright red quadrilateral A.I. that suddenly becomes self-aware and quickly realises that he’s pretty nifty at falling and jumping. As he begins to navigate his way through the testing levels and mazes, trying to reach the portal at the end of each, it becomes clear that he’s not actually alone at all.
He soon comes across other, vastly different quadrilaterals also going through their own trials, each being tested on their own unique skills. This unlikely team will all come to greatly rely on one another if they are to meet their goal, one that they’re only discovering as they venture further and further into the game. Each character, as delightfully detailed in the game’s ongoing narration, has their own personality that could easily be applied to any human being.
For example, the second of the posse, an orange square called Chris, is easily intimidated and jealous of Thomas’s jumping ability, sneering often at his enthusiastic quest for knowledge. His own shorter stature proves useful on more than one occasion, though, and he can’t help but find comfort in that. Claire, with her ability to float in the ordinarily fatal water, fancies herself as something of a superhero and makes it her job to protect and save the others. John is a show-off, but is kind natured and cares about those in his company.
There are a handful of others who join Thomas’s party, but I won’t cover them all here. It’s a rich and charming cast, though, and discovering the events of their collective journey is a massive part of what makes the game so special. It’s an endearing tale, with themes of trying to understand the world around us but most of all about friendship. It’s a journey that will make you laugh often, make you sad occasionally, but only ever beguile you with its charm throughout.
Trying to put a square block in a square hole…
So, as far as puzzle platformers go, Thomas Was Alone is pretty basic with only three buttons (one jump and two to quickly change between your party), but it’s deeply enjoyable nonetheless. A typical level unceremoniously drops a group of our quadrangular team into a landscape of some sort and by controlling each of them independently, you’ll have them working together to reach their individual exit portals.
For example, a ledge might be out of reach for the shorter Chris, so he’ll need to use Thomas and John lined up together as a makeshift set of stairs. Claire might need to take to the water to transport some of the group to the other side. A button might need to be pressed beyond a tunnel that only Chris could reach to allow further progression. Later you’ll bounce higher, double jump and even defy gravity in your quest. There’s more to it beyond that, but it would spoil the story to divulge.
There’s a very gentle difficulty curve in effect over the game’s hundred levels that prevents you from hitting any major stumbling blocks (if you excuse the pun), so unlike something like Portal, you’re never going to come away from a puzzle feeling like a genius. Instead, you’ll be at an almost Zen-like relaxed state throughout, never frustrated and only ever eager to press on and see where the story takes you.
The game is fairly straightforward in this respect, although a number of the puzzles might take a couple of stabs before you breeze by them, but there’s never any danger of failure. Death too is never a real threat; should a non-waterproof character fall into the drink or hit a spike, they’ll merely disintegrate and respawn instantly back at either the beginning of the level or a recently passed checkpoint.
Just make sure you take in the story, as its character development is that important to the overall experience. Playing with the sound off or ploughing through just to get through the levels will see your time with Thomas Was Alone criminally wasted.
Man, you’re so square
As you can probably gather from the handful of screenies, Thomas Was Alone is fairly minimalist in design. Although those uninterested in artsy indie games might look at it and scoff, maybe even call it pretentious, having the game take any other design philosophy would miss the point entirely.
While yes, the visuals are simple, they’re also strikingly crisp and clean, with bold colouring. It looks lovely in motion too; although the characters are simply basic shapes, their stretch and bounce adds much credence to their relative weighting, and I was consciously marvelling at the lovely shadowing effects more than once.
Making love to your ears
The entire story is told through narration by an old friend of the site, Danny Wallace, whose tone and reading isn’t just a pleasing aspect of the game, it’s vital to it. His delivery is flawless, not only capturing the necessary charm, humour and urgency when story necessitates it, but successfully portraying the very human sides to these inhuman objects.
The chilled-but-always-building electronic soundtrack backs him luminously, as it too successfully rides the waves of the game’s various emotional states. It’s a soundtrack that constantly evokes feelings of wonderment, mystery, and even sadness, and at the points when that story is building it ends in this thrilling, almost euphoric crescendo that countless times sent shivers down my spine. Excellent work.
Don’t leave Thomas alone any longer!
It’s fair to say that although fairly short and at times too straightforward in terms of its existence as a ‘game’, Thomas Was Alone is an experience that is easily greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the splendid way in which those parts come together, though; the way its narrative, soundtrack and gameplay intertwine that makes it such so uniquely special.
A powerful experience that’s entirely worth its modest asking price.