Indie games that try to put new spins on established gaming concepts are nothing new. Jonathan Blow’s seminal title Braid released in 2008 to widespread critical acclaim, and even Flash games such as The Company of Myself * have demonstrated their ability to integrate puzzle and platforming mechanics into their narrative, such that I personally would consider the story-heavy platformer almost a small subgenre in itself.
But what about games that simply want to be fun but don’t want to skimp on narrative? Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle-platformer developed by Mike Bithell, and it revolves around a rectangle.
No, no, that’s not quite right. Or I suppose it is, in a way. Our main protagonist is an artificial intelligence named Thomas, who manifests as a red rectangle. This isn’t meant to be an abstract representation–the game openly refers to him as a rectangle many times. Thomas first learns to navigate his world by moving, then falling, then learning to jump (i.e., a different kind of falling–all of the platforming action is narrated with subtitles, which are hilarious); indeed, his means of getting about are pretty straightforward until he meets Chris, a small brown square that can’t jump as high or as far as Thomas and is immediately resentful of him, seeing the latter as self-important. Thomas seems blissfully innocent of this, and his personal goals seem to revolve more around wanting close friendship or perhaps, someday, even romance (though probably not with Chris, I’m afraid to say–the two would not get along well).
This is where the game introduces its character-swapping mechanic, which players of games such as Lego Star Wars will be familiar with: You don’t control multiple characters at the same time, but you can alternate between Thomas, Chris, and other characters, taking advantage of each “person’s” unique characteristics: Thomas and a French-fry looking yellow rectangle named John (who incidentally seems to have a hero complex and views the other two shapes with a sort of benevolent condescension) are both gifted with their jumping abilities, but Chris can fit into small spaces that the other two characters in the demo cannot, for example.
And so it goes, with the player learning to stand the various characters on top of one another in increasingly odd ways, as the characters themselves form their own unorthodox bond. Puzzles seem to be designed more for specific solutions than think-outside-the-box decision making, but the game uses this linear design to its advantage and anticipates the player’s actions in the narration. Therefore, since the player will most likely be using the long yellow rectangle John to get to a particular area in the demo, the story subtitles are told in the third person from John’s perspective. The artwork is simple but not really simplistic, with animated backgrounds and neat little visual effects whenever the player falls into water, for example, and the background music, which can be purchased on Bandcamp, is gorgeous in a way that makes me think “electro-nursery.” You must give “Where Are You?” a listen. You’ll probably give it many.
Thomas Was Alone surprised me. I was expecting a fairly standard puzzle-platformer with decent mechanics and a pretentious story that was way too much in love with itself. Instead I got a charming and heartwarming character tale that acknowledges its own style of presentation and turns that into something wonderful. I feel like this game actually could surprise me with legitimate insight if it wanted to, and based on the demo, I trust that the full game might have better things to do than to bog me down with needless complexity.
* I recommend at least giving The Company of Myself a try; the Kongregate website will ask you to sign up for an account, but you don’t need one to play and complete the game. I will say that the game is rather depressing, but the story impresses me a lot more than Braid’s ultimately did. You can easily play through The Company of Myself in one sitting.
Thomas Was Alone is available on Steam and several other distribution platforms for Windows and Mac OS X operating systems. A demo of the game can be downloaded on the official website. This article’s featured image is from the game’s Steam page.
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