Thomas Was Alone Review – A Modern Velveteen Rabbit
Thomas Was Alone is an indie puzzle platformer created by one-man development team, Mike Bithell (with music by David Housden). In the game, the player controls a cast of colourful quadrilaterals as they venture through the computer program they were created for, seeking an escape, or at the very least, the definition of what “escape” means. As unassuming as their names – Thomas, Claire, and John for example – their simple character designs and innocent curiosity belie the fact these rectangles are in fact the first AI’s to gain consciousness, and whether they can realise it or not, their existence has forever changed the world.
Read our full Thomas Was Alone review after the break.
On one hand, the game succeeds excellently. As an indie title, the game realises its scope, embracing the concept “less is more” in its art and story. It uses shadows, particles, and snippets of introspective narration to create a simple but immersive world, where one comes to care for simple rectangles more than they ever could have realised. On the other hand, the gameplay completely ignores this design philosophy, over-weighing levels with repetitive patterns and continuing to add more and more player abilities that aren’t always necessary.
With the awakening of his or her awareness, each of the characters is granted their own unique ability that can be used in conjunction with the other AIs to progress through levels. The player oversees the movements of the rectangles, switching between the multiple characters and using their individual “powers” – from jumping high to floating on water – to surpass obstacles.
The character sizes and abilities are designed to work together in a matrix that allow the characters to cross barriers they normally wouldn’t be able to surpass on their own. There is the potential for some creative puzzle solving, but the truly interesting levels that actually test the player don’t emerge until the game is practically over. The rest of the game feels flat, never increasing in difficulty or requiring new strategies of the player, despite the constant addition of new character skills. Levels are linear, systematic repetitions of the same movements over and over, where smaller characters platform onto progressively larger characters to clear obstacles, following the level exactly as it has been laid out. A sense of progression and reward is lost when the player quickly reaches a solution, and then must tediously move multiple characters into place in the same way again and again to execute it.
The strength of Thomas Was Alone is definitely its story. Told through historical testimony, and introspective character narrations, it at times feels like a modern Velveteen Rabbit, as the little rectangles explore what it means to love, sacrifice and, ultimately, be real. Charismatic monologues round out the characters, providing simple snippets into characters and their individual motivations. There is no grand story here – and that’s for the best. From the historical excerpts it’s clear that Thomas and his friends ultimately change the world as a result of their actions, but the narrative smartly steers clear of the moral minefield that comes with the self-realization of artificial intelligence, a move that would have diminished or lost the characters to ethical dilemmas. Plus, we’ve all seen Battlestar Galactica anyway.
As mentioned before, Thomas Was Alone opts for simple visual style. Despite the plain, 2D environment, the game still manages to be beautiful through small details. Light blocking volumes attached to characters cast shadows are not only aesthetically please, but also help the rectangles feel more alive as characters, making them more dynamic and interactive with the environment. The addition of animated particle backgrounds are a simple but effective touch that serve to dress up levels. The levels are well-laid out visually, with the geometric shapes of the characters and the environments creating an interesting silhouette.
Although sound effects are reminiscent of old-school, run of the mill arcade games, the soundtrack of Thomas Was Alone is beautifully inspiring, working well with the game’s story. It’s no wonder the score was nominated for a BAFTA.
+ Endearing, interesting characters that are easy to become attached to
+ Simple art that goes a long way
+ Gorgeous soundtrack
– Repetitive, tedious levels
– Lack of real challenge in gameplay
Thomas Was Alone plays the “less is more” card beautifully both visually and in its narrative. It’s unfortunate that the gameplay doesn’t take a similar cue. Levels are frustratingly repetitive as they use the same movements over and over again. With no difficulty curve or true challenge, the game became tedious, and despite my growing adoration for the characters, I had to make a conscious effort to continue playing. If you would like to try it for yourself, Thomas Was Alone is available on Steam for PC, Mac, Vita, and PS3.