Your heart will ache over the fate of a collection of rectangles.
Publisher: Mike Bithell
Title: Thomas Was Alone
Format: Playstation 3
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Developer: Mike Bithell
Release Date: 2013-04-23
Thomas was alone. He had always been alone, and he found it rather disconcerting. He knew he had to get to the goal, but he knew not why. Thomas was a rectangle. Not a large rectangle, nor was he especially small. In fact, Thomas was a rather average looking rectangle, the type of rectangle you think of when someone tells you to think of a rectangle. Thomas jumped. He found that was pretty much all he was capable of doing. Move right, move left, and jump. This allowed him to get on top of platforms and avoid pits, including those filled with water. Falling did him no good the few times that he did fall, but instead of that being the end of him, Thomas found himself back where he started. He got a tingly feeling from passing a set of parallel dotted lines a little ways back. He could try again.
Thomas was still alone. Then he met Chris, the square. And that was just the beginning.
Thomas Was Alone gets so many things right and does so many things exceptionally well. The game begins by framing itself as a story concerning how an artificial intelligence became self aware, but barely any time is focused on that aspect of the plot. Instead, the game focuses on dramatizing the behaviors of the A.I.s themselves. They are represented as differently shaped and colored rectangles, each with their own abilities. From there, Thomas, alone at first, traverses the landscape of abstract black platforms before coming across others.
To describe how each of these characters play would be an exercise in describing who they are. Their motion, special mechanical abilities, and animations define who they are as much if not more so than the ever-present narrator filling in the gaps at the start of each level. The little details like how high each of them can jump in relation to one another or the tone of the sound effect when they jump do so much to reflect their character. Thomas is the central character because he is the standard by which you compare everyone else to.
And they aren’t your standard video game characters. They are ordinary human beings. They are the everyman or everywoman, the type of people you’d meet at the local pub. And despite being visually nothing more than rectangles, they feel more human and more, dare I say, well rounded than any I’ve played within recent memory. And so see them interact mechanically just as they do in the narrative is brilliant.
The pieces of the levels are your standard puzzle platformer fare. There are obstacles and challenges that hinder forward progress, but with the power of teamwork, the group can face the challenges. You have stair platforms, floating platforms, moving platforms, spikes, water traps, etc., but it is the manner in which these repeating elements are combined in which the game transcends itself. The levels are specific challenges for the characters and their abilities shaped precisely so that the characters can work together, grow, learn to trust one another, and eventually become friends. The specific challenges that each of the shapes face help drive their character arcs.
I could talk about the mechanics of the game more in detail, but they fall away after a while. I stopped actively thinking about them as metaphors, as the process of enacting them became unconscious. Yes, I was actively thinking about how to solve a particular puzzle -- who would jump, in what order, and where -- but the language of play changed. I wasn’t thinking,“I wish that beige square was a challenge to deal with” but instead, “Chris, get over yourself. Your attitude is holding everyone back.” The mechanics only matter so much as they relate to the characters, and thankfully, they never break the player's sense of the world.
However, once the original cast of characters have completed their story -- the titular Thomas included -- the game keeps on going and introduces new characters with their own mechanical variations, reacting to the sweeping changes that the group just made on their world. One A.I. then turns into a villain of sorts (though, describing the character as selfish would be more apropos), and one becomes his foil, hoping to stop him for some vaguely defined reason. Honestly, this is where it feels that the designer had more level ideas than the story could carry. The game doesn’t really fall apart, though, as we do get to meet a whole new cast of delightfully quirky characters. Still, I think Thomas Was Alone drags on a bit longer than necessary, serving to delay its end and damage its otherwise perfect pacing in the process. The final section is good. It’s just not as good as the time that we’ve spent with Thomas’s group. The new characters feel like a follow up act that has to follow the more amazing band that came before them.
Ultimately it’s a minor quibble. Thomas Was Alone is a brilliant narrative driven game that knows how to bring everything that games are capable of to bear in telling a story. It’s a character driven piece with all the relationships hitting all the right notes to leave your heart aching over the fate of a collection of rectangles.