Thomas Was Alone is the best game I’ve played this year, yet it was a game that I approached with some trepidation. After hearing that it was the subject of glowing praise from various critics, I wondered if I could extract such pleasure from what was such a simple looking experience. Now I find myself in the difficult position of trying to explain exactly why this is the best thing I’ve played all year and why it deserves however much money you can throw at it.
Thomas Was Alone is a platformer in which you play as various different shaped and sized quadrilaterals and must navigate them to the end of each level and into a portal. Aesthetically, it doesn’t get much more basic; squares and rectangles jumping onto black platforms in front of a grey background. Even the jumping sound effect is a throwback to retro platformers with its 8-bit bouncing noise that varies depending on the size of the character you’re controlling. In most levels, you’re given multiple characters to control, each with unique attributes that are required to get to the end, even if it does just mean using each other as stepping stones for the characters who find jumping to be a challenge. Then there are more complex characters, such as Claire, who is by far the biggest and can hardly jump at all, but can be used as a raft to transport other characters across water, which is lethal to everyone else. Then there’s Laura who’s arguably an even worse jumper than Claire, but her ability is that she acts as a springboard for anyone who jumps onto her.
Claire? Laura? Why give names to shapes? I’ve not gone completely mental and given each shape a name in an effort to characterise the game and form some sort of emotional bond between us, because Thomas Was Alone has done that all for me. I’ve referred to each shape as a character because that’s what they are; characters with individual personalities and stories to tell and the fact that Mike Bithell’s managed to convey this is Thomas Was Alone’s greatest achievement.
How do you go about feeling emotional attachment to a coloured quadrilateral? Much of it is down to the narration from Danny Wallace, who provides you with details on each character as they emerge. You start with Thomas, enthusiastically exploring each part of the initial levels and noting observations on everything he finds. Thomas is alone until the introduction of Chris, dumpy little obnoxious and bitter Chris. He quickly takes a dislike to Thomas and his observations, as well as developing envy for his superior agility. Then there’s John, taller and faster than either Thomas or Chris. So agile! So eager to impress! Each character is so impressively unique and fleshed out thanks to Wallace, so much so that each one has as many characteristics as you’d expect from a humanoid player character despite remaining so physically bland.
Caring about shapes is difficult, but Thomas Was Alone carries so much charm with it that it becomes easy. This isn’t entirely down to Wallace’s narration, however, as a special mention must go to David Housden for composing an excellent soundtrack to this adventure. At times it keeps itself in line with the retro aesthetic and the 8-bit sound effects, while the rest of the time complementing Wallace’s voice wonderfully during times of isolation, hope, fear and euphoria.
Thomas Was Alone will rarely challenge you. While there are 100 levels, there are also a lot of new characters to use as you progress. Bithell is generous when it comes to this, giving you at least a couple of simple tutorial levels with each new character before letting you out into the wild. Even at this point, Thomas Was Alone is not difficult, with most puzzles being fairly short and not requiring any twitch reactions to solve. While this might normally be a minor negative point, I see it as a positive. Short, easy levels meant the narrative had a greater flow to it. There were very few long gaps between clips of narration, which allowed me greater exposure to the characters, their thoughts and my subsequent bond with them – the best things about Bithell’s creation – rather than frustrating myself by spending half an hour figuring out how to finish one level.
To explain in any greater detail the sort of journey that your emotions go through while playing Thomas Was Alone would be to spoil your own potential experience with it. There are so many delightful little surprises that occur in the way that the characters interact with each other, the things that happen to them and the story’s climax. All of these should be left for you to see and feel for yourself. If Thomas Was Alone makes an appearance in the Steam Greenlight crowd, I will lobby for it to be pushed onto Steam as fast as possible. In the meantime though, buy Thomas Was Alone or you’ll be cheating yourself of playing one of the great indie games of the last few years.