If you can make your protagonist genuinely endearing to the player, then you’ve accomplished a very difficult task. If you can make a simple quadrilateral elicit genuine emotion from the player, then you’ve created something very special indeed. And this is what Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone has done. The game has taken simple geometric shapes and imbue with the kind of emotional dysfunction, weakness and neuroticism that even the biggest of AAA games can fall short of.
For those who haven’t read up on Thomas Was Alone (you can do so here), the game is a labour of love, entirely created in his own free time, by Bossa Studio’s Mike Bithell. Thomas is a puzzle-based platformer that owes as much to Lost Vikings as it does to Portal. It stars Thomas, a simple quadrilateral attempting to piece together the rather complex world around him. To help Thomas through the game are other four-sided shapes with their own array of personality disorders and unique abilities.
Combining these unique abilities to traverse the multitude of drops, jumps, switches and moving platforms is what Thomas is all about. Each character encountered has their own particular strengths and weaknesses, and the player is tasked with using these effectively.
What is initially so striking is the game’s beautifully minimalist, almost clinical, appearance. Everything on screen has a sharp, angular aesthetic that sits nicely against the words, while more random shapes drift along like clouds, making up the backgrounds.
“As wonderful an experience as Thomas is, it will only be that way if players allow the game time to flourish.”
If Thomas Was Alone is pleasing visually, then it is positively delightful aurally. David Housden’s soundtrack suits the pacing of the game brilliantly, yet he is still overshadowed by the wonderful narration talents of Danny Wallace. Danny’s delivery of certain lines is genuinely hilarious, and even on second and third listening rarely tiresome. A huge part of the appeal in ploughing through some levels is just to hear the next part of the story unfold. The balance between reflective emotional moments and borderline slapstick comedy is well pitched and helps to keep the story moving along at a good pace.
The game’s story is drip fed to the player as the levels are completed, and initial confusion and guess work gives way to the “ahh right!” moment in which everything seems to come together. The reference to the narrative style of Portal is an easy one to make, and in some aspects an accurate one too. But Thomas has a style all of its own and really does entice the player through the game, carrot-on-stick style.
As wonderful an experience as Thomas is, it will only be that way if players allow the game time to flourish. Early levels can be simplistic and one or two are a little tiresome as back and forth fetching of characters across a level ensue, but these early trials are well worth suffering for what develops later in the game’s most interesting twist. It’s very worth it, believe me.
Thomas Was Alone is an excellent title that has carved out its very own niche in the abundant indie games market. The intriguing design and visual style melds seamlessly with Danny Wallace’s narration and creates an experience that players will share and discuss after the event. Everyone really should give this charming little game a try.
It’s also the first game that made me legitimately care about a random square and his mates. Well played Mr Bithell, well played.