I’m twenty-six. There have been rumors and speculation, but rest assured—I was not born holding a video game controller in my hands. I have, however, grown up with the medium. I’ve seen it evolve (rapidly), because my generation of goofballs was fortunate enough to spawn right around the pinnacle of game-related technology; things went from black and white to “Holy crap, games can do THAT?” in just a few decades. I’ve come into contact with hundreds of different games, from developers and publishers big and small. I’ve played indie games that take themselves too seriously, and games from multi-gazillion-dollar publishers that don’t take themselves seriously enough. But, so far, each and every game I’ve played whose back-of-the-box quote involves “an engaging plot”—offers some degree of humanity. Various characters (whether man or beast) all relate because they make the player feel all warm and fuzzy about friendship, love and struggling against the tide. This is how it is…man, beast, creature, toy plush with magical properties, something…plus struggle.
I’d never have guessed I’d be so impacted by a little red rectangle puttering along from portal to portal. But…that’s why I’m bothering to write all this. Thomas Was Alone isn’t just another minimalist, overrated indie developer experience. It’s…taking everything I’ve learned about what games created around 2013 should be and…bringing it back to square one.
NightSky comes to mind immediately. It evokes a similar premise, after all—minimalist experience with a heavy focus on advanced platforming and puzzle-solving due to an extremely concentrated gameplay formula. If you’ve ever played the widely available gem, I believe you have some idea of what to expect from Thomas Was Alone. Very rarely do I choose to compare two games side by side in my review, even if it is through a thin allusion that lasts maybe a sentence or two…but just watching the trailer for Thomas Was Alone, before I even made the purchase, was making me all nostalgic for NightSky. Despite a similar premise, though, Thomas Was Alone is executed quite differently.
You begin the game as a red rectangle-thing named Thomas, and you find your way to a portal that leads to the next stage by simply toggling your directional-pad or analog stick left or right, perhaps jumping when necessary. The level design starts out really basic, but seems to evolve, as if to stay one step ahead of Thomas/you, the player. If you just controlled Thomas across many puzzles that evolved and showed ingenuity as you progressed, I would simply sum this up by saying “It’s a different take on NightSky, ladies and gentlemen” and letting it go. But…Thomas Was Alone…and then he wasn’t.
The way the gameplay truly shines is by allowing you to control Thomas and (at least) six other quadrilaterals on a merry adventure all at once, as each shape attempts to reach multiple portals in order to progress. There are weighty squares that can float in otherwise hostile spots, shapes that can defy physics, a friend that you can bounce from, and…so much more than I could have possibly expected. The gameplay starts out simple, but by the end, it’s a truly evolved experience. Thomas Was Alone doesn’t involve some sort of learning curve, or a point of no return somewhere in the middle where “stuff gets real” and things become insanely difficult “because they can.” It’s a gameplay experience that evolves as Thomas and friends learn more about the world….or is it the world learning more about them?
Here’s a game that reminds folks young and old that you don’t need millions of dollars, or even a plucky guy or gal holding a large sword, in order to tell a story (or even show humanity). Turns out all you need to tell a good story is a handful of shapes. Right, and a quirky narrator with an English accent—can’t forget him (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=Jc0C8H1YgUM). Still, as I played through each level and heard the omniscient narrator tell me what these little squares were up to, what they were thinking and feeling, and all the humorous asides that go with—I realized I was becoming attached. I found myself rooting for Thomas and friends, missing various characters in levels where they weren’t featured, pondering and philosophizing why certain characters felt they weren’t needed (or perhaps a little too needed). There are even a few twists (and what’s more, the change in plot affects gameplay)! The bottom line of it all is…these seven shapes had comradeship. There was little conflict in Thomas Was Alone, no enemies, no bosses, because I think the whole point is…each of these shapes did not want to be alone. This is a truly remarkable tale—much more than I bargained for, and definitely much more than initially meets the eye.
And don’t worry—the presentation is strong, too. Visuals are…what they are. I can’t exactly expand upon what you’re seeing in these screens, because that’s really all there is. There is a point to minimalism, though. I can forgive a game that chooses to shed itself of “visually-stunning scenery” if the premise is well-executed. The soundtrack doesn’t boast “billion-dollar quality” either—it’s simply there to accompany you throughout your journey. I hope you’re beginning to see the point as to why my words were so front-loaded in the beginning, and why drawing the comparisons I did proved ultimately necessary. There’s not a lot to Thomas Was Alone. It’s even over in a few short hours.
But I’ll be damned if everything that Thomas Was Alone is missing doesn’t make it a better game as a result. There are games that flex monetary muscles in order to show the world how far gaming has come since the advent of “high definition.” There are games that flex nostalgia muscles in order to beat you senseless with the fact that you were a kid once, and this is how things used to be—isn’t it so great? Thomas Was Alone isn’t making any explicit statements at all. It’s just a bunch of shapes trying to find portals and a purpose in a world that seems to be struggling against them.
There are no grand statements to be made. But for five dollars or less, I had an epiphany while playing Thomas Was Alone. And I think I found a little of myself…in a bunch of four-sided shapes with more substance than some of the million-dollar characters we’ve all seen in the past console generation.
Review copy purchased by author.