Thomas Was Alone turns a simple rectangle into a tragic hero.
There’s an old Ikea commercial about a woman getting a new lamp. She gets rid of the old lamp, placing it out on the sidewalk with the garbage in the rain, and from outside, we watch through a window as the woman turns on her new lamp and sad music swells. Then a guy steps into frame and says, "Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you crazy. It has no feelings, and the new one is much better."
It’s a funny commercial that makes us consider the emotional efficacy of the tools of cinema: shot placement, setting, lighting, music, etc. When these tools are used correctly, we can be manipulated into feeling sad for an inanimate lamp.
Games have their own unique tools of storytelling, and Thomas Was Alone uses all those tools to a similar effect as it crafts a shockingly moving story about a bunch of rectangles.
One of the first things that you notice when you start playing is that the red rectangle named Thomas is actually animated. He deforms slightly when he jumps, contracting on the way up, as if his muscles were tightening, and expanding on the way down, as if from the weight of gravity. All the shapes flex like this, and it immediately informs our perception. These shapes aren’t rigid like pixels. They’re more like a natural body, bendy and stretchy. The moment that we see Thomas squish slightly upon landing, we’re being trained to think of him as more than just a block.
The actual first thing that you’ll notice, however, is the narration. The story is told in a third-person limited narrative style. The voice of the narrator pops up multiple times each level to explain what one character is thinking -- and only what one character is thinking -- even if you’re controlling the full group of the game's six characters. This allows us to hear each character define themselves and to hear how they redefine themselves within the context of the group because who we are around others is not necessarily who we are in the privacy of our own mind. Some of the shapes are happy to join the group, others hold secret reservations, and some of the shapes get along well with others. However, they’re friendly for very different reasons.
The narration is used to express their varied personalities, but the wondrous thing about Thomas Was Alone is that their personalities are informed by each character’s specific shape, size, and special ability. In other words, the mechanics are just as important as the writing.
John, the tall rectangle, is pretty full of himself, and he’s full of himself because he’s taller than everyone and can jump higher than everyone. Chris, the squat rectangle, can only hop, so he becomes the grumpy downer of the group until he meets Laura, the flat rectangle who’s scared of pushing people away because her ability turns her into a trampoline. Claire, the giant rectangle, is depressed and suicidal at first because she’s so bad at jumping, but then she discovers she can swim when no one else can and labels herself a superhero in search of a supervillian.
Of course the tall shape can jump higher. Of course trampoline shape is flat to the ground. Of course the shape that can’t jump is shorter than everyone else. The cast represents the perfect combination of design, mechanics, and writing. There’s nothing out of place with these characters. Everything about them fits into a single cohesive personality. They are each a perfect sum of their parts.
I like Thomas even though he’s just a square because when the game effectively uses all the various tools at its disposal, it can make the simplest of objects into a compelling or tragic hero, be it a rectangle or a lamp.