Ian felt somewhat inadequate. His preview had been filled with praise, but its speculative nature had since proven to be rather shallow and uninspired. It was all Mike’s fault, he knew that at least. It was Mike’s world after all, it was his ingenuity that had exposed Ian’s failings and that can’t be considered his fault can it? Consoling himself with this fallacy, Ian continued to write… noting with curiosity and suspicion that as he did the words progressed down and to the right – He wasn’t sure why, but that seemed important.
Imagine that first paragraph in Danny Wallace’s voice and you have my comparatively feeble attempt to capture the narrative style of Thomas Was Alone – a flash game turned fully-fledged release from Mike Bithell.
On its surface, Thomas Was Alone appears to be a fairly simplistic 2D puzzle-platformer, but it quickly reveals itself to have far more depth to it than that. With some incredible writing, and a poignancy that I never thought parallelograms could express, this game presents you with something personal, affecting and ultimately brilliant.
Colourful in a rather subdued way and beautiful as a result, it is within one of the most cohesive environments that I have ever witnessed that Thomas Was Alone takes place. From the slight, almost ethereal effervescence of the toxic water, to the lighting effects that subtly enhance every movement, the aesthetic execution is damn near flawless. A minimalist style such as this requires attention to detail, but the craftsmanship and care that has gone into those elements are what sets this game apart from most. For example, many of the levels are slightly tilted. An ineffectual element in terms of the gameplay itself, it becomes one of the defining features. It presents the world as rightfully eschewed, something perhaps not inherently malevolent but unusual and disorientating.
Similarly, it is often the minor details within the platforming that impress the most. The slight bounce as you land on something grants the world an authenticity that its digital framework doesn’t require, but it is all the better for having it. The shuffle as you move the bottom member of a stack, the way Claire (still possibly my favourite character though she has a lot of competition) splashes into the water, the way the shapes elongate when they jump – it is all so easy for you to miss, but oh so rewarding if you don’t.
With each individual character – and trust me they are individuals – having their own strengths and weaknesses, this interplay serves as the central puzzle element. Sure, Chris (the small but otherwise useless shape) will have to rely on larger shapes like the titular Thomas to get to certain areas, but it quickly becomes far more satisfying than stacking. In fact, throughout its 100 levels, the game introduces many new mechanics and they don’t always coincide with a new character. None of them – even those after a rather spectacular event that shifts the dynamic significantly – feel forced, and this is due to how organic the evolution of this digital world feels.
The only complaint I have is that none of the elements introduced seem to be pushed to their limits. This fits in with the feel of the game, as the focus is the story as opposed to the challenge, but I sometimes found myself in wont of just one masochistic experience within a mechanic. There are moments of difficulty, but with instant respawns and an incredibly generous checkpoint system, the games feels perfectly suited for something slightly more sadistic, and the fact that it never comes is ever so slightly disappointing.
Where the game does challenge is within the narrative itself. Each rectangle has a distinct personality, and as the game progresses so too do their relationships with each other and themselves. Some long for friendship whilst others just want to be left alone, some are superheroes whilst others are merely self-aggrandising. They represent different elements of us all, but if it were that simple it would merely be an intriguing novelty. What we have here are characters that have dimensions and nuance that many games fail to adequately portray in their sole protagonist – and here you have many. Whilst you will likely gravitate towards different personalities than I have, at least one of these rectangles will resonate with you.
The narration by Danny Wallace rarely misses the mark, with his delivery often capturing the moment perfectly and allowing him to encapsulate whichever character he is representing at the time. It is a noteworthy performance, but it is the script that really shines. With its disarming humour and disconcerting poignancy, it not only manages to drive the action but often pauses it as well. Waiting at the end of a level to hear the last bit of narration is somewhat of a reward in and of itself. You don’t feel that the level was poorly paced, or the dialogue too long – you’re just enraptured by the shapes introspections.
The soundtrack by David Housden is exceptional. Suitably simplistic but crafted with the same care that is evident throughout, it is the sort of soundtrack that seamlessly integrates with the game. Seemingly rising and falling as you do it offers the perfect accompaniment, but there are also times when it manages to displace the rectangles as your main focus; Times where, through some indiscernible change, it will just grab you to remind you of its presence and its poignancy.
Thomas Was Alone is a game that could have stood admirably on the merits of its platforming alone. It would have been a well conceived and well delivered diversion worthy of anyone’s time. However, this wasn’t the intention, and it certainly isn’t the result. The narrative shapes the game more than the mechanics. You will obviously have gone into this game sentient, but you may be surprised when you somehow emerge feeling more so.