Video games are capable of wonderful storytelling; there are unique experiences given from this medium that no other art form can accomplish. They are capable of expressing themes and ideas through actions, expressing complex emotions through the connection the player has to characters on screen. Feelings like fear, tension, joy, and comfort are greatly enhanced with the investment that the player naturally has because of their direct involvement. That investment is one of the most poignant devices a developer can use to engage their audience and to create immersive experiences. Add in some good writing and you can make a person immediately connect with the game and its characters.
Mike Bithell took that concept and ran with it as far as he could, with as little as he could. “Thomas Was Alone” has almost no setting, very little exposition, and its cast is a collection of squares and rectangles, however it is one of the most emotional narrative experiences you can play. As I replayed it for this article, I remembered how completely invested that you get into these cute little shapes. Each character is introduced slowly and as they learn to work together, you start to understand and care for each one. Sarah, the tiny rectangle, and Claire, the fat square, are major highlights and had me laughing out loud more than once. By the closing levels, I was deeply sad to say goodbye to this collection of characters I’ve learned to love.
It’s seemingly a simple plot; a group of shapes try to escape an unknown prison. However as it goes on, the bigger picture starts to emerge and you learn there’s so much more impact to what you’re doing then it originally seemed. It goes to some wild places that first time players probably won’t see coming. The ending is really fantastic and hard to forget.
There are so many aspects that supplement the wonderful tale this game tells. The voice acting is minimal – only one actor narrates the entire time and plays all the characters. However Daniel Wallace conveys so much personality to all the different squares, he is simply phenomenal the entire time, giving each shape a clearly defined attitude and tone. Then there’s the music, which is on another level. There is a beautiful collection of ambient electronic piano tracks that are so relaxing and oftentimes touching
However “Thomas was Alone” is also a great puzzle platformer in its own right besides the excellent narrative. The levels are divided into groups of ten, with each introducing a new set of gameplay mechanics. In the simplest terms, you play as a collection of shapes that are progressively introduced through the levels, each one has different abilities and jump heights. It’s in using these abilities in tandem with each other that you solve puzzles and platforming challenges. That may seem pretty rudimentary, but the amount of unique and creative abilities and obstacles that are introduced, keeps it fun and intense to the very last level.
What’s so impressive is the way it brings in new mechanics in a narrative and gameplay perspective. It seamlessly enters in new ideas at a breakneck pace, making the experience constantly engaging. These new mechanics never feel rushed, all of them are perfectly baked into the main core gameplay. Right when you have begun to figure out the new ability or obstacle put in front of you, it adds in a new one. Thomas Was Alone constantly keeps you on your toes and alert, you are always learning something new every step of the way. It never overstays its welcome either, clocking in around three hours, it stays at breakneck pace the entire time.
It becomes its most cerebral and ingenious when it begins to put all these different variables together. Some of the later levels are insanely inventive and complex. Once you begin using everything you’ve learned to start solving some of the more difficult platforming and puzzle section, that’s when it really shines. You start feeling like a well oiled machine near the end, using all the abilities you gained to beat the levels.
Thomas Was Alone is a simply superb puzzle platformer that rises above the sum of its parts with a beautiful narrative, audio design, and art design. It’s an excellent way to spend an evening and at only around £7.19/£10.19, it’s more than worth the price of admission. This game was critically well received when it came out in 2013 and nothing has changed – it’s still just as fantastic as it was then.
If you wish to play Thomas Was Alone on Xbox One for yourself then you should head to the Xbox Store.