Thomas Was Alone

Game: Thomas Was Alone
Developer: Mike Bithell
Publisher: Mike Bithell
Year: 24 July 2012 / 24 April 2013
Reviewed: 2013
Platform: PC / PS3
Genre: Puzzle Platform
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

ValkyrDeath was alone. It was a curious first thought for a review, but it was a curious game that he’d just played. He decided to start listing his observations, for posterity.

No sooner have I mentioned how hard it is for an indie platform game to distinguish itself amongst a crowded genre, than here I am reviewing yet another of them. Thomas Was Alone (which I’ll avoid abbreviating to TWA for fear of being mistook for a defunct airline) is a platform puzzler created by independent developer Mike Bithell. It uses a minimalist style taken to the extreme: the characters you control, starting with the titular Thomas, are squares and rectangles of various size and dimensions. Stripped to its basics, Thomas Was Alone involves controlling a group of these shapes to get through a set of a hundred short levels utilising the specific abilities of each one. It’s a genuine mixture of platform mechanics and puzzle solving. There’s so much more to the game than that though.

Thomas Was Alone Claire
Thomas Was Alone sometimes references the fact that it is a game within the plot.

Shorn of the plot, Thomas Was Alone is an enjoyable platform puzzle game, though not one that would stand out much. As you move through the game, you gradually gain access to new rectangles of different colours that allow you to do different things. The abilities of most of them are different variations of jumping, allowing you to reach different heights. The puzzles often involve stacking the different shapes on top of each other to allow access to higher areas, but later on you’ll gain access to characters with further abilities that expand the possibilities of the puzzles more. It’s simple, but it works well.

With the story, it becomes a unique experience. At the start, a couple of lines of text manage to set up the concept behind the game immediately. You’re in control of AI at a point where they have started to become self-aware. From then on, the entire game is narrated wonderfully by Danny Wallace, who describes the thought processes and feelings of the characters as you advance through the levels. The writing, coupled with the skill with which Wallace narrates, manages to imbue a huge amount of personality into these simple squares. It’s an example of just how much difference a good story makes to a game. The puzzles about stacking squares on rectangles and using skills to reach new levels now become about friendship and teamwork. Suddenly that red rectangle isn’t just a shape any more, it’s Thomas. The yellow rectangle is clearly the show off, John, and the big blue square is immediately recognisable as insecure Claire, with all the character traits we’ve grown accustomed to. The small amount of animation, the way each character moves and the abilities they have all fit in perfectly with the personality. There’s more depth to each of these blocks than to any of the bland stereotypes of The Cave, the previous puzzle platformer I played. And while many indie games use simple graphics to make up for lack of artistic ability, I’ve never seen it actually written into the game in such an elegant way that it’s not only excused but actually becomes an essential part of the story being told.

Thomas Was Alone Mondrian
Thomas looked around. He appeared to have walked into a Mondrian painting.

The actual puzzles themselves are enjoyable to solve too, though they’re never very difficult. For a story based game like this one, it means the game can keep on moving without getting slowed down by getting stuck. A surprising amount of variety is got out of a simple set of mechanics, though some of the characters add new elements to the game too. Most interesting of these is James, a green rectangle who falls upwards instead of down, giving him personally inverted gravity. The puzzles here often involve using James with the characters with normal gravity in combination. It’s hard to say too much about the puzzles, but they work well. There are occasional moments where you might die and have to restart a level from the beginning, but these are quite rare considering that there are a hundred levels, and none of them are especially long. The ones that are a bit longer or more difficult often have checkpoints in places along the way to prevent them from becoming too frustrating. In general, other than one or two brief moments, the game is perfectly paced.

Whether on the original PC version of the newer PS3 port, the controls work extremely well. The PC version is set up for both keyboard and gamepad by default, so if you have a controller you can simply plug it in and play straight away, though the option to configure the controls is obviously still there. Keyboard controls work perfectly well too. The only real difference between the keyboard and controller is that with the keyboard you have the ability to switch between characters using the number keys to jump directly to the one you want, rather than having to cycle through them; something which is lacking in the controller only PS3 version. It can be useful, since in some levels you could have up to seven characters around at the same time. Otherwise, as with most platforming games, the gamepad is probably the easiest way to control things. There’s nothing to separate the two versions in terms of quality.

Thomas Was Alone Internet
And that's the whole of the internet summed up.

The one thing that is added to the PS3 version which wasn’t in the original is a developer’s commentary mode. Turning this on, you’ll here Mike Bithell talking about each level and the process of designing the game. Surprisingly, this is hugely enjoyable and was enough to make me instantly replay the game I’d only just finished on the PC. For this reason alone, I’d recommend the PS3 version over the PC version if you have the ability to play it, though the PC version is still well worth having if not. The commentary really brings home just how much effort has gone into making the game, and how the levels were carefully designed to teach you the skills you need for future levels. It’s probably the most carefully thought out series of puzzles that I’ve seen since the Portal games.

Thomas Was Alone is an excellent game throughout the 3-4 hours that it lasts. It’s a story that’s at times funny and at other times moving, and for such a simple game it’s surprising how much it expands the possibilities of storytelling in gaming. It’s well worth playing.

Save System Review: Saves which level you’ve reached automatically, and the levels are not very long. Checkpoints in the middle of some of the levels, but they never take more than a minute or two to complete when you know what you’re doing anyway.
Graphics: Simple, but surprisingly nice to look at in their simplicity. The levels don’t look as plain in motion as they may seem.
Sound: Excellent narration from Danny Wallace and a wonderful soundtrack.
Bugs: I didn’t encounter any in either version of the game.
Gameplay: Excellent puzzles, nothing too difficult but it serves the story.
Storyline: Very good story that’s surprisingly touching for a game about a bunch of geometrical shapes

Arbitrary Final Score: 4 stars

If you like this, you might also like: VVVVVV, The Cave, Fez

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