Video games have presented us spectacular plots that place the stakes of the world painstakingly high, but very few are able to scale back their plots in favor of creating characters that reflect the daily personal struggles of humanity. Thomas Was Alone, an indie puzzle-platformer created by Mike Bithell, manages to create some of the most engaging human characters in a video game I’ve ever played, and all of the characters happen to be voiceless quadrilaterals.
Thomas is a curious artificial being who comes to fruition after an event that causes the other AI to develop personalities. Thomas decides that he’s going to note every observation he makes of the beautiful, broken mainframe in which he’s trapped. Despite the title, Thomas is not alone for long, as he comes across several other quadrilaterals of differing widths, heights, colors, abilities and insecurities. The quadrilaterals don’t voice their hopes and insecurities themselves. They are instead brought to life by a narrator who excellently conveys the characters’ struggles in the same vein as a children’s tale. That’s not to say Thomas Was Alone doesn’t have its darker moments, as you’ll come across am ominous pixelated cloud that stalks the characters as they progress. Still, I’ve had the most fun in a long time just simply getting to know each character, and it was always a delight to see more characters introduced.
The world in which Thomas and co. are trapped is a broken virtual world, but it still manages to be enigmatically beautiful. The characters may be solid colored rectangles; however, the rest of the world features dazzling lighting effects. I even had to pause in some areas just to stare at the water. The soundtrack also boasts some excellent electronic music with a dash of rock, and each tune perfectly captures the emotional moments in the game. This is a soundtrack that many players will want to hunt down post-credits.
Thomas Was Alone is an indie puzzle-platformer whose design reflects the personalities of its characters. Thomas is the first usable character, who is somewhat decent at jumping but cannot reach the smaller passages more suitable for the square, Chris. Chris, on the other hand, is a loner who actively dislikes his companions, but has no choice but to rely on the characters to help give him a boost due to his poor jumping abilities and small stature—usually accomplished by forming a staircase with the other characters. Sarah is a larger square whose jumping capabilities are also low; however, she is the only one who can float, so she carries the characters across the hazardous water—all the while believing she must be a super hero (for some reason). Together, the quadrilaterals must use their abilities to help each other get to the portals--one for each character--at the end of each stage.
Jumping is one of the key components in this game, and it feels fine-tuned no matter which character you use. The other component is switching between both characters, which is done using the R1 and L1 buttons on the DualShock controller. Switching between characters is the key to solving problems, some of which can be tackled in multiple ways. Thomas will come across a surprisingly wide assortment of characters on his journey. Because of this, the game never stops introducing new puzzle elements throughout its 100 levels.
Levels are small and require some tinkering before players can progress. There are no active enemy units; however, players have to watch out for water hazards and spikes. Luckily, the developers have strategically placed save-points in positions that prevent players from feeling frustrated from having to start over. There’s just enough pressure to present a threat; however, players can work freely. I never felt the need to consult online help which made for a cognitively satisfying experience.
I have only a few nitpicks for Thomas Was Alone. Thomas Was Alone presents a few too many stair puzzles, which slows down the pace considerably. The other problem is that in the first few levels the narration is longer than it takes to complete the level. This is only an issue in the first bunch of levels; however, if you’re playing through the game with the director’s commentary, players will have to sit and do nothing while the narrator finishes his long-winded spiel that’s otherwise enlightening. Finally, the ending isn’t satisfying, even if it’s supposed to be somewhat vague and open to interpretation.
It took me about 4.5 hours to complete Thomas Was Alone, and I was so engrossed that I completed it in one sitting. Despite the short length, I felt that it was just the right amount of time to tell Thomas’s tale. You could replay the game for the developer’s commentary, which despite my earlier criticism is a joy to listen. Upon completing the game you won’t find any new challenging puzzles and you’ll be playing for the story value alone. But Thomas Was Alone’s narrative is tightly woven into its 100 levels.
Thomas Was Alone is a unique, approachable game with a unique story to tell. By the end of the game, players will fondly speak of their favorite characters, even though they’ll know of only their colors to distinguish them.
This review is based on a digital download copy of the game for the PlayStation 3 provided by Mike Bithell.