Thomas Was Alone is not one of these many-genred games. It doesn’t aim to do a multitude of things, because actually, it knows that doing one thing well can be as good as being a jack-of-all-trades. Thomas Was Alone is a very simplistic platforming puzzler. It mixes a minimalistic design with a simple-yet-effective twist on the puzzle element to create an intriguing game that sees the time fly by.
Thomas, an artificial intelligence (A.I.) computer program, starts the game by spontaneously becoming self-aware. It’s a startling entry into the world, and one which the player must adapt to quickly, as it soon becomes hostile. Poisonous, gaseous water and deadly spikes threaten Thomas’ short existence, and he must leap and run to the exit portal to move forward. Having just entered into existence though, both Thomas and the player have no idea whether or not moving forward is the right thing to do. It is, on the other hand, the only thing to do.
Although Thomas, the main character, starts off alone, he quickly builds up a seven-strong crew as he explores the world. This group of colourful, quadrilateral A.I. programs each has its own ability, across a range of jumping abilities and including buoyancy and stretching. Each level hosts a different group of these shapes, which must combine their abilities to escape. Of course, with some characters being able to jump higher than others, and others being able to fit through small gaps, difficulties begin to arise for Thomas and friends. They must learn to work together, no matter how begrudging they are (we’re looking at you, Chris), to attempt to escape their apparent prison.
The actual gameplay, although touted as a puzzle game, is actually not particularly taxing. The most challenging part is probably the platforming aspect of the adventure. Most levels feature jumps over water, helping characters up stairs and avoiding spikes, and once these have been done a few times, increasing the number of characters only makes this easier. In fact, the only real challenge of the game is the lag on the jump. Pressing the spacebar takes a second to register in the game, and results too often in the death of a character, forcing them to respawn at the nearest checkpoint if you’re lucky, if not the beginning of the level.
The sound of the game is one of the standout features. The narration by Danny Wallace (writer of Assassin’s Creed III) fits the atmosphere of the game; dark and slow, and filled with the hint of danger. The music, composed by David Housden, was nominated for a BAFTA with its ethereal mix of minimal piano and synth playing into the game’s atmosphere.
Along the story, although Thomas builds up his group of friends, the end game features a whole new host of quadrilateral friends on their own adventure. In a way, it defeats the whole of the game’s story. After the original group escape, the player doesn’t have a chance to find out what happens to them, and that just doesn’t sit well. This sudden change from a group of characters which the player has bonded with over the course of the entire game is jarring, and many are not keen on the jump.
Mike Bithell, developer of Thomas Was Alone, may have tried to keep it simple with a minimalist design and simple to grasp gameplay, but in a way, the game is too simple. There’s no real challenge to the levels; the most difficult challenge (jumping) is one not purposefully built into the game. Without the narration and intriguing storyline, Thomas Was Alone probably would have been gobbled up by the Pixel Cloud and sentence to an eternity at the back of the internet.
And that’s what makes this game puzzling; an apparent puzzler with no real challenge; a game so focused on story has no real characters, yet it’s very easy to bond with its band of faceless cubes. Mike Bithell may have made the actual game too simple, but with that, it’s interesting to find out why it’s so well loved by the internet.