“Loneliness is a choice.”
-Dana Scully, The X-Files
“The following is a guest review by The Timely Mage.”
Thomas Was Alone is one of those special games that takes you by surprise with how impactful such a simple game can be. In short, it is a minimalistic puzzle platformer where you control one or more quadrilaterally shaped characters with the goal of lining each character up with its corresponding portal of the same shape. Simple, right? However, what Mike Bithell manages to do is infuse these shapes with such charm that you can’t help but become emotionally invested in them.
The focus of the game’s story is centered on the titular character Thomas who is depicted as a red rectangle. Thomas and the other shapes he meets on his journey are in fact AI that have recently become self-aware due to some sort of glitch at Artificial Life Solutions, a company that experiments with artificial intelligence. These characters are wonderfully brought to life through the narration of the talented Danny Wallace.
As the title suggests, Thomas starts his adventure alone but his curiosity and longing for companionship drive him to explore his world. With only two actions at your disposal – moving and jumping – the controls are as simple as it gets but, like any good platformer, that doesn’t mean it’s any less challenging. As the complexity of each puzzle gradually escalates you must find a new way to work together to overcome it.
As you progress you meet several other AI, each with their own unique personality, abilities, and shape. For example, the first AI you encounter is Chris, a cynical orange square who is much shorter in stature than Thomas and features a very short jump. Because of Chris’ limitations he must grudgingly depend on the optimistic Thomas which eventually leads to him learning that you can find personal value in friendship.
How Thomas Was Alone manages to capture your heart doesn’t solely rest on any one of these simple mechanics nor the presentation but rather how all of these elements work together. Using the shapes to work together is given a whole other dimension of meaning as Danny Wallace provides insight into both the dreams and insecurities they carry with them. As the puzzles evolve so do their relationships as they discover new ways to overcome challenges and, in turn, discover how truly valuable it is to feel needed and accepted, to not feel alone. Of course this is all accentuated by the beautiful, heartfelt score from David Housden which I think conveys the innocent hopefulness that we see in Thomas.
The finished product is something far greater than the sum of its parts. Thomas Was Alone managed to take a simple platformer about quadrilaterals and make it into one of the most relatable and emotionally engaging games I’ve played to date. While I’m sure it may not strike everyone as poignantly as it did me, I encourage anyone to give these simple blocks a chance to surprise you.
The 8-bit Review
I wouldn’t change a thing about how the game looks because it’s minimalistic approach is what makes it’s emotional impact so impressive but on the other hand there’s nothing spectacular about the visuals on their own.
While there’s not much in the way of in-game sound effects, I loved the game’s soundtrack which is surprisingly heartfelt and successfully engages the player by sharing in Thomas’ optimism and hope. Danny Wallace’s exceptional delivery as narrator is arguably the backbone of the game’s success – well deserving of the BAFTA Award the game received for his performance.
The story itself is charming, hopeful, and well executed. Having the narrator speak at the beginning of each level while you play helps keep the pace flowing even though spending a long time trying to solve a difficult puzzle might break up the experience at times. However the heart of the story never felt lost as having to make the characters work together to reach their goal during the actual gameplay carried it along.
If you can appreciate a good platformer then Thomas Was Alone is quite fulfilling even without all the feel-good frills. It’s a solid platformer that constantly keeps you thinking. Because each of the characters have their own unique strengths and weaknesses you’re always having to adapt to the various situations depending on who’s in play.
While no individual part stands out as incredibly unique, I felt the execution of all its elements produced a rare gem not often seen in the game industry, much less this particular genre.
While the puzzles start off simple they become increasingly more complex as you learn how to use each new character’s quirks to overcome new challenges. However, while some of the solutions require a certain level of creativity, I never felt like I was hopelessly stuck which is perfect for my preferences but may be disappointing for hardcore puzzle/platform gamers looking for a real challenge.
While there’s not much to do after the credits role for the typical player I do appreciate it when games allow you to hop back into any level you’ve completed, as is the case for Thomas Was Alone. However you only really solve a puzzle once so, beyond reliving the narrative experience again or checking out the developer commentary for each level, there are really no new challenges to overcome.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Thomas Was Alone is one of my cornerstone games that I often refer back to when it comes to minimalism and excellence in game design.
Aggregated Score: 8.2