Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Review: "Thomas Was Alone"

Cubist Colony

Review for Thomas Was Alone (PC)

1-player puzzle/platformer, Developed by Mike Bithell

When a game called Thomas Was Alone opens its blurb with "and then he wasn't," you know you're in for a treat. Before you're even playing it, Thomas Was Alone provides both a dry wit and a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware charm. What it doesn't hint at, however, is that there's a deep, emotional core buried in Thomas Was Alone. I think.

Y'see, Thomas Was Alone is one of those minimalist platformers that has you (well, me, at any rate) digging for a deeper meaning. Digging for something that you're convinced the game provides. So minimalist and open to interpretation is Thomas Was Alone, that it definitely convinces me there is, at least, something to interpret. It's one of those art games - and it is an art game, make no mistake - that provides hints at meaning without being overtly pretentious in presenting it to you. So, fair warning - Thomas Was Alone, for how delightfully presented it is, may actually not be as deep as I think it is. That's exactly what I like about art, though - not everyone sees the same thing in any particular work. With that in mind - let's see what Thomas Was Alone provides for those who will only look for what's there, and then maybe later I'll get into why I love it so much, not just as a videogame, but as art.

...won't that be thrilling, boys 'n girls?

Meet Thomas

Thomas is a small, red rectangle. He lives in a world that is made up solely of other rectangles. The edges of his world are solid black, the background of his world sticking to single-colours with maybe a few patterns if it's feeling fancy. In other words - this game is as extremely minimal as you can get for a game (that's in colour, anyway). ...despite the lack of detail in the visual presentation, the aesthetic is very clean and stylish, and there's even dynamic lights 'n all casting shadows against the world. It is a beautiful look, but it is also stark.

You'd be surprised, then, to hear that Thomas Was Alone spins a rather compelling tale. Almost Bastion-esque in its sublime simplicity, the story is told solely by a single narrator. Unlike the narrator in Bastion, though, who is a strong, steely-voiced man whose eyes have seen more than his mind should be able to comprehend... Thomas Was Alone's narrator is a bumbling, dry-witted type. Wheatley's voice in Portal 2 isn't a bad comparison to make, but really, Thomas Was Alone's narrator strikes a unique middleground between Wheatley's stupidity, and the more gentle, matter-of-fact tones of a man reading aloud a fairytale. The voice is provided by Danny Wallace, who, if you recognize him, you'll do so for his role in the Assassin's Creed series as Shaun Hastings (who is, incidentally, the only character I actually like in that series who isn't Ezio).

Meet Thomas' Friends

So. What kind of story does Thomas Was Alone tell? A story of two-dimensional polygons, mostly. Thomas is the main character - a red rectangle. He starts off alone, thus the title. He then meets Chris, who is an orange square. And John, who is a tall oblong. And Claire, who is a much larger, blue square. And... so on, and so forth. The narrator expounds to us the personalities if these two-dimensional objects. Thomas likes taking notes of his surroundings, and is generally astute; Chris can't jump very high, so he's infinitely jealous of all the other cuboids in his vicinity;  John can jump incredibly high, and he is thus a smug, yet helpful hand who decides to assist Thomas and Chris in their journey; Claire is a much larger square, who at first talks lowly of herself, but, upon learning she can float and not die in the deadly acidic water, decides that she must actually be a superhero, and so vows to save all the much smaller cubes by helping this cross bodies of liquid.

It's rather charming. Dialog between the characters is read like that in a children's storybook by the narrator. Y'know, like, "'I'm Thomas,' says Thomas, greeting Chris," and so on, and forth. It's retardedly simple, but there's no denying it works, perhaps better than it did in Bastion. Bastion revealed its narrative through its narrator - in Thomas Was Alone, everything that's not level geometry is revealed by the one voice, and its written so smartly that you'll hardly notice. Everything, from the world, to the intimate characters dynamics, to what exists outside of Thomas' world - it's all conveyed by the narrator, only basic geometrical shapes and a few particle effects ever greeting your eyes. And yet, it's all completely flawless. Hell - eventually you'll come to know the little coloured shapes by name. You'll start to actually feel attached to them. To care for them. That's quite an achievement in storytelling, there. But I'll save that discussion for later.

Thomas Was Alone is a simple proposition - it's a 2D puzzle/platformer with differently sized characters who are suited to different tasks. You play them all at once, or in various combinations, in each level, switching between them at will and using their unique sizes and abilities to get them all to the level exit. You start of with just Thomas, who can jump reasonably high. Then you get Chris, who can't jump as high, so you have to use Thomas as a stepping stone; but, he's the smallest of the playable characters, and so can fit into tighter spots than the taller Thomas can. Then there's John, who can jump astronomically high, but is very tall. Using him, though, you can create stairs for Chris (by parking him next to Thomas), and... yeah, that's basically it.

