“We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone.”
- Orson Welles
If this is true and all our connections and shared memories are mere shadow-play, then surely those of Thomas and his compatriots (and by extension all fictional characters) must be equally real, or false, depending on your outlook on life.
Thomas is a red rectangle. He has no other discernible visual embellishments: arms, legs, eyes, a voice. He is created seemingly ex nihilo, brimming with self-awareness in a strange void he is cursed to wander as much in search of himself as for a way out. Then he finds someone. Chris is an irascible orange square who is intensely envious of Thomas for his higher jumping ability, but will soon learn that he has a unique part to play in unfolding events. And he’s just the first. Through the framing story of industry quotes from scientists displayed at the start of each section, we learn that Tom and his kind are systemic anomalies, unknowingly generated in a computational experiment, regarded with curiosity at first, but later as a problem that should be eradicated.
To progress on their uncertain journey Thomas and friends must get to the brightly-haloed exit point of each level, each quadrilateral helping the others overcome obstacles with their unique abilities. There are a hundred rooms in total to solve, and the environments get harsher as the white coats attempt to stamp out the nascent AI’s. However the learning curve is gentle and the levels elegantly designed, yet not so taxing that they interfere with the flow of the story. On the initial play-through I felt compelled to complete each new level, not for some arbitrary advancement in rank or progression, but to see what happened to my little oblong pal, what possible pitfalls or new allies he would encounter. The extremely visually simple, yet readily distinct style of the characters and the virtual world they inhabit almost serves to enhance their wants and needs, their triumphs and foibles as conveyed to you in a piecemeal fashion by narrator Danny Wallace. His friendly tones lend it the aura of a children’s bedtime story, but much like Pixar’s best, one that can be enjoyed by players of all ages.
Broken down, it’s basic platforming action with team-based puzzle elements. As Thomas encounters new friends with differing strengths and weaknesses, you must use them all in harmony and cooperation in order to help them reach their goal. There are hazards which can disintegrate the poor little sprites, but they will always pop back into existence at a nearby save point; the emphasis is mainly on working out the route to the exit.
Usually it’s an insult to label things as post-modern but here I mean it in the best terms possible; there are many meta moments embedded into the fabric, from the moment where Thomas connects to the outside internet and is thoroughly bamboozled by a lolcat, to the characters somehow innately knowing without understanding that it is their destiny to move up, and to the right. Like numerous titles which have emerged recently as technology has reached the point where a small team or even one person can create a low-budget, but nonetheless polished and critically lauded product, this game is a celebration of gaming, created by someone who grew up with it and was enamoured enough with it to make it his profession (developer Mike Bithell).
This game really exemplifies the power of strong characterisation and just how much feeling you can inject into a gaming experience, even without the resources of a major studio behind you. A mere sprinkling of relatable adjectives renders these basic rectangles more personable than a raft of impeccably rendered dudes-with-guns. Without the narrative trappings this would be a sparse though competently designed puzzle game, but when augmented by the genuinely humorous and heartwarming narration and wonderfully evocative and moving soundtrack from David Housden, the experience draws empathy from you like a sponge. It’s a game about shared admiration through cooperation, about how the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts, and how our perceived weaknesses can make us strong. We are Thomas, and Thomas is us. What you get out of this game is entirely linked to how much of yourself you find along the way.
Here at The Digital Fix we play a lot of games which we very much enjoy but don’t necessarily feel the need to foist upon others, but there is a much smaller subset whose praises we want to shout from the rooftops. We’ve seen several games this year past e.g. Fez, Spec Ops: The Line, which can truly be said to have advanced the medium, and I wholeheartedly include Thomas Was Alone in that group. Make sure you check it out.