Thomas Was Alone
When one thinks of well developed characters, bursting with personality and nuance, a simple trigonometric shape isn’t the first thing that necessarily comes to mind. It’s probably not even the seventh. Yet Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone does its utmost to prove that while they might be square on the outside, on the inside they’re anything but.
The game tells the story of Thomas, an artificial intelligence attempting to escape from his programme. He’s soon joined by all manner of other AI partners, each with their own unique abilities. Each AI is represented by a differently coloured block which both informs as to what their particular ability might be, as well as making each uniquely distinguishable from their counterparts. Chris, the small stocky orange block, isn’t able to jump as high as Thomas, but can fit into smaller gaps. John is tall and lanky, and can jump further and higher than any other AI. The large blue square, Claire, possesses the ability to float on water while Laura can be used as a trampoline of sorts, allowing other AI to traverse insurmountable gaps. Along with numerous other AI characters, this motley crew will accompany Thomas in his attempt to gain freedom from the labyrinth mainframe.
The goal of each stage is to lead the AI to a portal at the upper end of the level. Initially, the player is in control of the titular Thomas, but soon the stages require leading three or four (and sometimes more) AIs to their own designated portals, with the player able to switch to any available character on the fly. This is where Thomas Was Alone comes into its own, as the AIs need to use their abilities in tandem to overcome the level’s challenges. For example, Chris might be needed to press a switch, but the only way to get him there is to use Claire to ferry him across a large expanse of water, or for Laura to bounce him past an otherwise uncross-able expanse.
The combination of abilities makes for some interesting gameplay, and much like other games in the same vein, the majority of the fun is in figuring out which abilities fit together to solve any particular challenge. That being said, those looking for a game to tax their mental prowess might be best looking elsewhere. Thomas Was Alone never really provided any truly mind bending puzzles over the course of play, with the solution to most stages becoming obvious once the player has figured out which abilities gel together with the most regularity. This criticism is exacerbated in later levels when a new mechanic is introduced which almost lays out the solution from the outset of each stage. The platforming itself is serviceable, with controls being tight and responsive. When jumps were missed, it was always down to player error and not some quirk of the mechanics. The title is aesthetically pleasing, with the visuals appearing crisp and clear on the Vita, and the simplistic angular platforms capturing the narrative and direction that Thomas Was Alone strives towards.
“Yet it is what surrounds the basic gameplay that elevates Thomas from run-of-the-mill platformer to something special”Thomas Was Alone is a very basic platformer. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, or even introduce much in the way of new ideas. Its intentionally stripped down and simplistic core means there’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen or implemented better in another title. Yet it is what surrounds the basic gameplay that elevates Thomas from run-of-the-mill platformer to something special. The entire game is narrated by Danny Wallace, the British comedian best know in gaming circles as Shaun Hastings from the Assassin’s Creed series. His delivery is spot on, and really adds a great deal of charm to proceedings. Thomas and the rest of the ensemble cast are no longer simple quadrangles, but fully realised characters with their own aspirations and insecurities.
While Chris is simply a nondescript small orange square on screen, the game conveys him wonderfully as a slightly bitter and grumpy protagonist. He harbours resentment towards those better-abled than he is (which he believes is almost everybody), but yet deep down he’s a romantic. Throughout the course of the game, we watch him grow and develop as he fully explores his own insecurities. The same applies to each AI encountered along the way. Each has a story to be told. It may seem ridiculous that I’m talking about a band of quadrangles as though they were people, but it’s a testament to the writing and its delivery that these colourful shapes elicit a greater emotional resonance than many larger budget titles with the same intentions. Add to that a score that wonderfully sets the tone yet never overwhelms, and Thomas Was Alone delivers an experience that is much more than the sum of its parts.
Thomas Was Alone does a stellar job in doing what it sets out to achieve. It uses simplistic visuals and basic gameplay to convey a sense of wonder and tell a very personable, well written and well realised story of isolation and companionship. Clocking in at five or so hours, with very little scope for replay-ability aside from a commentary track from developer Mike Bithell, Thomas Was Alone may not offer a tonne of bang for your buck, but it will leave a lasting impression that is worth the price of admission.