When I looked at the new releases for this week, my heart leapt a bit, like at the sight of an old friend.
You know how there are some people who are instantly magnetic? They seem to have an aura of personality around them that draws people in. Thomas Was Alone, created by Mike Bithell, is a game about personalities; the ways they clash, and the ways they co-operate. And indeed, this is a game with tremendous personality and magnetism of its own, a fact belied by the game's remarkably simple presentation.
The tagline is: "A game about friendship, and jumping;" a rare example honesty in advertising. Most of the game is spent jumping from platform to platform in a manner familiar to anyone who's ever tried on Mario's goomba-stomping shoes. However, the similarities to the classic 2d platformer might as well end there. There are no enemies in Thomas, save an amorphous blob of black pixels that occasionally hovers around the edge of levels like a specter of death (or a finger over a "delete" key). There are no extra lives; the game doesn't punish you for failure but instead gently guides you to successful outcomes. Your characters have no voices, but are often inhabited by the narrator (Danny Wallace, in a deservedly BAFTA-winning performance), who guides you through the emotional journeys of your various colored blocks.
While the gorgeously minimalist presentation and fantastic soundtrack by David Housden instantly attracted me to this game, they are not the reasons you should buy it. The reasons you should buy it are named Chris, Laura, John, Claire and Thomas (among others).
Once again, back to Mario for comparison, but this time I'd like to bring up Super Mario Bros. 2 (formerly Doki Doki Panic). In addition to being the only Mario game to offer multiple character choices beyond the typical brothers paradigm, Mario 2 was also revolutionary in creating unique gameplay for each character. Luigi's running-in-the-air jump; Peach's floating descent; these were ways to differentiate these characters beyond simple re-skinning of the same mechanics. When we play it, we're not simply choosing a character we like the most; we're choosing a gameplay style that suits us as well.
Thomas Was Alone takes this idea to an interesting place. All we know about Thomas, or any of his friends, is a) their physical dimensions and color, and b) how they jump. What's remarkable is how this information is actually used in the game's narrative. Thomas is a reddish rectangle, slightly taller than he is wide, and with a jump that can clear most obstacles. Bithell took this information and built character upon the foundation. Thomas is gung-ho. He can jump many things. When the game starts, he's never met a challenge he couldn't jump over. There's a cheeky optimism to his character, which makes his plaintive realization of the game's premise both humorous ("Thomas was alone. Wow. What a strange first thought to have") and poignant.
As characters get added, more complex dynamics come into play, both in gameplay and in characterization. Chris, a small orange square, is a cynic, constantly bemoaning his own tiny jump and comparing it to Thomas'. John, meanwhile, is a towering yellow rectangle whose massive leaps can clear huge gaps, and who seems to care little for the problems of the smaller shapes, valuing higher his own freedom and ability to leap unhindered. Claire is a massive rectangle, slow and useless at jumping, but with the unique ability among the shapes to float across water. Claire suspects she might be a superhero, and her characterization reflects on the discrepancy between her external traits and her internal strength.
While there's no question in the player's mind what must be done (the shapes must work in concert to reach the end of the level), the true heart of the game is in the way these characters come to this conclusion themselves, guided by your hands. The narrative evolves in some genuinely surprising ways. Occasionally journal entries pop up, which both help to explain the world these characters inhabit, and suggest a larger world peeking in at the edges (much like Aperture did in the original Portal).
Truly this is a fantastic game, managing to be completely unique yet full of instantly familiar elements. Each character's jump is a finely honed mechanic that serves to both accomplish the game's objectives and build its characters. The simplistic visual style is still gorgeously rendered, and the IDM-infused soundtrack gives it a fantastic atmosphere. Worth noting is that the game is about a typical length for an indie (around 4-5 hours). While I have no complaints about a game this short, I understand that others might. Additionally, the new vita / ps3 version (which I will be purchasing shortly) has new levels and a new character. I'd be happy to update this review with my thoughts on them. I played Thomas Was Alone on my PC with a gamepad.
Should you play this game?