A great game, though perhaps not a good game.
Thomas was Alone, a puzzle platformer where the player controls several cuboids with widely different skillsets, is an amazing experience. I wish to apologise for the possibly pretentiousness of the use of the word ‘experience’, but I honestly believe it’s the best way to describe the thing. To accurately appreciate Thomas was Alone, one must exam it as more than just a video-game, because in all honesty it’s a reasonably terrible video-game.
I loved Thomas was Alone. Allow me to point that out (not least to hopefully placate anyone angered by my previous statement). When I completed it my immediate reaction was to yell “yes” least four times in a row. That’s no exaggeration. I was literally sitting in my apartment repeatedly shouting “yes” at my television (I can only imagine how the scene might have looked). Still today I recommend this game enthusiastically. However, I can’t ignore that for a puzzle platformer it’s not very puzzling or challenging.
If you’ve listened to the game’s commentary track with designer Mike Bithell, you’ll know that he pretty much admits this himself. There is an overabundance of puzzles that rely on triggering stairs to appear and allow the characters to progress, and solving these usually feels like a test of patience rather than intelligence. Worse than this are the timed puzzles the game occasionally throws at the player, which are not quite as challenging as they are frustrating.
There was only one point with Thomas was Alone where I felt truly challenged, and as it turned out this was due more to playing into the early hours when I should have been resting my weary head rather that the game’s puzzle design. When I tried the puzzle fully rested the following morning, I found the solution was lying in front of me the whole time. Here’s the thing, though. Rather than being flawed game-design, this approach is actually central to the game’s core experience. In short, Thomas was Alone is not meant to be a hard game.
Thomas was Alone works because it’s just challenging enough, without becoming dramatically taxing, so that it requires the player to think about its characters differing abilities and how they might be used in unison. Had Thomas was Alone followed the Portal approach to puzzle design, it would have been less about what the characters can achieve when working together and more about how they can be manipulated to reach some external goal. In short, it would have been less about the characters and more about the player, and Thomas was Alone is all about the characters.
The variety of characters presented to us in Thomas was Alone, and how their differing abilities represent their personalities and individual quirks, is the game’s greatest achievement. Its core concept, where the player must position cuboids so that they may use their varying abilities in unison to reach a predetermined end-point, is a good enough idea on its own to make for an enjoyable puzzle game, as shown in the games original story-free Flash version. However, not content to stop there, Mike Bithell (claiming to have been influenced by Oh Brother Where Art Thou) decided that this mechanic could be used as an examination of friendship.
If Thomas was Alone’s puzzle had presented the player with puzzles akin to that of other puzzle platformers, such as – by way of example – The Swapper, it would likely have diverted the player’s focus towards the finding their solutions rather than the significance of the characters’ interactions. The Swapper is a very similar game to Thomas was Alone in many ways. In both games the player manipulates a group of controllable avatars in order to solve level-based puzzles, and both are informed by a strong narrative. However, in execution the two games become widely differing experience. In The Swapper, the player controls interchangeable (and, crucially, expendable) clones of the main character.
Thomas was Alones characters, in contrast, are individually defined, with personalities and capabilities that vary greatly from each other. Experimenting with their differing abilities in tandem with each other allows the player to observe how – and why – these characters bond as friends. With blank slate nature of The Swapper’s avatars, the player is free to dispose of as many as they fancy in devotion to solving the game’s puzzles. As such the puzzles become the primary method of engagement for the player, and they therefore need to be as challenging as they can be without overly frustrating the player (which thankfully The Swapper pulls off in spades).
Thomas was Alone differs greatly in this regard. Had this game’s puzzles been as challenging as The Swapper’s, the player would have been enticed to view the game’s characters as tools to complete these puzzles rather than individual characters. Rather that challenge the player, the puzzles here are used to explain how these characters can work in cooperation with each other in order to achieve a goal. These puzzles are designed in service of the characters and their relationships with one another, not to test players.
Of course this would only have worked if the game’s writing was good enough to give a series of cuboids emotional depth and a sense of relatability, and it surely doesn’t need to be said by now that Thomas was Alone achieves this beautifully. A great deal of the credit for this must go to Danny Wallace’s pitch-perfect narration and David Housden’s affecting musical score, as both go a great way to directing the emotional centre of the game’s narrative. However, the true genius of this game lies in Bithell’s writing and characterization.
Each of the cuboid’s differing abilities informs their distinct personalities as well as the gameplay. For instance, Chris’ short size allows him to be used to reach areas closed off to other characters, but also causes him to develop an inferiority complex that in turn leads to Chris’ cynical and resentful attitude. Laura has the ability to make other characters jump higher, but alone she is somewhat helpless. This results in her low self-esteem, as she always fears others will abandon her once her usefulness to them has been exhausted. And of course there’s Thomas. Thomas’ modest jumping abilities and relatively standard appearance makes him the perfect avatar for the player’s perspective of the game’s story.
Thomas was Alone is a fantastic and inspired production that is a required play for anyone that cares about narrative in games. I beg of you to give it a try.
Overwhelmingly justified: Absofrickinlutely!