In what has gradually turned into an over-saturated market, video games all try to outdo each other using their common strengths. Which has the best graphics? Which one has the best storyline? Which is just the most fun? These questions crop up constantly. Sometimes the question could be how long it lasts or how cheap it is. Most games try to come out on top in every category, but can still crumble in the sales department. Thomas Was Alone is an exception. It hasn’t got the best graphics or the best story line; it doesn’t even have very complex characters or setting. But TWA does have one thing that many games lack in this day and age.
And that’s a personality, a singularity, a charm.
Created by Mike Bithell, Lead Designer at Bossa Studios, Thomas Was Alone begins with Thomas, a red rectangle, being spawned into existence. He proceeds to be thrust into puzzle after puzzle, meeting other quadrilaterals, such as Chris, John, Laura , and other characters encountered during the course of each puzzle. These shapes each have a definitive personality – Chris is judgmental, suffering from cybernetic Small-Man Syndrome; Laura has a constant lack of trust for anyone, due to her… bouncy properties. This added sense of character and familiarity makes the game very compelling; not only do you want to help out Thomas and the gang on their quest, but you feel obliged to help. In between levels, there is the occasional quotation from people after the emergence point (an originally unknown event at the start of the game) that gives insight into the possible back story of the game. This layer of story and cast completely changes the game from an average platformer into a fully-blown, genuine title.
Thomas Was Alone also has quite a simplistic style towards its aesthetics – think Limbo with the injection of color. The style of the game is very sharp and calm, and it looks beautiful on almost any computer. Moreover, the entire game is narrated by Danny Wallace, who voices Shaun Hastings in the Assassin’s Creed series, who adds a whole level of brilliance to Thomas Was Alone. Similar to Bastion, narration is constant and makes the game all the more story-driven through each level. Hearing Mr. Wallace explaining the internet in a sentence is an absolute joy, and the references to Portal, Skyrim, and Cat Videos are a nice touch. There is the rare typo in the subtitles here and there, but nothing too noteworthy. On top of this, David Housden, composer for Thomas Was Alone‘s soundtrack, does a fantastic job of creating the right sense of atmosphere – a mixture of ambiguity and excitement
Gameplay-wise, Thomas Was Alone is very relaxed and laid back. There is no sense of urgency or goal, apart from getting to the next portal, but even so it is still quite soothing. This lack of imperativeness can be conceived as either a good or bad design choice; some could see this as there being no motivation for playing the game – there is no hook for the player to grasp onto. While there is nothing new about the game’s mechanics, that isn’t the main focus. As you progress through the story, the levels continue to reinvent, showing you new ideas and new ways to tackle the inverted stages. However, there is a downside: there is no co-op at all. It’s really a shame, because co-op would have worked brilliantly, adding more replay value and incentive to continue the game.
Even so, Thomas Was Alone is one of the few games that carries a poignant charm. The fact that in such a short space of time it establishes a fantastic world with in-depth characters from just mere blocks is commendable. Along with such great voice acting from Danny Wallace and mystifying music from Dan Housden, Mike Bithell has created something that can invest even the most insignificant of things with personality: in this case, square-like AIs. Of course, TWA doesn’t have the best gameplay, story, or graphics, but it is full of memorable characters and charm to make up for it. This poignant charm is what defines TWA and makes it a cut above the rest.
This review is based on a review copy of the PC version of Thomas Was Alone by Mike Bithell