There’s something to be said for simplicity. Not to start off on a rant, but a lot of “AAA” games today have a whole lot going on with them. Video games continually push the limits of what players can do in games, from multiple levels of character customizations, to intricately designed levels that force players to use every part of their brain, even going so far as to create entire worlds to explore: games today have a lot going on with them. Again, there is something to be said for simplicity. “Thomas Was Alone” is simple, still manages to be compelling, and is even beautiful at times.
At first glance, there’s not really much to “Thomas Was Alone,” just some squares that feel the need to get “up and to the right.” And really, that’s most of the game. You play as Thomas, a red rectangle, who finds “himself” trapped in an odd situation, and wants to escape. As the levels progress Thomas meets up with other quadrilaterals that each have different features and abilities (or as the game puts it, “unique relationships with gravity”) in order to support one another to make it the end each level. Overall, it’s a very basic platformer with some puzzle elements layered on top, culminating in a pleasant blend of the two genres.
While the name might be a bit deceiving, “Thomas” isn’t really the star of the game. The levels are broken up to include an entire cast of characters, and, in fact, many of the levels don’t feature Thomas at all. However, having a central character isn’t entirely necessary, since the game tells the story of the entire group. Each of the colored blocks is given a name, as well as independent thoughts, and, in most cases, emotions, that are expressed through the game’s expert voice-over. This distinctive method of storytelling yet again, reinforces the idea that just about any story told in a British accent is riveting from beginning to end.
Much like the visuals, the gameplay is very simplistic, boiling down to just a couple of buttons. Use the d-pad to move your blocks around, and the trigger buttons to switch between them. All of the blocks can jump to varying degrees, and that is, in fact, one of main tenants of the game – figuring out how to assist each block traversing the levels. As the levels progress, and it gets harder and harder for certain blocks to make it to their designated destinations, the game becomes this interesting experiment in single-player co-op, which is much easier to concept to grasp in 2D (as opposed to in 3D).
The combination of short bits of inspired story, mixed with the basic gameplay, lets the player to meaningfully split their attention. This allows for the players to both connect with their characters as you read their inner dialogs, while working to solve each level. One of the very few drawbacks of the game is that the overarching story is told in bits and pieces at the beginning of each group of levels, but each tidbit from the real world is only on the screen for a few short seconds. It’s almost as if the player is intentionally forced to read it quickly, or be left with an even more abstract story. Letting each bit linger just a little longer wouldn’t have been detrimental to the game by any means.
Another nice feature of “Thomas Was Alone” is that it has been optimized for both the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. Featured as part of the Spring Fever promotion (much like another great, recently released, indie game, “Guacamelee!“), “Thomas” offers Sony devotees Cross-Buy and Cross-Save bonuses. Both of these features are a great upsell for a game like this, offering both exposure and accessibility on multiple platforms.
Even though this isn’t an original release (it first landed on Windows and Macs last July), “Thomas Was Alone” is yet another shining example of Sony’s support of independent developers. A game like this could easily be lost in the shuffle, but instead Sony has thrown a bit of support behind it, allowing it to step into the well-deserved spotlight, even it is only for a moment. “Thomas” harkens back to the days of classic 2D platformers, and compliments its enduring gameplay style with a charming narrative that some how makes you feel connected to a group of colored blocks. “Thomas Was Alone” is a pleasant surprise from indie developer Mike Bithell, and for a game that is graphically one or two steps better than “Pong,” it offers a lot more depth than most games on the market today.