Randy Newman knew what he was talking about when he wrote the song “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” for Disney Pixar’s Toy Story. The basic sentiment is one of companionship regardless of a person’s shortcomings. Real friendships don’t involve constantly judging each other, after all. They’re about exactly the opposite: supporting the people you care about in the face of adversity. The line “Some other folks might be a little bit smarter than I am, bigger and stronger too…” is a particularly touching reflection upon personal insecurities, and one that cuts to the point of Thomas Was Alone quite well. A problem can seem much easier when shared amongst many, regardless of how small an individual person’s input may be.
Except, the characters in Thomas Was Alone are not people. They’re little coloured blocks with all the character flaws and physical imperfections of people. It sounds strange, I know, but it’s not the most outlandish premise gamers have ever had to swallow. The story goes like this: a small AI driven program called Thomas becomes self-aware and takes it upon himself to escape the confines of his computer system. Things seem straightforward to begin with. All he has to do is to jump across a series of platforms and go through a portal at the end of each stage. However, the levels quickly begin to get harder and Thomas cannot carry on alone. Conveniently he meets Chris, a shorter more sarcastic block who can give Thomas a boost to hard-to-reach areas.
Before long, Thomas is joined by a motley crew of multi-coloured rectangles who all possess their own strengths and weaknesses. Getting them from one side of a level to another becomes harder as time goes on and the manner in which each one can be used is not always immediately apparent. In this respect, Thomas Was Alone is a pretty straightforward puzzle-platformer with about 50% of the challenge being dedicated to making tough jumps and the other 50% for figuring out how to make them. It’s only when you peel back this familiar layer that you discover there is a deeper message to be taken from the experience. At its heart, Thomas Was Alone is a study about how important friendship is and how it can enrich our lives.
I know, it all sounds mushy and a lot less entertaining than blowing a zombie’s face off with a shotgun in Left 4 Dead 2, but you might be surprised at how engaging Thomas Was Alone can be. This is thanks largely to the brilliant script writing and story narration by Danny Wallace. Throughout the game, Wallace gives voice to the private thoughts and motivations of the taciturn little rectangles, elevating them from mere collections of pixels to characters that we actually care about. They have it all really. From superiority complexes to sarcastic self-deprecation and diabolical scheming to unrequited love, you will feel like these are real living people. Except, they’re just nondescript shapes on a computer screen. Such is the subtle genius of the game’s humour.
This great understated sense of comedy is offset by a soundtrack and visual style that serve to further cement Thomas Was Alone as a unique experience. The melancholic electric guitar/violin tracks that can be heard throughout give the plight of the AI’s an added resonance and contrast against the light hearted banter from Wallace to make the story seem almost tragic. The game’s minimalist graphical style also belies the depth of creativity on display. Whilst the actual characters themselves are just angular rectangles, their movement animations are all unique, further lending to the illusion of them being individuals. There are also some very nice particle effects and subtle background animations for the more observant players to enjoy.
Whilst it’s easy to get carried away in praising Thomas Was Alone, it has to be said that the game has some shortcomings. The pacing of the gameplay, for one, can be very erratic at times. Although there are plenty of tough stages, these are interspersed with ridiculously easy levels right up until the end of the game. I know it’s easy to cite the creative direction as being the main reason for this. It is supposed to reflect life which has hard and easy times, after all. I just felt like it was a bit of a cop out and that the difficulty should increase at a steady pace.
There are also some bugs in the game that can break the experience. I had to restart some pretty difficult stages a couple of times due to blocks refusing to jump or not respawning properly. This caused me to swear at the top of my lungs and did actually suck me out of the experience on a few occasions.
These are all pretty shallow criticisms for a game like Thomas Was Alone though. I clocked in my total play time as being somewhere in the region of seven to eight hours. That’s seven or eight hours of brilliant narration from Danny Wallace, tight platforming and varied level design. At £5, you’re getting your money’s worth; it’s a genuinely original experience that you will remember for a long time afterwards. I actually grew to care about the fate of the little rectangles in the end and that is something that I steadfastly refused to believe would happen when I originally started playing. I can’t think of many games that use such minimalist techniques to achieve such an emotional impact. I think it might be time to get in touch with some of my old pals. Maybe I’ll start by inviting them around to play Thomas Was Alone.