As video games evolve, we see more and more examples of their unique opportunities to tell stories. Blockbuster games manage to merge world-shattering catastrophes with personal interactions. Interactive dramas recreate tense relationships magnified by our own personal involvement. On the opposite spectrum, we have games like Thomas Was Alone. In it, the creator Mike Bithell explores our fundamental human tradition of telling stories to craft an endearingly simple platformer. Thomas Was Alone tells the stories of named rectangles, each identifiable only by their dimensions and colors.
These block protagonists are artificial intelligences inside a program that has gone rampant. Each AI is introduced one by one, starting with Thomas. Thomas was alone. He’s red and slightly taller than he is wide. He’s not exactly sure where he came from, so he wants to find out. Along the way, he stumbles upon more friends with their own personalities, which are charmingly revealed by the British comedian Danny Wallace. Thomas is curious. Chris is cynical. Claire is ambitious. James is cautious. Each are nothing more than four corners and a color, yet you find yourself remembering their quirks and thoughts by their spoken introduction and subtle differences in play style and sound effects.
As a game, Thomas Was Alone is a simple side-scrolling puzzle/platformer that centers its mechanics on juggling multiple characters in each stage. Every character can only move and jump, but you cycle through different characters to move them to the right places to get everyone to the end. The level ends when each character reaches their own highlighted destination. As you progress, you meet more characters. Each has different dimensions, jumping abilities, speed, and occasional abilities that greatly affect how they traverse the geography. For example, Claire can float across water, becoming a shuttle for other characters. Chris cannot jump very high, so he needs Thomas as a stepping stool to climb higher ledges. However, Chris is also short enough to squeeze through passages that Thomas cannot go through. Each level gives you anywhere from 1 to 10 characters to cycle through, and you must use all of them cooperatively.
Discovering these abilities keeps the game fresh and compelling as they are all needed to reach the end goal. One minute Claire will be floating Thomas across water, the next Thomas might be boosting Claire up a ledge. In this manner, Thomas Was Alone uses platforming gameplay as a spatial puzzle. Thomas can easily jump through most of the levels alone, but he’ll have to slow down so he can help Chris up a ledge (much to Chris’s embarrassment). As soon as the mechanics might feel redundant or exhausted, a new character is introduced with another surprising trait that changes everything.
That said, the simplicity Thomas Was Alone is both a blessing and a curse. The puzzles are quite easy. They’re only as long as it takes to get each character from A to B without making a maneuvering mistake. As a result, levels are not as rewarding as the mind-twisting puzzles from other games.
Furthermore, some levels seem to require a bit of physics exploitation. To climb some ledges, you need to awkwardly shift characters in mid-jump to gain extra height. Perhaps there are simpler ways to complete those puzzles, but there are enough troubling spots that seem to have no alternative. Thomas Was Alone feels better in its intended genre of a puzzle game rather than a frantic platformer to climb a ledge.
Still, great credit is due to Bithell for creating a game that mixes such simple game concepts into a minimalist story fit for a modern art gallery. David Housden also deserves a great round of applause for capturing the boyish curiosity in the soundtrack. Put together, Thomas Was Alone has the gameplay to entertain the masses and the artistry to incite thoughtful interpretation.