When it’s come to pushing forwards video games as a storytelling medium, a lot of the work in recent years has focused on building deeper human characters who have more nuanced and meaningful interactions with the people and universes around them. I have a huge respect for the developers who are making these endeavours, in fact I think it’s one of the most important things happening in video games right now, but it’s not the only way to create engrossing fiction. After all, if video games are still attempting to find their feet in terms of storytelling, doesn’t it make sense to start simple? That’s exactly what Mike Bithell’s indie puzzle-platformer Thomas Was Alone does. Thomas Was Alone is set in a world where a team of programmers have accidentally stumbled across a way to create sentient computer code and birthed the inquisitive AI Thomas.As you begin to move Thomas (who is a simple red rectangle) around the first level, the charming British lilt of an unseen narrator describes how Thomas feels, what he’s thinking, and what he plans to do. At first it feels really silly. After all, this red quadrilateral has no outward emotive abilities, no face to make expressions, no voice to make sounds (other than the 'boing' of his jump.) But the story quickly takes over and the lack of any visual emotions becomes moot. It readily becomes apparent that Thomas is an emergent Artificial Intelligence stuck within a software program, and he soon runs into other colored rectangles, other AIs who each have their own unique personalities & ambitions. As you move through the game, you take control of all these colored blocks of varying sizes, speeds, & abilities, and the game gets a lot of mileage out of mixing and matching them to create platforming puzzles. Sometimes you’re stacking them up to form rudimentary stairs to reach higher platforms, other times you’re squeezing the smaller rectangles down narrow paths to hit a switch. One character, Laura, can act as a trampoline for others. Another character, Sarah, can double jump. And all the while as you progress through the game, the narrator is unrolling a charming & melancholy story about these often desperate characters and their quest to escape the confines of the computer program they are stuck in. Their specific traits may sound too similar and basic to have a great deal of longevity, but as with the story, Thomas Was Alone’s uncanny knack of knowing just when to introduce new cast members and mechanics keeps it fresh. Unfortunately, there are a few weaknesses in the game’s puzzle-platforming that put a bit of a damper on things. Getting characters to climb onto small platforms or each other can be a bit of a fiddly job, and switching between characters never felt particularly natural for me. You can cycle through them one-by-one, in which case it can be a fair number of button presses to get to the character you want, or you can switch directly to another character using the number keys, which is easier said than done when you need to memorise which number corresponds to which character, and the cast of the game is constantly changing. This is a bigger problem later on in the game when you’re controlling more characters, and it’s a fairly frequent occurrence to have to make several consecutive switches just to walk them from A to B. Thankfully though, the game generally doesn’t set you back far if you slip up, and loads between levels are virtually non-existent. The game is rather short, and with very few puzzles giving me any pause as to how to solve them, I flew through it pretty quickly. That’s not a bad thing though, for if it were any longer it probably would have overstayed its welcome. The game knows what it is, and doesn’t really try to be anything more. The story is extremely well written, and the narration by Danny Wallace is pitch perfect. It seemed to me that the gameplay was simply a vehicle to tell the story, and so keeping the puzzles simple so that the story can keep unfolding makes sense. I found myself enthralled and propelled through the game by the story, which would have been just as at home in a book as much as it was in the game. The simplicity of the gameplay might turn off some of the more fidgety gamers out there, and some might have a legitimate argument that what’s offered here isn’t worth the $10 price tag, but I found the charm and humor on display was well worth it for me. For about the price (and length) as a night at the movie theater, you could do a lot worse.
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