I am not a fan of Puzzle games, my incompetence stifles any possible enjoyment. I had heard of Thomas Was Alone, I knew it was a puzzle game and that’s all I needed to know, I dismissed it. But a few days ago TotalBiscuit, one of the few YouTube channels I bother to follow uploaded his impressions of it and I instantly knew this game was more than just another puzzle game in the same way VVVVVV or Braid aren’t just another puzzle game. Like magic, or coincidence, it was also 50% off on Steam putting it at a modest £2.99, I needn’t think twice.
When you watch gameplay of Thomas Was Alone as I did the first things you notice are the exceptional narration and its simplicity. Everything about the game is simple, the world is flat and without feature, the characters are 2D shapes, the goal to navigate each shape to its respective outline in the world through basic platforming. Even the names given to each shape are common names like Thomas, Chris, John and Claire.
The key to this game, the thing that makes it so compelling is the combination of excellent narration and each character being unique in its own way. Each shape has its own colour, shape, size and ability. The small fat shape for example cannot jump very high but he is able to slide under gaps the tall lanky fellow cannot, and the tall thin character can jump high and far but cannot crawl under low ceilings like the former. The narrator uses these unique features to give each shape a personality, he gives them a background and feelings towards one another. The small fat one is a good example of a parallel you can draw to the real world, his lack of confidence and resentment towards the slender athletic one who can jump much further than him. Another character, Claire the big blue square is the only character in the game able to float and survive one of the few dangers in the game. Claire believes herself to be a superhero and she helps others traverse the fatal terrain. Each have their own selfish reasons for wanting to reach the next level but to get there they need to help each other, to feed off one another’s unique abilities. Soon they become friends, that being the theme of the game.
Another feat of Thomas Was Alone is its very subtle learning curve, or lack of. The controls of the game are very simple, you have left or right and jump, that’s it. The lack of controls and simplicity of the game make the introduction of new characters each with a new role in the team a joy rather than a burden, and the game introduces them often enough as to not get bored of the same set.
The puzzles in the game mostly consist of basic platforming issues, “how do I get the small guy over this obstacle” and later in the game evolve into much more complexed puzzles involving moving platforms and preparation. The game isn’t the most difficult and may not appeal to the hardcore folk looking for a challenge but there is a great deal of variety in puzzles and the latter stages of the game can become quite tricky with a half-dozen characters to consider.
While the games strengths are many and it stands out as something more than your average puzzling platformer it isn’t without its failures. Thomas Was Alone sets off flying but soon somehow shoots itself down. The characters of the game are very interesting, certainly more interesting than Modern Man Shooter 7, and their developing relationship certainly carries the game, but the backdrop to the game and over-arching grand story leaves a lot to be desired. By the end of the game I couldn’t help but feel disappointed, I expected the story to be a lot more personal and given the sacrifice it bloody well should have been but that doesn’t change the lack of empathy I felt. It was all a bit grand.
You see every once in a while the game threw in an obtuse stream of text, notes from the creators of the runaway program the characters themselves were stuck inside. It develops into a disaster story, the AI had developed a personality. Problem is, why don’t I care? Should I? All I cared for was the characters and where they were going, the journey. Should the extra contextual story have been voiced? I don’t know, but that’s why I’m not a game developer. The villain of the game seemed as much a victim of the system than the characters themselves, perhaps the game needs a clearer evil.
As much as I loved playing through Thomas Was Alone I felt by the end I was playing only because I wanted to see the conclusion. Parts of the latter chapters would become tedious as they became longer with numerous characters. I would take a few moments to scout out the level and by the time I had figured it out all my characters were in the wrong place, I knew what needed to be done and just wish I could increase the game speed to get it done already. While the game as a whole is a very refreshing experience sometimes I felt burdened as I did with other puzzle games, the main reason I tend to steer clear of them.
Was the 4 hour experience worth it? Completely. Would I play it again? Probably not, but then it was only £2.99, even at the full £5.99 I wouldn’t regret it. The experience from playing this game will stay with me much longer than other full-priced games and even longer than a few cinema tickets worth.
Thomas Was Alone is a unique game, an experience unlike any other, and for that it will be remembered. The amount of character attached to such trivial objects is what I will remember but not the gameplay. That’s not to say there wasn’t interesting gameplay mechanics at play in the game, because there certainly was but it didn’t offer anything new to distinguish it from other puzzle/platformers. Complete with a captivating wanderlust of a soundtrack this game stands out from the crowd and shows us how to develop character personalty and just how important that is.