Thomas Was Alone is amazing. For a game that features little more than rectangular blocks of solid colour, it manages to be packed full of character and emotion whilst offering up a sublime slice of entertainment. It’s modest, for sure, but only in terms of visuals – elsewhere, from the wonderful music through to Danny Wallace’s captivating narration, the production values are sky high.
Not that having a game aesthetically little more than squares is an easy, throwaway excuse. Thomas Was Alone actually looks great – subtle shadows, slight concessions to animation in the jumping and obvious, deliberate colour coding as the lie behind the title comes clean and other quadrilaterals join the party. Thomas, you’ll quickly learn, isn’t alone at all.
At the start of the game, though, he is, and through a line of ten levels, each broken up by a Thomas-shaped door (the game calls these portals) he’ll be slowly introduced to the game’s various mechanics. The trick here is that whilst things start off very simple, the game plays you just as much as you play it, constantly one step ahead of you.
This is echoed in the narration, which seems to always come out with exactly what you’re thinking. Wallace (who also voiced Assassin’s Creed) might have taken a few inflexion cues from Stephen Merchant’s role as Wheatley but he’s great to listen to and adds a considerable amount of colour to the gently orchestral backing track.[videoyoutube]A few 8-bit blips sit neatly with the game’s premise, too, which we won’t spoil here but revolves around the emergence of AIs in an unknown construct.
Thomas is the first, but he’s joined by others, the game skipping out on their backstory by assuming they too have had their own initiation and introductory levels, the differences between each square left to the player to discover.
This is one of Thomas’ key elements, and why it struck such a chord with me. They’re all different and individual, but they all need each other to succeed and progress through the game.
One can jump higher, the other can float on water, and so on – but each has their own portal to escape from, and you’ll need to save each of them to move forward onto the next level, of which there are a hundred. Sometimes the exits are all together, but sometimes not, and the blocks will frequently need to cross over and assist each other, often more than once.
There are obvious shades of LIMBO’s isolation here, but equally The Lost Vikings springs to mind – an old Amiga game in which the three titular heroes had to combine their various strengths to overcome a series of platforming challenges. Thomas is perhaps more subtle, but the characteristics of each block are different enough, and they’ve all got their own story to tell.
Co-operation is the key then, despite this being a single player game. Two buttons flip between the available blocks, and you’ll need to plan ahead, think on your feet and – by the end of the game – be something of a lateral thinker and you’ll have to be somewhat nimble fingered. The pacing is spot on, too, barring a few bits of repetition that sit awkwardly.
After a few levels you’ll connect with, relate with, perhaps even want to care for these tiny squares – you’ll have a favourite, perhaps two, and you’ll want to see what happens next. Surely, in an industry full of so-called exposition and storytelling, that’s the only device that really matters?
This is a smart game. It’s smart because it’s confident and clever, but it’s smart because it manages to make the player feel like they’re constantly achieving something, constantly moving forward, and that the game is just bending around their improved capabilities and skill. Really, really impressive.
I know I go on about indie gaming here on TSA, but there’s merit in that – despite the huge amount of games available in all kinds of genres, there are a few gems in amongst the rest that are well and truly deserved of your time. Thomas Was Alone is definitely one of those games: it grows into something approaching majestic, and you can’t help but go along for the ride.
Thomas Was Alone is six quid, and is available to buy from here. It’ll run on most PCs (which is a novelty to me) but there’s also a demo to test it first.