Thomas Was Alone
Developer: Mike Bithell Release Date: November 12, 2012
Publisher: Mike Bithell ESRB Rating: NR
Platforms: PC MSRP: US$9.99

In a game where you play as more than one character, there is always one person in the party that is deemed useless. What makes a character so can range from a poorly thought out design to bad stats, or just even not having anything special. Indie developer Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone turns that idea on its head. Each character eventually serves a purpose, no matter how many (or few) times that you may end up relying on them and their special talents. The idea is to use those special talents – everything from jumping to swimming to even being a stepstool – to reach the portal at the other side of the room, and help the little bits of code learn about themselves.

It’s an absolutely charming game whose story and characters will definitely leave a mark on players. Thomas is a bit of code in a giant system that just recently came to sentience. In an attempt to figure out what he is, he begins to record all his actions. Just as he starts to feel lonely in the great, big world, other bits of come to join him. Together they learn about the world, each other, and themselves, while an ominous presence hangs around them and threatens the party and the other bits of code in this simulacrum of a world.  As silly as it sounds, it’s easy to get attached to these characters, despite them being just blocks. The plot fuses them together and separates them, forces them to act on their own and work with others. The idea of charity is played around with in the plot as the characters compare and contrast each others abilities. They observe how they help or hurt each other, or if it’s even worth it to help when their abilities enable them to get to the end of the puzzle by themselves, or are taken advantage of by others.

Screen shot 2013-01-26 at 4.34.56 PM
Chris muses upon Thomas.

Each character has a special ability that helps them reach their end goal or assist the other characters. While some abilities may not be instantly apparent and even may take some maneuvering to discover, others are easily recognizable. There aren’t any rule-breaking mechanics or fancy tricks that most indie games pull out, but the game manages to get you to use each of the characters to reach the end goal. There are some characters that could clear the levels by themselves, without even trying, while others need to be assisted every step of the way, but even the most mundane tricks become useful. The only downside to having so many characters and so many abilities is that the more intricate puzzles will take some finagling to figure out, especially if you mess up and need to put everything back the way it was to try again. Fortunately, unlimited lives gives you as many tries as you need to get it right, with checkpoints set up in opportune places. There aren’t really many severe obstacles to make the puzzles feel too threatening or scary, which is great for a thinking or for a noncommittal player, but anyone looking for risk will feel alienated.

Without spoiling anything, the game’s minimalist style sets the scene for the game perfectly. Everything that needs to be in the plot or in the puzzle is already there. There really isn’t a lot to look at, but all that you really need to pay attention to are the characters and the voiceover, and both are designed to stand out against the dark background. Needless to say, this game will not mess up your graphics card or slow your computer down, and even has the politeness to ask you what your specifications are (ranging from “Normal” to “Fantastic”) before you start the game. The atmosphere carries into the music, too. David Housden composed an airy electro-piano sort of sound, and it’s completely awesome. Some songs on the soundtrack sound like they were made for thinking through puzzles, and other songs sound like they were made for the more reflective parts of the game. Nothing overlaps, so you feel exactly what you’re supposed to feel at certain parts of the game. All of this is topped with Danny Wallace’s (Assassin’s Creed‘s Shaun) narration, who manages to play up to twelve different characters personalities, switching from charming and questioning to shy and passive aggressive in a matter of moments.

Claire employs some optimism on the situation.

Despite not being largely concentrated on breaking barriers when it comes to mechanics or design, Thomas Was Alone is wonderful at telling a story. It sounds silly in context, but developing a connection to these characters isn’t hard. The puzzles aren’t wildly intense, which makes it easy for the story to progress (which is good, because there really aren’t a lot of puzzle mechanics for the game to operate on). The music is eclectic without being protruding, making itself enjoyable without distracting you from the puzzle experience.  The puzzles themselves make you use characters you wouldn’t even really use otherwise, and works this into the plot. The only thing that impedes on this game would be the short play time that you get and the lack of replayability, but not even that can interrupt the impact that Thomas and its characters leave.

Story: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Graphics: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Gameplay: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Audio: ★★★★★★★★½☆
Balance/Difficulty: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Intangibles: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Overall: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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