Thomas Was Alone, the love-project of British video game developer Mike Bithell, has a long and storied past. Technically released in 2010 as a Flash game, Bithell later expanded the substance of the game and released it on Windows computers in 2012. Since then it has gathered praise by the kaboodle (a scientific measurement similar to a bushelzoo). Thomas‘ narrator, British humorist and Assassin’s Creed swearer Danny Wallace, even took home a BAFTA in 2012 for his work on the game. Now that some time has passed and the doe-eyed visions of Indie amazingness have given way to critical cynicism, we decided to take a look at Thomas Was Alone and ask: does it hold up? In an effort to answer this question in the shortest and most direct way, let us say “Yes.” In a longer answer, let us respond “Yes, kinda’.”
Patrick Curry once wrote that Mario Bros. represented the greatest example of Game Design because, at its core, the entire game could be distilled into one simple goal: move to the right. Thomas Was Alone embodies this tradition while simultaneously adding in a surprise twist to its goal; in Thomas players must move UP and to the right. They do so by taking control of the eponymous Thomas and his friends, quadrilateral objects representing rogue AIs with various skills and abilities. Splitting the abilities (such as being a superhero or jumping really high) among the various geometric shapes helps to differentiate the characters, as well as to introduce players to the concepts in easily-understood chunks, as the player is only given a new character (and thus a new ability) when they have successfully mastered the one given. This also allows players to experiment with combining various abilities in order to complete the level, often with little to no prompt by the game itself. Solving these unspoken puzzles is one of the many charming features of Thomas Was Alone
A distinctly minimalist approach pervades most of the game. Backgrounds eschew glitzy rendered environments, opting instead for black shapes representing platforms and colorful backdrops. It often seems that the most detail-oriented aspect of a level is the lighting effect, which evocatively casts shadows across the characters. Continuing its quest to rip up every holy writ of platforming, Thomas Was Alone depicts many levels at a slight angle, enough to force a player to think without getting too obstructive. Wallace’s narration and David Housden’s phenomenal soundtrack help hammer the emotional depth of Thomas‘ narrative. Wallace, selected specifically for his “warm tones,” is in particular a highlight of each level. Players may find themselves slowing down or stopping altogether just to allow the narration to finish before continuing onward, indicating that Wallace’s BAFTA was very clearly well deserved.
If there was one criticism that could be made of Thomas Was Alone it would be that the story is, in a sense, too long. The story structure climaxes early but, rather than attempting any falling action or denouement, opts to try and climax again. Most players could probably guess how well that works out. While the final few stages are both interesting and fun from a gameplay perspective, as a narrative they simply clutter what was a clean and concise story. In many ways, they betray the minimalist sensibilities of the rest of the game, opting for the flashy and inspirational ending rather than the clean conclusion they had reached earlier. On the flip side of this is that the game as a whole is incredibly short, approximately seven hours or so even with the padded ending.
In many ways the success of Thomas Was Alone is based in its willingness to experiment. Do characters need to look like people in order to be humanized? Do platforming levels need to be horizontal in order to make sense for the players? Do characters always need to jump up? Bithell’s attempts to answer these questions are extremely interesting to play. Some players may be put off by the amount of game they get for their money, but any who are interested in game design will appreciate the ways in which the mechanics and narrative coalesce into a cohesive whole.
Thomas Was Alone is available on Steam and the PSN. PC, Mac, and Linux versions are also available with the Humble Indie Bundle 8 until June 12th, 2013.