Game Review: Thomas Was Alone

Well, not really alone, but that’s a detail.

Developer: Bithell Games
Publisher: Bithell games
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), OS X, Linux, PS 3, PS 4, PS Vita, Xbox Once, Wii U, Android, iOS
Available on: Steam

I feel like this game serves as a nice contrast to the previous game I’ve played, Dear Esther. It really highlights that you don’t need the prettiest graphics in the world to tell an emotionally engaging story.

While Esther managed to wallow in its narrative without ever drawing me into it in spite of its gorgeous scenery, Thomas was able to make me care about a bunch of colored rectangles. This is the ultimate difference between good and bad video game writing. That, and the fact that the mechanics actually support the narrative instead of being a grudgingly accepted necessity of something being considered a game.

Each of the rectangles has a very clearly defined character and their abilities and shapes reflect their characters. This is interactive storytelling done right, because you end up using these characters in ways that feel congruent with their personalities. I’d even go so far and wager that this game does better character “roleplaying” than most RPGs, since their mechanics and abilities are so tightly intertwined with who they are. It’s an intriguing game that manages to take simple mechanics used in tons of Flash games – this having been one at some point in the past as well – and make them evocative in and of themselves. And I remind you, these are mere rectangles we’re talking about, they have no faces and they never speak themselves.

This is obviously helped with the excellent narration. And I know that in recent times, narration has become a go-to element for young indie developers in an attempt to connect on a more profound way with the player. Basically every walking simulator has narration and you could probably name half a dozen games as well just off the top of your head. But this is one of those cases where the narration intensifies the storytelling experience. It’s not used merely for expository purposes, it’s an integral part of the game.

That is not to say that I consider this game perfect. I feel like it’s a bit too long for its own good, even at barely 3 hours. The mechanics are fairly simple to understand and a few of the puzzles seem like Mike Bithell (am I the only one who desperately wants his name to be pronounced bit-hell?) is stretching the content to achieve an even 10 levels per level set to present 100 levels to the player. And certain levels can get a little frustrating as well. Some start off by showing you where you need to bring each of the characters, but some don’t and as a result it can get disorienting when you’ve managed to get one character to their goal and realize that you’ll be needing its unique mechanic to advance with a different character. I would’ve loved an option to zoom out and see the entire level at once with the goals highlighted.

But I don’t want to end this critique on a negative note so I’ll say that the soundtrack deserves special mention, since it so very nicely supports the narrative of the game and the personalities of the characters. It’s a gorgeous mix of orchestrated sounds and chiptune music that serve as the icing on the cake. While the Thomas Was Alone might not be perfect, it’s still a pretty damn excellent game regardless of its very few faults.

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