Thomas was Alone Leads Indies Up and to the Right

The titular character in Thomas was Alone is a medium sized block — a veritable “every square” of pixelated protagonists.  Clad in a sporty red chassis and the ability to jump a respectable distance, he begins as a newly awakened artificial intelligence, awash in the ejecta of half-baked algorithms that result in quirky platforming puzzles, but also provide Thomas and company a verisimilitude of humanity.  The question of what Thomas or his friends are never really arrives.  Indeed, the question has already been answered.  They are artificial intelligences, given life by the faulty glitches of computer terminals that have failed at their function, giving birth to something which may be artificial, but also quintessentially human.

Thomas was Alone’s creator, Mike Bithell, uses the game to examine just what it means for a game to provide rich character development and to create something that seems to at least brush up against that seemingly innocuous goal of providing ludonarrative resonance.  In many ways, the game seems seems to be a cease fire in the narrativist/ludologist debate.  A sort of hopeful amorous plea that games can bridge the gap between game’s most strident bifurcations the ways in which Portal 2 did in the past.  This is all the more exciting because this game is yet another sterling example of just what treasures can come from the independent space.

The story of Thomas was Alone revolves around Thomas only partially — in reality, it is more set around a wide cast of characters, all with unique personalities and ways of interacting with the world.  These blocks of charisma stack, bob and bounce around in an attempt to make it out of the digital world, and into the physical one.  What strikes me as so moving and inspiring about these player-controlled avatars is just how easily they could been phoned in, but instead Bithell took the time to provide them all with a perfect sense of existing in the world through individualized sound effects for each block’s movement, or the slight flexing of blocks as they leap into the air.

Through the first eight stages of the story, the player follows Thomas and his band of merry misfits, bounding through the electric boogaloo of compu-space.  During one of the levels, Thomas is sucked into the internet for twelve seconds where he learns about the world beyond the silicon synapses of their digital realm and, also, internet memes.  It is through this knowledge that he learns what he and his fellowship must do.  They must throw themselves into the creation matrix — a device that transfers all their unique characteristics into the world so that AIs may assume their powers (it’s kind of hard to explain) — and in so doing, sacrificing themselves but saving the rest of the AI locked in the computer’s code.

It is in the final two acts that the game does what good games will do: it takes everything you learned through the rest of the game, and makes you incorporate it to complete the experience.  It doesn’t introduce new elements, it just takes what you have already done, and provides a fantastic reimagining of the context and the rules.

This strikes me as a seemingly simple thing that seems to discomfit the pistol-wink slinging big-wig from game studios seemingly too large to fail.  Lost in the promise of a Hollywood ending, triple-A games have been shucking off their main gameplay mechanics for odd little points of frustration that involve you learning brand new mechanics that are uninteresting and dull. This doesn’t happen in Thomas was Alone.

Thomas was Alone is not a difficult game.  Most levels are straightforward, consisting of repeatable jumping puzzles and a deference to stair cases of various heights.  It is a game that wants you to win — to see its 100 levels of content and hear the charming story as told to you by the sterling pipes of Danny Wallace.  This does lead to instances of long series of easy puzzles where the solution is obvious, but you have to go through a five minute series of steps to complete it.  It’s in these relatively rare times that the game seems to struggle.  While interesting puzzles are very possible within the mechanics presented, there seems to be a distinct choice to keep things overtly simple.

Similarly, there are some problems regarding the sensitivity of the controls which, when paired with the handful of tricky jumps you need to perform to complete the game can lead to some frustration, but never enough to merit a rage quit.  Also, there are several places throughout the game where your avatars can get stuck or phase through the floor. These problems are indicative of an indie game that obviously didn’t get the play-testing it needed, but in the end, these are all minor annoyances that are easily dealt with through simple perseverance.

Mike Bithell’s Thomas was Alone is a model of the advent of the great personal videogames borne from crowdfunding and new, relatively easy to use development tools like Unity.  If games like Thomas was Alone, Sword & Sworcery, and Bastion are the new norm for independent game development, we could be in for a drastic re-evaluation of what games could be.  Games are slowly coming to grips with how narrative is best relayed through gameplay, and creating resonant ludonarrative experiences in the process. If this is the future of independent development, it’s clear we’re heading up and to the right.