Fun Fridayz #2 – Fun For Feelings
Thomas Was Alone: Shaped Gameplay
The short of it: Thomas Was Alone is the hyper-polished height of the first wave of indie game dev*. Simple platforming is given a meaningful narrative by meshing gameplay and aesthetics with story. In terms of clichés: the definition of short and sweet, with a low price tag that gets you more than you bargained for.
*This is not a valid or factual timespan, it’s just what I’m referring to as the first wave of formidable indie games that blew up on Steam around 2010, like TWA, The Stanley Parable, VVVVVV, etc.
Everyone deals with their loneliness in different ways. Some turn to drinking or drugs, some slip into depression, some force themselves into social situations.
Thomas jumps on blocks.
This is, of course, a bit odd seeing as how 1) jumping is rarely seen as therapeutic (often the exact opposite of what therapy recommends) and 2) Thomas is himself a block.
Created by indie dev Mike Bithell, Thomas Was Alone is a brief, fairly easy platformer with a typical platforming goal: get from point zero to point one. Framed as an artificial intelligence test, each level comes with different challenges for the named AIs (represented by simple colored shapes) to solve. Unbeknownst to the scientists running the tests, the AIs accidentally slip into same testing areas, allowing them to use teamwork to advance beyond their areas.
The AIs’ attempts to find meaning in their individuality and talents is surprisingly human. Instead of using typical robot tropes where sentience makes AI question humanity, the characters are presented as they are– James, a green rectangle, falls upside down, leaving him feeling isolated and alone. Thomas, with his genuine openness, accepts James, and the two solve several tests together. There is no internal struggle of defining humanity (where it always turns out that oh wow the robots have become more than human, humanity is the robotic one, what a twist).
Instead, the characters’ struggle is to define themselves: what makes them unique, what makes them different?
The overarching story is perfectly interwoven with the changing gameplay; the differences that make these shapes unique morphs the player’s ability to solve puzzles.
The star of the game is its narrator, played by Danny Wallace. Though none of the AIs speak directly, their thoughts and feelings are narrated as the levels progress. The mix of Wallace’s British inflection mixed with Bithell’s gentle wit and writing is the perfect vehicle for a story about individuality and teamwork. Wallace’s performance even earned him a BAFTA Game Award in 2012.
Thomas Was Alone is so damn genuine, which makes the massive amount of polish somewhat surprising. The lighting effects are brilliant, the gameplay is smooth, the control of every character feels unique without making any one character preferable.
It’s really in shape. Don’t be a square. Get on the (rhom)bus to buy this. Sorry for whole shape puns (rect)angle.
+ Refreshes the idea of a platformer
+ Fun writing and voiceover
+ Smooth controls
– Low challenge level
~ Priced fairly for its short length