Thomas Was Alone - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
As a big fan of indie games, no-one comes more “indie” than the UK’s own Mike Bithell. Bithell has come to personify the mentality of the one-man studio; he does things his way, when he wants to, and when he’s ready. Occasionally outspoken but almost always on point, it is perhaps this force of will more than anything that drew me to pick up his first game: Thomas Was Alone. His determination had apparently paid off — I knew it had won a BAFTA and sold a million copies in 2012, so it probably wouldn’t be awful. Right?
Ten Minutes In
All I knew about the gameplay before I started was that it was a story told via geometric shapes. Well, that turned out to be totally accurate. Even so, I wasn’t expecting a puzzle game narrated by Danny Wallace.
Thomas is a small rectangle, a piece of rogue AI which has become sentient and needs to reach a portal which happens to be his exact size. He can move, jump, and that’s about it. Soon after, he’s joined by Chris — a square. Chris is shorter, slower and unable to reach certain ledges without jumping on Thomas. Then comes John, who is a taller, thinner, more powerful rectangle. The other two need him to get to areas which are harder to reach, yet each of the AI shapes have their own strengths too. Chris can squeeze through tight gaps in each level, perhaps to activate a switch which creates steps. Thomas is the middle child who has thus far acted as a stepping stone for Chris.
Already I can see where this is going. The narration reminds me a lot of The Stanley Parable (which is clearly influenced by Bithell’s writing here) and Danny Wallace’s performance is worthy of the BAFTA. He delivers his lines with the kind of matter-of-fact deadpan humour that I adore, and though the gameplay is about getting the right shape to the right hole, the throughline to me seems obvious — it’s about how we can all work together and help overcome each other’s flaws. It’s cheesy and a little obvious, but I am enjoying it very much so far.
Forty Minutes In
My crew has been joined by Claire, a huge square who can float in the deadly water which obstructs many of the levels, and Laura, a horizontal rectangle with a trampoline-like ability to launch the others into the air.
The level layouts are simplistic, even bare bones. There are few bells and whistles here aside from some rudimentary shadow effects — just the basics needed for you to get the crew of shapes to their respective portal in each level. Spikes, moving platforms, layouts which change when you hit a switch… they’ve all made an appearance, but I’m thirty levels in and it is starting to feel a little repetitive. You’re taught new features in an easier setting before you’re thrown into the deep end (sometimes literally), but those tutorial levels feel so obvious that they jar, like someone had implemented them after reading Game Design 101. The story, too, is starting to waver. Some of the shapes are establishing relationships with each other. Chris the square has fallen in love with Laura the trampoline, which I assume represents the AI becoming more and more sentient, but the narration — while great — feels superficial, at least at this stage. They’re still geometric shapes and I’m still moving them individually to the end portals. All emotion and expression is from the narrator and I don’t really feel invested in anything that’s being said.
The music is superb, though. What started as a staccato range of bleeps and blips evolved with the levels until my ears were soaked in a warm sonic bath of electronica. David Housden gets all the credit here, and rightly so. It is a fantastic soundtrack.
Two Hours In
There have been a few variations including a falling level where I’m dodging spikes as I hurtle down the screen, but now I’m controlling yet more AI shapes. One is called James, and his levels are based on inverted gravity. They are bloody annoying.
At this point I think there are two fundamental problems I have with the game. Firstly, it’s way too dark. The majority of the platforms are black, which is fine if I’m in a well-lit level. If not, then they’re near impossible to see unless my nose is almost pressed against the monitor. And there are a lot of dark levels. My vision is 20/20; I don’t mind a challenge, but actually being able to see what I’m playing shouldn’t be one of them. Why there isn’t a brightness or contrast setting is beyond me. Secondly, there is no consistency in the slippiness of the platforms. I might be moving one of the shapes along a floor or ledge with the resistance I expect, and then at an arbitrary point something will change and Thomas will go sliding off the end. The levels which combine Thomas (normal gravity) and James (inverted gravity) are awful for this. Level 56 in particular had me grinding my teeth, not because I didn’t know what to do to solve it, but because the controls and stickiness — or not — of the shapes and the levels themselves are so damned mercurial that it felt like pot luck whether I could transport each AI where it needed to go.
Three Hours In
I am persisting, but I’m not expecting the story’s ending to be satisfying enough to justify the effort I’ve put in. Another AI with a double jump has been added so now I’m juggling at least six of the critters. I’ve honestly lost track of both the characters and the plot. Thomas connected to the internet for twelve seconds and then named himself “an architect”, before disappearing into an unspecified matrix with the rest of the crew. A few jokes about cats and Nathan Fillion were thrown in, but overall the metaphors being used about what’s happening are so obtuse that it’s more distracting than enlightening.
Four Hours In
A new interesting mechanic has been introduced which lets me absorb different colours and abilities by jumping into switcher zones. The last fifteen levels or so have been far more interesting because of it, at least from a puzzling perspective. The story, conversely, has gone loopy. Something has happened which has turned some of the AI evil. One is called Grey and he’s trying to escape before the others do, even though that’s the sole purpose of every AI. Why this conflict has been introduced is a mystery. I might be projecting, but even Danny Wallace seems a bit bemused by what’s going on as he talks about a group of five small squares called “Team Jump” who work as a team. And jump. Well, duh.
Oh, and the bugs. There are bugs. I’ve crashed to the desktop a dozen times, and my shapes have gotten stuck among checkerboard layouts, trapped under ledges and glued to the side of moving platforms. There is a restart button, thankfully, but these annoyances detracted from an otherwise well-designed series of puzzles.
Five Hours In
After a hundred levels, Thomas is no longer alone. Well, I assume, though he hadn’t really been alone since level 10. A last flurry of new characters was introduced which muddied things further, especially confusing given that despite having different names they were all either rectangles or squares and all shared one of a limited number of colours. Some of them escaped, others didn’t. There were sacrifices made and Grey possibly died, but the abstract depiction of all of these events via geometry dampened what could have been a poignant story. The soaring, yet often melancholic music was tremendous, especially during the last few levels, and it buoyed an otherwise acceptable platform-puzzle game.
Given the game’s phenomenal success and glittering trophy, I expected something incredible. Thomas Was Alone isn’t a bad game, but it didn’t meet my expectations on either a narrative or puzzle front. It felt like the product of a game jam — which it was — that had somehow picked up a mass following after attaching a celebrity to it. Given the simplicity of the graphics and the puzzles in general (niggles and frustrations aside), far more should have been made of the story to justify Danny Wallace’s involvement, but it just didn’t click for me. I’d buy the soundtrack in a heartbeat, though.