Developer: Mike Bithell
The great thing about the summer lull is that we can fully appreciate the breadth of sensational indie games that release throughout the year, enjoying those that favour the languid July-August release schedule and reflecting on titles we missed. Today, I feel compelled to do both - and bring one of 2012's very best games to your attention.
You read that correctly. Bossa Studios' Mike Bithell joins the growing ranks of numerous indie developers who outshine the biggest triple-A companies in terms of creating games that mean something, games that provide more than just a few shiny corridors to navigate and shooting galleries to trudge through. Thomas Was Alone once again proves that it's heart and soul, not graphics or feature sets, that can push the boundaries of our medium, and that even the humblest 2D puzzle platformer can be a life-affirming and thought-provoking work of art.
Amazingly, the most fully-realised, relateable and memorable protagonists of the year are little more than geometric shapes. Making a certain Mr. Hartmann look like a bit of a tit, to be honest.
On the face of things, Thomas Was Alone is an intricate, though never fiendish, puzzle game. Controlling the eponymous Thomas, a red rectangle, players are whisked through a few hours of 2D platforming featuring discrete physics based puzzles. Though Thomas is only capable of hopping a short distance, he'll soon encounter a host of friends with different abilities. As an example, John the rectangle is tall and lean, capable of leaping higher than Thomas and access higher platforms. Claire the square can float on water, allowing her to explore new areas. Working out how best to use them thus becomes the order of the day.
The concept of jumping, which is so often taken for granted throughout several decades of development, becomes relevant and meaningful again, explored in thought-provoking puzzles that usually have a simple solution, but one that requires players to think about the nature of the level design and how the characters can complement one another in completely different ways. As a puzzle game, it's brilliantly paced and never frustrating, providing several hours of brainteasing satisfaction despite a couple of finicky control issues (native gamepad support would have also been nice).
In presentation terms, Thomas Was Alone favours an eyecatching minimalist aesthetic, blending colourful blocks with a dark, often oppressive selection of backgrounds. David Housden's piano-meets-electronica soundtrack perfectly complements the foreboding atmosphere with a rich yet unobtrusive selection of mournful and pensive tunes, creating a world that's more fleshed-out than a simple glance would have you believe.
But that's not why you'll remember Thomas Was Alone, nor why this minimal masterpiece deserves to be heralded as one of the most thought-provoking and downright brilliant games of 2012. Thanks to some exquisite writing, spot-on narration from Assassin Creed II's Danny Wallace (Shaun Hastings) and a painstaking determination to build characters through gameplay, its blocky protagonists become fully fleshed-out characters, all of whom have their own personalities, desires, story arcs and resolutions.
Taking the previously-mentioned characters as examples (there's more besides), John is able to jump higher than his fellow quadrilaterals, making him rather boastful and cocky but will always have your back in a bad situation. Claire's ability to float imbues her with a delusional superhero complex that sees her throwing herself into increasingly dangerous situations, forcing us to wonder what she's gone through to seek the constant approval of others. Chris, a short orange square, can barely move or jump fast enough to keep up with the others, making him bitter, gruff and cynical, but softened by a desire to be loved and accepted. Who can't relate to that? In the middle of them all lies Thomas, an irrepressible everyman who always looks on the bright side and sees the best in his new friends. Because their personalites are directly related to, even explored through, their gameplay characteristics and traits, they're so much easier to invest in. And invest you will.
You'll know people like them. You'll relate to their weakness, revel in their triumphs and crave to know more about them. You'll grow to understand them, even love them. Indeed, you'll soon come to genuinely care about the collection of shapes as people, no less than any RPG character, movie hero or book protagonist. It's rare to see writing of this calibre in our industry in the AA-AAA market, and critically, it leaves enough to the imagination that we can imprint our own personalities and that of our friends or family onto the cast, making us care all the more.
The story itself involves the accidental creation of artificial intelligence and explores some deeper themes, but frankly, that's the icing on the cake. It's the relationship between characters and the way in which it makes players reflect on their own relationships that brings Thomas Was Alone home, the fact that it makes you care about and feel for crude rectangular blocks, sometimes bringing you to realisations about yourself in the process. That's the dream of all developers (after all, every game character is essentially just a group of pixels and polygons), but by literally reducing the protagonists to their raw pixels, Thomas Was Alone acts as a microcosm of our industry, and reminds us just how powerful the medium can be.
Thomas isn't alone, and with your new friends in tow, you won't be either.
- Thoroughly memorable and relateable characters brought to life through exquisite writing and design
- Strong storyline, character arcs and relationships
- Coherent art direction, appropriate (brilliant) soundtrack
- It also happens to be a decent puzzle game too
- A little on the easy side for puzzle fans
- Some puzzles ask a shade too much of the controls
- No gamepad support
The Short Version: Thomas Was Alone is a bona fide indie masterpiece that reminds us just how powerful, engaging and ambitious videogames can be.
Or maybe it's just a neat puzzle game with great voice acting and a killer soundtrack. Either way, you owe it to yourself to play Thomas Was Alone.