Thomas Was Alone is a landmark title in video game storytelling, despite suffering from a number of design problems.
Thomas Was Alone's story is something of significant innovation. The game follows a group of AI (each with a name and represented by a shape) and their genesis of their own self-awareness. The first character, Thomas, is a red rectangle who enlists the help of other various shapes in his journey to explore his own existence and the world they all live in. Each shape has a different appearance, a different signature skill and most importantly, a different personality. For example, orange square Chris instantly becomes discouraged and almost jealous by his peers' abilities, as his small size and weak jumping doesn't make him the most versatile. Horizontal pink rectangle Laura has self-esteem issues, since her signature ability allows characters that jump on her to skyrocket upwards, giving her a sense of usefulness leading to neglect and abandonment. The way that creator Mike Bithell is able to give personality to faceless geometric figures is something astonishing. Throughout the course of the game, these figures develop a number of relationships with each other, whether it be a romantic, envious or trusting one. These relationships also are implemented into the gameplay itself; tall and boastful yellow rectangle John is eager to show off his powerful jumping ability, while smaller, green rectangle James is shunned and ridiculed for his unorthodox ability to move on ceilings instead of floors. By the game's midpoint, themes escalate into something far beyond the AI themselves, ultimately telling a tale about senses and relationships. Thomas Was Alone's brilliant narrative, when it comes right down to it, is a story about feelings.
At its core, Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle game. The player controls one character at a time and has the ability to switch between each of them on the fly, with each character having their own key to press to switch to them. Throughout each stage, the goal is to direct all of the characters to their respectively marked locations. Once all characters are in position, they are warped to the next stage. The game does take some time to get used to, as the physics are a bit wonky at times. Compared to a straightforward platformer like Super Meat Boy, Thomas Was Alone's platforming controls focus on momentum instead of direct control. Using the gravity-inverted character James can be especially difficult, as nailing jumps upside down can be very disorienting. Also, switching between the characters can be a nightmare. There aren't many times where you need to switch characters immediately (like a mid-jump switch), but since the keyboard keys for each character vary depending on the level, it can be very frustrating to associate your controls to a certain character and then have to change keys in the following level. Overall, however, controlling each character's movement is relatively straightforward and doesn't impede on the game to the point of frustration.
The design, however, does. As a puzzle platformer, the usual way to complete a level is mapped out through a certain procedure in getting one character to a certain place, another to another place, etcetera and etcetera. Some cases require specific characters to be moved first in order for another character to cross a gap or reach a platform. This rather stringent procedure doesn't offer too much room to interpret; there is nothing more frustrating than having a character move across the entire level, only to realize that the character was needed in a completely other location to assist in the setup of another character. That means that you must backtrack through levels just to reorganize the puzzle's solution. It's a tedious endeavor, one that sometimes constitutes simply restarting the level from the beginning. The setup required to complete a challenge is important to any game in the genre, but while other puzzle games like Portal 2 keep the gameplay fascinating with creative design and intriguing aesthetics, Thomas Was Alone doesn't make this reorganization interesting enough to be worth the payoff, at least not entirely.
The game is not a long one either. Completing the main story can take as little as three hours, and aside from some extra scenarios and Achievements, you won't find too much content on board to justify the $10 (US) price tag. The puzzles themselves do have a steady difficulty curve and don't worry: you will die a lot in this game. However, the story is so incredibly transcendent of its simple appearance that it's very difficult to ignore the magic the game shows. Very much like another indie favorite, LIMBO, Thomas Was Alone will captivate through its ambiguous narrative, one that ends on a fantastically surreal and meaningful note. It is a shame that the game itself is so flawed, but that doesn't deny the fact that Thomas Was Alone is a triumphant step forward for storytelling in games. It doesn't need to be played, but it does need to be experienced.
In remarkable indie game fashion, Thomas Was Alone prides itself on minimalism instead of spectacle. The characters are as simple as they can get, with few texture effects and no explicit demonstration of emotion. But that's perfectly fine; in fact, Thomas Was Alone is best like that. The whole point of the game's visual aesthetic is personal interpretation, giving the player the ability to give the characters faces instead of doing it for them. From the shapes alone, you'll begin to see deep and enriching characters whose personalities stick around throughout the entire game. Aside from the protagonists, the environments are usually simplistic, with occasional introduction of subtle environmental hazards like spikes or water. A vast and haunting background creates a sense of emptiness, highlighting the characters' goal to explore their world together. The audio is a fine collection of composer David Housden's chip-tune choruses, which change throughout the game's narrative. Capping off the presentation is an excellent narration by voice actor Danny Wallace (also known for voicing Shaun Hastings in the Assassin's Creed series). Wallace tells the story of the AI heroes across a variety of moods, speaking of each individual character in a different tone or volume. Even when his narration tends to be a bit less serious (one rather humorous comment on internet memes is a lighthearted inclusion), he still contributes strongly. Bombast is not Thomas Was Alone's forte, but its subdued presentation keeps the walls blank, allowing the player to grab a brush and paint them themselves.
+ A magnificent and ambitious use of storytelling in video games
+ Simple aesthetic design captures a youthful and innocent charm
+ Lighthearted soundtrack and stellar narration
+ Inventive gameplay compliments the characters' abilities and personalities
- Restrictive solution setup can make the puzzles drag on
- Controls can be finicky
- Extremely short length
Thomas Was Alone has some serious gameplay issues, but that doesn't mean that it should be missed. Mike Bithell's brainchild gives faces to the faceless and souls to the soulless, all while approaching potent themes like existence, physical awareness and emotive relationships. In that regard, it's a landmark creation that should be recognized by any game designer who wants to tell a story. As a game, however, it falls short. The control issues and brief length are problematic, but the puzzle design doesn't offer much freedom outside of the solution templates. Redoing a puzzle's setup because one element was in the wrong position isn't the end of the world, but after spending five minutes just moving a single character into a specific location, it becomes unnecessarily grating. This frustration is obnoxious, but not enough to devalue the groundbreaking story and charming presentation. The independent development crowd has another gem to join its highest ranks of storytelling and thematic wonder, and though the game components are unquestionably flawed, it's still very hard to mention Thomas Was Alone without giving it a solid recommendation in the same breath.