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Friday, November 9, 2012

Review - Thomas Was Alone

When I first started playing around with Unity while beginning work on Candlelight, I made the simplest level I could. It had rectangles for characters, rectangles for walls, very simple physics, and a very simple aesthetic. A few people said "You know, this could almost work as a game." And the people who made Thomas Was Alone proved them right.

I've felt this way about the world sometimes.
Thomas Was Alone is a Unity-based platformer by Mike Bithell that follows the adventures of fledgling AIs as they slowly gain awareness of themselves, their environment, and one another. You begin play as Thomas, an orange, rectangular AI, and gradually add more AI friends with different abilities to your fold, with the goal of each level to get all of your rectangles to their respective end portal. You can switch between the characters as you please, and their abilities range from simple (John's great jump distance) to more specific (Claire's ability to survive the game's toxic water) to outright detrimental (Chris's slow speed and low jump). The levels are about using the character's abilities to compensate for one another's shortcomings.

You, too, will come to find stairs difficult. Consider yourself warned.

Every element of the game has a refined simplicity: the characters are just little rectangles, but they wobble and bend when they jump; the backgrounds are unobtrusive, but pulse with little symbols and pixels like the inside of a computer program; there is no dialogue, but the story is expertly narrated and brings just the right amount of emotion and humor. The game enjoys a straightforward, no-(some)-nonsense style, but it doesn't use that as an excuse to slouch when bringing life and activity to the details.

They're a festive bunch, and assembling the team feels kind of cool. Like The Avengers only the characters are, somehow, less two-dimensional.
The characters are the stars of the game, and their story is delightful and adorable. Despite having no voices, faces, or curves, the characters are some of the best I've seen this year; the narrator explores each of their internal monologues and insecurities and aspirations, all of which extend naturally into those characters' abilities. The humor is sometimes deprecating, but not as spiteful or unrelenting as that of, say, Portal; Chris is meaner than he needs to be to Thomas, but is lonely when they are separated. Portal's humor works because GLaDOS is a sociopath, where Thomas Was Alone's humor works because the characters are all believable  and likable. The story has a couple neat turns but isn't overly complicated, and like the rest of the rest of the game it succeeds not by doing anything enormously groundbreaking but by weaving its charm and style into every aspect of the experience.

It might feel hard to write a lot of emotional significance into rectangles, but you will.
Thomas Was Alone isn't an especially long game, and the difficulty never ramps up out of control. Though the story and its ending feel complete, it's a little sad to put those characters away when you get through the last level. But at its end, the game is like a little peek into a beautiful world, and too much more might spoil the illusion. Bithell's creation is an excellent platforming experience, and remarkably fun, but in addition, it's a case study in common purpose uniting a design: every aspect of the story, the visuals, the sound, the level design, and most importantly the characters is in alignment, and all feel deliberate, targeted, and successful. This is what makes Thomas Was Alone a good game; that all of those elements, and the game they serve, happen to be so vital and enjoyable is what makes it a great game.

Website: http://www.thomaswasalone.com/
Mike Bithell's Twitter: https://twitter.com/mikeBithell

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