There are seven different sized, shaped and coloured polygons to play with, and they all compliment each other in extremely interesting ways. The rooms are designed so that each little shape has to support each other. For example, Chris might need to squeeze through a tight spot to hit a button so Thomas can jump to the exit. Or, Claire might need to act as a boat for the other cuboids to stand atop of to sail deadly water. It's always interesting, but rarely, it is downright exhilarating. I don't want to give away all of the quadrilateral's powers, names and personalities, but there is one who is exactly the same as Thomas except that his gravity is flipped - he "falls" towards the ceiling, not the floor. So, you can jump Thomas into him and they'll keep themselves held in mid-air, allowing you to float in some circumstances. Learning I could do this is what we in the industry call "totally fucking awesome," and it made be squee in utter delight.

The levels are all tightly designed, but leave quite enough room for there to be multiple solutions to the puzzles; the platforming isn't quite as solid as I'd have hoped, but it's beyond merely functional and the physics are satisfying as all get-up. They levels are also all adequately unique; every time you even slightly start to feel like you've come to grips with the tools you've been given, more elements are introduced, and once all elements are introduced, they start to get mixed and matched in very interesting ways. As the plot progresses and you get to grips with the characters, you'll start to feel attached to the world, the plights of the characters, and to their powers and your use of them. You'll slip into it like a glove, and once you're slipped in, once you're comfortable with the whole rigmarole, you'll be adequately challenged with new techniques to surprise yourself in learning. This is something core to the game's philosophies - but, as I said before, I'll save that for the end.

The soundtrack is also freakin' amazing. Composed by BAFTA award-winner David Houdsen, it's a wonderful mix of videogame-inspired chiptune-esque beeps and boops, accompanied by a heartfelt and solemn emotional core driven by piano, strings, soft brass and other overtly melodic sounds. It's touching and heartfelt all on its own, and lends more gravity to the "alone" part of Thomas Was Alone than if the game went without it. The game wants to you know how important its soundtrack is, mind - there are only two opening logos at the game's start-up. One is for the developer. The other is for the composer. So yeah, make sure you have your earholes open when you play Thomas Was Alone, cos it's rather an enjoyable score.


I mentioned Wheatley before, and Portal 2 is a fairly good comparison to make when talking about what disappoints me most about Thomas Was Alone. You know in Portal 2 how, just as each puzzle element starts to feel like its culminating in a satisfying climax, the difficulty curve dips harshly and you're made to learn another element? This had two effects. For one, it made the game varied and interesting at every turn. There was always something new, there was always a new toy to play with. For two, it meant you never felt pressed. You learned the techniques, but you were never truly put to the test with them. This made for a game that was incredibly fun to play, but was, at least for a puzzle game, not as satisfying as it should have been. Thomas Was Alone does the same thing.

The elements in Thomas Was Alone are fun to play with and discover. The characters and the way they react are all diverse and enjoyable. It's an entertaining puzzle-platformer. But very rarely does it actually go so far as to be so laterally complex that you will feel challenged. That's fine, feeling overwhelmed sucks! But I really did feel that the game could have gone that extra mile in some spots. There are plenty of "fuck yeah!" moments when you beat a tricky puzzle, but they are in short supply, and once the game is finished, you'll be left wanting more. Unlike Portal 2, however, there aren't any co-op levels to visit. There aren't any challenge maps, or user-made levels. Alas, everything shipped with Thomas Was Alone - that's ten worlds each with ten two-minute-ish levels - is what you get: the experience lasts a little over three hours. The asking price is reasonable - $10, easily worth it for fans of the genre at that price and, as a Steam game, once it ends up on sale it'll be a must-buy - but that doesn't matter when, once the credits start rolling... you feel like there should have been just a bit more. Not a LOT more! That's the thing! What's there is all great, the problem is that it's too great, shows too MUCH potential, that it's odd that there isn't, say, a World 11 with super-hard maps. Once the game introduces the idea that it will interchange between all the shapes - or, better yet, give you all seven to use at once - it really does open doors inside your head for what real advanced levels could look like. Then the game doesn't go there.

There are secrets to collect in the form of hidden collectibles across each level, and that'll keep completionists happy for a while I suppose, but it's still disappointing. Not so disappointing that I'd mark the game down for it, but disappointing enough that it's still a major point of contention for me. I loved the feel of playing this game so much. And with little replayability and not a lot else to go through... well... it left me craving more. Hopefully, we'll get more content in the future, whether it be via a sequel or DLC. Unfortunately, I don't think the developer left it open for that. And thus we came to what I'm sure you've all been very much looking forward to. A little talk about art!

