Thomas Was Alone
There was nothing. And then there was Thomas. Thomas is an AI. A rectangular red one. He is self aware, with an instinct to move up and to the right. The tale is told through quotation text from those outside the machine that witnessed the accidental birth of the AI, and a narrator, who works through his lines as if reading a fairy tale to a classroom of primary school children. It’s certainly charming as new AIs are discovered, friendships made, outsiders find their place, and there’s even a love story. Personifying cubes and rectangles is no easy task but Mike Bithell has achieved it with grace.
Thomas Was Alone is an allegory for the rise of culture and society. Different creeds, of shapes, sizes and skill, partner through need for survival at first, thus leading to bonds between them that lead to selfless acts if it benefits the group. It’s also as much as about people finding their place in a society when pushed, and those born with talent learning to share it with others and not use it as a means to put themselves upon a pedestal looking down on the rest. The methodology used to deliver this story is interesting. Take away the narration and all character would be removed. Thomas would no longer be a hero but a red jumping block. Chris would be the block that causes repetition to build him a stairway rather than the grumpy sod whose heart soon warms. To remove the text introductions would eliminate the low-key yet recognisable sense of threat. It evidences the power of effective scripting and delivery, and how it can turn a video game around.
“Evidences the power of effective scripting and delivery”The inside of the machine where our AI has been birthed is lit in bold colours and subtle particle effects that blend to birth a unique visual style. This stands it out from the pack and the stylised appearance, with the background colours changing to match the chapters, each brick visibly different to the next, being smooth on the eye and recognisable. The musical themes brought into this world by composer David Housden is of huge benefit. Every moment of hope and loss for our new little friends are matched and expanded by delicate aural notes. They push the audience to continue even when the path becomes over familiar.
Proceeding is relatively simple. The AIs are able to move left and right and jump. Everyone acts as an individual and must be controlled as such, switching between them in real time to stack them up or lead one forward if they’re the one able to reach a specific area. For each block there is a white outline where they need to stand. Once everyone’s in place they’re teleported to the next area. To reach certain areas the AI needs to work cooperatively, whether stacking to form stairs, pushing buttons to transform the environment, or using their unique characteristics, such as Claire the big block that discovers she can act as a float to transport the others across water. The focus is always on being clear over being clever. It’s unlikely one will ever become stuck. The only brick walls hit were personally made; over thinking and expecting a complicated solution when the answer was simple.
With a hundred levels there is much repetition in what Thomas and his friends will have to do. With little problem solving for an audience who’ll likely have played puzzle adventures before it sits more comfortably into the platform camp; especially the later chapters which fully embrace this. The puzzle difficulty could be due to age. A younger audience would no doubt find the ideas new and challenging at first. In many cases the solution is clear as day and it’s more the time it takes to achieve it. This is clear in one case where a team of five small squares all need to be moved independently to the end of a linear path. There’s nothing to it mechanically and its purpose is entirely narrative.
“Beautiful musical arrangements”To react with only negativity would be misunderstanding what Mike Bithell has set out to do. Much of the gameplay exists for the benefit of telling a story. The previous example of the white cubes functions as an introduction to a major plot point, and leads to interaction with another character who has grown old and jaded to change. However, this doesn’t mean an early editorial sweep wouldn’t have streamlined and strengthened it overall. By level 60 it was the interest in the characters and seeing the complete story arc that kept my intrigue, rather than an excitement in stacking cubes in similar fashions. The arc hits a high note – musical harmonies swelling to lift it – and it then proceeds for too long due to the self-imposed restrictions of having ten levels per chapter.
Nearing the end and growing a little weary, it was time to take break. Coming back to it with a fresh mind was a reminder of what works well: the beautiful musical arrangements that stand strong by the appropriate narration, and that to play it on mute would be an entirely different matter. Therefore, Thomas Was Alone‘s greatest strengths are in its storytelling and character. In this it fully exceeds, keeping me playing past the point of growing over familiar and dreary of the oft-repeated mechanical themes. But due to this it can be expected that many who start the adventure will never finish it, though, which is certainly a shame. For rectangles have never been so lively.