Review: Thomas Was Alone

By Owen Faraday 21 May 2014 0
Four sides to every story. Four sides to every story.

One of the most heart-warmingly generous aspects of human nature is our unstoppable desire to anthropomorphise. After millions of years of bloody, unsentimental struggle on the savannah, the thing we are most eager to do with our hard-won sentience is project it onto everything else.

Your car does not know that you have given it a name. That cat that you treat like a child is only hanging around your house in case you stop moving long enough for it to eat you. The "temperamental" new dishwasher you had installed last week would suddenly bend to your will if you'd only read the instruction manual.

There is a leak in the human brain and it's spilling out anthropomorphism. Thomas Was Alone is cannily built to exploit this leak, and by the time you've finished it, your heart will heave for the fate of some two-dimensional rectangles that never even say a word.

This iPad port of Thomas Was Alone is a very faithful rendering of the widely-admired game that was originally released for PC back in 2012. That means that it's a platformer with virtual controls, the genre that occupies the flat next door to first-person shooters in the apartment block of Bad Touchscreen Genres.

Laura is quite literally a doormat. Laura is quite literally a doormat.

But thankfully, Thomas Was Alone isn't about the platforming as much as it is about creating a memorable, emotionally authentic experience. On one level, it feels like a creative exercise akin to Hemingway's six-word novel. Creator Mike Bithell seems to be asking himself "how deeply can I get the player to engage with a two-dimensional rectangle"? For me at least, he managed quite a lot of success.

The titular Thomas is one of a number of AIs accidentally set loose in a network. He's joined by an ensemble of other AIs, all represented by rectangles of varying color and slightly different proportions. This being a platform game, they all jump in different ways, and the game's platforming requires you to switch between the characters, using their unique abilities to solve each level. Thankfully, most of the game's puzzles require much more clever thinking and experimentation than they do precise timing, so the touchscreen virtual controls are mostly tolerable. Mostly. There are a couple of stages that desperately cry out for an Xbox controller or even a keyboard -- I can show you the hairs in my beard that Level 3.9 turned white.

But most of the challenges in Thomas Was Alone aren't like that, and the game's level design is often clever and gratifying to unpack. Having said that, there aren't any levels I'm anxious to go back and play again, really. The real star of this show is the characters and the world-building.

That's not to say that the gameplay is utterly divorced from the narrative. Our heroes the rectangles don't ever speak and the majority of the characterisation is delivered by a voiceover from British comic Danny Wallace, who performs with gusto and might remind some players of Stephen Merchant's turn as Wheatley in Portal 2. But Bithell also personifies his cast of rectangles with the way they move: the quick, double-jumping Sarah is impatient and dissatisfied with the gang's slow progress; the plodding but indomitable Claire believes she has superpowers because she can float. It's tempting to say that Thomas Was Alone would work equally well as a cartoon or a YouTube let's play -- but you have to actually handle the characters yourself to really get them.

The game's first half might just be a myth that the characters from the second half believe. The game's first half might just be a myth that the characters from the second half believe.

The game's visuals run in a similar track: at a glance, the game's aesthetic is minimal and primitive but Bithell layers simple elements on top of one another in a dynamically-lit world which screenshots can't ever do justice to. Thomas Was Alone is nothing short of beautiful, but it has to be seen in motion to be appreciated.

Bithell is a gutsy, talented story-teller who has taken one of gaming's oldest, least narrative-capable genres and subverted it into a platform for a memorable tale. There's two threads to his story, one in some near-future world much like ours and one in the digital world of the AIs, and the vertex where those lines intersect makes for an ending that is unexpectedly moving.

Thomas Was Alone is an interesting show that takes some unusual narrative risks. Bithell completely changes the cast mid-way through the game, a move that feels jarringly like an early climax to me, but like many elements of his tale, it's a move that I'm still thinking about. That -- and those sad little rectangles.

Thomas Was Alone was played on an iPad Air for this review.

Review: Thomas Was Alone

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