We Have To Go Deeper

If you don't enjoy "art games". If, for example, Braid's message was lost to you (not just the pretentious text screens, I mean the idea that it was about anything at all). If Call of Duty 4's nuke sequence didn't make you think, "aww, I got blasted by a nuke. This is really depressing. Damn, nukes are bad, eh?" but rather made you think "AWW RAD AN EXPLOSION I FUCKIN' LOVE EXPLOSIONS," then stop reading here, give the game a three out of five and close the browser. If you like it when games tackle narrative in interesting ways, keep reading, cos I'm about to do a bit of dissecting.

Thomas Was Alone takes place inside a computer system. The little cubes are revealed to be AI programs that have spontaneously appeared and developed self-awareness. ...already the game offers up subjects from the get-go that are thought-provoking in their own right - loneliness, friendship, interpersonal relationships, self-awareness, self-sacrifice, what it means to be "alive". Hell. There's even a bit dealing with unrequited romance in there, just for good measure! It's all tackled deftly, of course - Danny Wallace's soothing narration attends to make sure that it's never so blunt or so in-your-face that it makes the game outright pretentious - but the game has a maturity to it that not many other games, indie or not, lack. This extends to the characterization - all the characters are not only well-defined, but interact in a realistic manner. And it must be said, the way all the character traits hook into both the character designs and the way they play is something else. Of course! Of course the tall yellow one is the humble high-jumper. Of course the little orange red square is the jealous, naive one. Of course! That makes such sens- ...wait. I'm talking about shapes. Coloured shapes. ...oh, but of course the flat one that lets people bounce on her is nervous of people using her then not going back for her! Of course! Of co- THEY'RE SHAPES. ...I don't know how they do it. It's magical.

It comes to a head, though, where you realize how steeped the game is in allegory. The AIs are "players" in a "game" that is ostensibly being designed for them on-the-fly. It hints at the fact that the system attempting to control them - faced up by an ominous black cloud that eats AIs, purportedly some kind of anti-virus - isn't trying to outright stop them, but rather to build up based on their skill levels. To be just out of their reach, to make them learn. In other words - it's Game Design 101. It's why Eggman doesn't just design a level full of spikes, or Bowser doesn't just hold Mario's face down into the lava until his moustache burns off. They're stand-ins for the game's developers themselves, and in Thomas Was Alone, it allures to that school of game design in a particularly self-aware way. It's subtle, make no mistake - blink and you'd miss it - but it is there.

And once that clicks, you start to think about what everything means. It was an especially enlightened moment when I was talking to myself about how amazing it was that they had breathed so much character into pixels. Like, "huh, pretty neat they made me actually care about the fate of just... just a bunch of polygons on a screen." Then I said, "wait. That's what every game does." ...I sat for a minute. This game... Thomas Was Alone... it's about videogames. It's about the player. It's about the way they're designed. It's about the tricks they use. The narrator's not just there because he lends character to the characterless colour lumps! He's there because the game is about lending character to characterless colour lumps! There is something genius about the game, the story its telling, and the way it's told. The fact that it is actually genuinely effective - coming out of The Walking Dead, I wasn't expecting it to make me feel almost as much for these characters as I ended up caring about them - is masterful in itself, but the message behind makes spectacular use of subtlety and suggestion. It's not mind-blowing, but it's not pretentious and in-you-face, either. It's weaved into a compelling narrative in its own right, which serves to drive forward a compelling puzzle-platformer in its own right. But what it does do is elevate the game and story to much more impressive heights. Consider me... impressed.

If I had to pick one word to describe Thomas Was Alone, it would be... understated. This encompasses both its best and worst bits, make no mistake. If you're confident you'll enjoy a puzzle-platformer with unique, interesting one-player co-op mechanics, it's very much worth a look, but if you encouraged and you're a fan of smart videogame narratives - surprisingly smart - then this game should definitely cement itself firmly on your radar. Check it out, it's clever as hell and funny and witty and charming and yet it's deep and artistic and other positive buzzwords, too!

Recommendation: Filled with charm, fun and character despite a stark and minimalist art style, its real accomplishments lie with a deep, well-written and witty narrative that both keeps the flow of the game going while you're playing it, and makes you keep thinking about the game once you've stopped. If you're confident that'll all wash over you, mind, feel free to detract a star. Everyone else - definitely consider picking this up. It's only $10, what's to lose?