How do you get somebody to care about a group of brightly coloured quadrilaterals?
That's the question Thomas Was Alone poses. On first glance, it would be easy to pass this off as one of the many, many faux-artistic puzzle platformers that followed the incredible success of Braid. But give it some time, and you'll be treated to a clever and heartwarming experience.
It's difficult to do this game justice just through words and screenshots alone. Without experiencing this for yourself, be it through playing the game or watching a video, it's tricky to explain its charm. But I'll do my utmost to convince you why this is a little gem. You start off the game as Thomas, a little red rectangle who can jump pretty well. As you progress through your journey you meet different coloured squares and rectangles who join you on your quest for... well, nothing really! But they're there, and they each have different properties. Christopher, the short stumpy orange block can't jump very high. Claire, the big blue square, can float in water, allowing her to ferry passengers over deadly pools. The game gives you different combinations of these characters and challenges you to solve its puzzles. They aren't particularly taxing, but they're fun enough to drive you onwards. This isn't a game where you're expected to be sitting staring at the screen, totally stumped as how to progress, but one where you're gently pushed forwards. It's more a platformer than anything, requiring you to make some tricky jumps. There's frequent checkpoints, so frustration never sets in. This isn't that sort of game.
Visually, it's a typical indie title - minimalist graphics. But that all adds to the charm, and here we get into the meat of Thomas Was Alone. You may have noticed I referred to the blocks by names, and with genders. The reason for this is Thomas Was Alone's brilliantly quirky story. Through an almost children's storybook style of narration, Danny Wallace (perhaps most famous for being That English One in the Assassin's Creed series) tells a tale of how each of these blocks come to meet one another, and he gives them personality. Thomas is alone in the world and looking for a friend; Christopher is grumpy but slowly opens up to his comrades; Claire has body issues but grows to accept her usefulness when ferrying her pals over water obstacles. What could have been a game where you're given differently shaped blocks with different properties and are told to complete level after level becomes a lovely quest full of character. It's witty as well - Danny Wallace is no stranger to comedy, and he adds humour where needed without ever stepping over the line into parody.
The score adds a lot as well, coupling with Danny Wallace's storybook-like narration to create an ethereal dreamlike air as you play through. The end effect is immersion, and that's integral to getting you to care about some squares and rectangles. Some AAA games studios struggle to make you care about their characters even with ten-minute long cutscenes and the best voice actors money can buy. Here, with the narration of one English man and a story which essentially boils down to "some blocks meet, what happens next?", you grow attached to these shapes. It's ridiculous, but true.
It's a shame the puzzling wasn't just that little bit more complex in the later stages, as the difficulty does remain at a fairly low level throughout. Whilst that does lend itself well to the quaint storyline, it does mean that Thomas Was Alone is an all-too fleeting experience. Savour it while you can, as it is a short game as most indie titles are
Final Verdict: A great experiment in storytelling that is ultimately successful - Thomas Was Alone makes you care about coloured blocks. That's an achievment unto itself. Couple that with some decent puzzling and platforming action and you have the end results of a great indie title that's well worth the few quid you can pick it up for.
By James Moyles