Thomas Was Alone
‘Out with old and in with the new’ is obviously not an adage to which game creator Mike Blithell and composer David Housden – developers of abstract PC platformer, Thomas Was Alone – pay much heed. Their game, a labour of love that started life as a Flash prototype knocked up by the former, veritably embraces the old, relishing in minimalist Atari 2600 inspired visuals and near-lack of anything that you could call ‘character animation’. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that many of the game’s assets were placeholders awaiting a time when they would be replaced with the googly-eyed sprites that are so synonymous with the platforming genre. Playing the game in its fully realised form, however, it is hard not to be impressed with how Thomas Was Alone straddles a golden era from videogames’ past and modern game design concepts (most notably in the use of ever-present narration).Through this – and some fiendish spatial puzzling – it explores the relationship between gameplay, narrative and character to create an experience that is both loving homage to the past and celebration of the present.
At its core, Thomas Was Alone is forged on duality, something that is made clear at the game’s opening and that runs throughout its reasonably lengthy play time. On the one hand you have the game proper – a beguiling platforming affair that introduces and quickly discards concepts in a way reminiscent of Mario at his best. On the other is the narration (here provided by Yes Man/Assassin’s Creed Cameo star Danny Wallace) which runs in parallel to, yet remains curiously detached from the onscreen action. The story and details that Mr Wallace conveys often bear very little relation to what is actually happening on screen, and yet the charming and humorous script manages to imbue Thomas Was Alone’s world with a surprising degree of depth, fleshing out and bringing life to a cast of characters that are little more than coloured rectangles.
Of these rectangles, it is obviously Thomas who is the star of the show; a plucky red oblong with an ability to jump, slide and…er….did we mention that he can jump? Thomas is, in essence, the ‘Platform Hero’ reduced to base elements – a physical on-screen presence, an ability to move and an ability to jump. Rather than feeling under-developed, taking control of Thomas and escorting him through his blocky yet beautifully lit and curiously sinister world makes you realise just how extraneous embellishments such as animated limbs actually are.
As Thomas’ adventure unfolds, it becomes apparent that he is not alone. In fact, his world is teeming with quirky little quadrilaterals, each with their own personalities, kinks, hopes dreams, idiosyncrasies and, in terms of gameplay, unique abilities. There’s Claire the large blue square who dreams of being a superhero and who can float on water. Chris, the small orange square who makes up for his lack of jumping prowess with an ability to squeeze through small gaps. That he has a massive chip on his shoulder (not that he has any shoulders) makes him strangely endearing.
This rag-tag bunch of rectangles actually have none of these personality traits of course; they’re merely coloured shapes, lacking the ability to express any emotions beyond their move-sets. And yet, when Danny Wallace tells you that Chris is in love or that John (the lofty oblong) wants to show off his exceptional skills, you believe it, utterly and without question and over time it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with the whole affair and to find yourself genuinely concerned about the welfare of your blocky little charges. This emotional connection is heightened even further by a soundtrack (composed by David Housden) that matches the visuals beautifully, blending of 8-bit bleeps and squelches with rousing orchestration that underlines and emphasises the themes of melancholy, suspense, intrigue and adventure.
The relationships between the characters goes beyond the musings of the narrator of course, with the game constantly demanding that you make use of the unique abilities and proportions possessed by each, with teamwork being essential to progress. Levels require you to stack the blocks in numerous ways, ferry colleagues over dangerous obstacles, trampoline them to new heights and much more besides. A particularly neat trick is introduced in the latter stage of the game with the arrival of James, Thomas’ green doppelganger with his own unique gravitational rules. We won’t detail how the puzzles here work, but we will say that the words ‘I don’t think we’ve done that before…’ sprang to mind.
Playing Thomas Was Alone brought to mind a lyric from the song ‘Darky’ by Californian Nu-metallers (hed)PE; in which singer Jared Gomes growls ‘One foot on the moon, one foot in the cave’ – a sentiment that perfectly encapsulated the duality of the experience on show here; Thomas Was Alone embraces the new while keeping one foot firmly rooted in the past. The fruit of Blithell and Housden’s labours wrings new experiences out of the archaic and achieves an impressive degree of originality, which is no mean feat for a collection of primary-coloured quadrilaterals bouncing around a load of blockily rendered platforms. Though some may find it dragging slightly towards the end, an intriguing subtext conveyed through seemingly unrelated inter-level exposition keeps pulling you towards Thomas Was Alone’s conclusion which, when it finally arrives, will likely see you commencing a second play-through, if only to spend a little more time with Thomas and his eccentric collection of mates.
D+PAD reviewed Thomas Was Alone on the PC.
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