Thomas Was Alone Review
“Thomas was Alone. Wow. A weird first thought to have”
Video games have always strived to give its characters a personality, some traits to make them interesting to its players. We humans like qualities such as courage, kindness and so on, thus games often try to replicate these traits when creating characters to guide the player through their virtual world of wonder. As the years have passed, better technology means that video game characters can be extremely complex and memorable to whoever steps into their world, Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us come straight to mind. These advances however perhaps pale in comparison to what Thomas Was Alone has accomplished in this regard. Circumventing this trend completely, the game injects a staggering amount of personality into an array of simple rectangular blocks of varying shapes and sizes, with only the barest amount of visual distinction between them. It’s the perfect video game response to all these cinematic influences seeping into the industry. Complex emotions and personalities are married to decidedly basic, non-human objects, and its primary mechanic is that of the purest in all of gaming, jumping of course. Thomas Was Alone is a complete triumph of imaginative narration intertwined to assured level design.
The story follows a little A.I. in the shape of a red square named Thomas, who has been created by accident inside a vast computer program, somehow developing sentient thoughts and feelings. Despite what the title conveys, Thomas isn’t alone for long with the player being able to control a cast of similarly bonkers AIs who soon become his friends, a dysfunctional family if you will. Each character takes the form of a coloured rectangle with a different variation of that most prized ability of all, jumping. For example, a squat orange square named Chris is pretty useless, he can’t jump high at all, so he’s naturally very grumpy and cynical about things. But it turns out he’s the only one who can fit through small passages in the environment, reiterating that everyone has a purpose, and I swear I could detect a wonderful smugness to Chris’s movement on these occasions as he proved his worth. Other characters include Claire a borderline delusional blue square who thanks to her ability to float in water, has a burgeoning superhero complex.
As the game unfolds, the little shapes develop personalities, wrangling with difficult issues such as self-image, confidence and acceptance amidst the changing social dynamic of the group as the game progresses. Their thoughts are charted through the superb narration of Danny Wallace, who plays the role as all of them, a solo ensemble. Moreover, the script evolves beautifully, combining delicate poignancy with cheeky wit as the characters learn to co-operate and build relationships with one another. To be honest it’s staggering to write these things when Thomas and his companions are merely represented as basic shapes in varying colours, yet you can’t help but let your imagination take hold and superimpose human qualities on them. You think of each A.I as its own person, undoubtedly the game’s greatest achievement.
A genius element of the narrative is how their personalities bleed into its only gameplay mechanic, jumping. It’s a source of constant competition, pride and insecurity, in Chris’s case seething resentment. A tongue-in-cheek play on the conventional rules of platforming in the gaming landscape, Thomas Was Alone’s world is practically governed by the use of jumping, being the primary measure of something or someone’s usefulness. Indeed, the art of the inverted fall is exquisitely interwoven with the narrative, creating a cohesive adventure that breathes so much life into its tale.
As already mentioned, Thomas Was Alone strips gameplay down to that one mechanic, so it couldn’t really be much simpler for the player to get to grips with. Initially you only control Thomas who can jump to medium height and is reasonably agile. Toxic water pits and hazardous spikes are introduced as the obstacles you need to avoid to successfully complete the level, all very familiar stuff. But the gradual introduction of the expansive cast of characters keeps the gameplay feeling fresh; their different abilities are the source of the game’s puzzles, requiring you to exploit these characters in combination to negotiate the escalating challenge of the levels. Switching between characters becomes necessary to complete stages, be it stacking the characters in blocks to give a boost to a less athletic character (dammit Chris), or piling all of them on the back of Claire, the only one who can swim in water. Together the group must clear the obstacles and reach the designated exit portals, ones that are shaped precisely to match each individual character. There’s the additional factor to contend with then, of working out how to get everyone to their specific exit.
The level design is consistently polished with the game doing a sterling job of subtly teaching you how to play. Yes it has simplistic mechanics, but the tight design and neat narrative cues are far more progressive than needless signposting. Take for example when Thomas first learns how to jump over gaps in the early levels, Danny Wallace exclaims that he’s “discovered the inverted fall. Thomas has learned how to jump”. But it would be fair to say that the game doesn’t really offer much of a challenge, it’s very gentle as learning curves go and it’s difficult to say that you were thoroughly tested by the time the credits roll around.
It’s got a wonderful abstract style meanwhile, it may not be much more than angles and straight lines, but they look so crisp in motion. Looking past the initial presentation however, the player can discover a deeper outlook; shadows eerily envelop the little A.I companions and the colours pop with significance. The soundtrack is similarly sublime, David Housden’s procedural score is perfectly fitting with the cold electronic environments with a sombre synth soundscape. However, this soundtrack like the rest of the game, carries the wonderful air of discovery and child-like adventure about it, with intimate pianos and guitars deployed to convey an emotional depth rarely found in soundtracks in this medium. Not merely an absolute revelation but a true masterpiece.
There are 100 levels in the base game with a further 20 in the Benjamin’s Flight DLC which introduces a new character Benjamin obviously, who gets around levels with his jetpack. Like the main adventure, it’s a deeply charming slice of platforming action, but when you’re done, you’re really done. The game doesn’t offer anything in terms of replayability such as leaderboards and whatnot.
Thomas Was Alone is a wonderful game with a whole lot of heart, don’t let its simplistic presentation fool you, it’s a deeply touching slice of indie magic that every player should seek out.
+ Beautiful, heart-warming adventure
+ Brilliant, cohesive narrative
+ Tight level design
+ Sublime soundtrack
– Not much of a challenge