Thursday 17 January 2013

Thomas Was Alone

The Title Screen

Thomas Was Alone is an puzzle platformer developed by Mike Bithell. An indie title that was released for PC/Mac in 2012, and featuring a singleplayer campaign only.

The First Thing
The game is incredibly charming. It's hard to describe how but it projects warmth and friendliness, even with its minimalist focus. It sounds a little corny to say, but the music, menu and opening levels endeared the game strongly to me straight away.

Plot & Devices
This is a delicate situation. Thomas Was Alone has a story, but I do not want to spoil any of it as the raison d'être is about coming to terms with 'awareness'; for the characters and the situation. It is not a particularly lengthy story, so I have to be careful not to ruin any of it. There are some moments I would not wish to spoil for anyone, so I have taken care not to in the writing and removed any text from screenshots.

Thomas was alone

The story of Thomas Was Alone is not really about the events that transpire, which are quite fantastical. Character development and the subject of friendship is the real 'story'. Since the characters are essentially just different coloured rectangles, successfully personifying them is a real accomplishment. The characters do not 'speak', and inter-character conversations and thoughts are described by a narrator at the start of each level. The different puzzle-related abilities of each rectangle is worked into their personality, i.e. the block that can jump the highest is also a bit of a 'show-off'.

The Game
The general gameplay premise is quite simple: navigate all rectangles through each level to their portal (outline of their shape). Once all rectangles are at their respective portals, the level will end and the blocks are transported to the next level. The challenge comes in navigating each level with the characters provided. Different rectangles have different attributes that must be combined to advance. For example, rectangles that can not jump high will frequently have to jump on taller rectangles in order to proceed.

The levels increase in complexity and difficulty, requiring the use of teamwork to get all characters to the end. There are hazards that must be avoided like spikes and water, and touching these will normally return that character to the start or the latest restart point. Occasionally a 'death' will result in a complete level restart, but this is infrequent. Buttons of various types appear that have an effect on the level layout in some way. Any new concept is usually clearly shown within the art style. For example, if a button is the colour of one of the rectangles, it evidently can only be pushed by that character.

Blocks and their portals
It follows standard puzzle game progression, which is to slowly teach individual concepts, then use them combined, and then at the end use them in interesting ways (like swapping abilities between neutral blocks). I found that whilst the levels generally have a specific path in mind, quite a few can be approached differently - which prevents the frustration that accompanies some puzzle games of "how did the developer mean for me to do this". The downside is that puzzles are never too complex and are often more about platforming ability, than any 'puzzle' solving. The game is split into ten chapters, with each chapter having around ten or so puzzles.

As a PC exclusive, I found no issues of controlling or porting errors. I had a solid 60 fps the entire time and no bugs. As with all platformers, I played with a gamepad and can say the characters handle excellently using it. The graphical fidelity is not intensive, but the art style is very clear and striking; which is useful in puzzles and characterisation. It is obvious that a lot of thought has been placed into the visuals of this title; minimal, yet friendly and warm.

The soundtrack is simply amazing. Every chapter has a different variation on the theme, which is repeated throughout each level. Composed by David Housden and can be purchased at this website. It perfectly sums up the game: simple, slightly retro and inexplicably moving. I hesitate to use the word beautiful, but it is quite possibly appropriate here (official YouTube Video). The narration is also outstanding in writing and delivery, and gives the coloured blocks great life and personality.

There is much platforming to be done

Wrap Up & Negatives
This game sets out to achieve what it means to, and there are no real negatives. Some people will say it is too short as it only took me about three hours to complete, but that is represented in the price. Length has never been a reliable indicator of quality (Portal, one of the most highly rated puzzle games ever, was about that long).

A couple of levels have a few unforgiving restarts that may cause a little frustration. Also, it can be a little annoying to scroll through all the characters when you have so many. But I think that was more of a 'me' issue than a design one.

Well, this game took me completely by surprise. I would say that the characters are the true focus of the game, over puzzles and actual gameplay. I found myself continuing on simply to hear more about them, rather than to enjoy the actual puzzles. It is never particularly challenging compared to some puzzle games, but it has a very smooth difficulty curve. It teaches concepts well, and block abilities are reinforced by their personalities so it is easy to remember what block does what.

This will sound a bit strange, but this game really made me happy. The game is so charming at times that sometimes you can't help but smile. The soundtrack, narration and art style turn what is a mechanically straightforward puzzle platformer, into an amazing game. The puzzles are satisfying, even if a little simple.

This is a written review and screenshots do not do it justice. Basically: Thomas Was Alone is a game to play. Every now and then, something different comes along and epitomises why Video Games are worthwhile. I shall definitely be keeping an eye out for future games from Mr Bithell.

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