Thomas Was Alone

Review in Brief
Game: A puzzle-platformer with a handful of colorful rectangles, starring Thomas, the red one.
Good: Beautifully consistent minimalism in every facet of design; a strikingly engaging narrative.
Bad: Weak, uninteresting level design that keeps gameplay tedious; no pay-off to the narrative.
Verdict: The good narrative is worth the bad gameplay, but just barely.
Rating: 6/10
Recommendation: Worth playing as a curiosity, but not on its own merits.

“Charming in narrative, but weak in gameplay.”

The most common bit of praise I’ve read about Thomas Was Alone is that it somehow manages to make the player care more about a bunch of faceless, voiceless, featureless colored rectangles than the fully-modeled, voiced, and motion-captured protagonists of other games. That point of praise is absolutely true. The beauty of Thomas Was Alone is not just in its simplicity, but rather in how it manages to create such strong connections through such simple storytelling. Those connections are emphasized because the game pursues a remarkably consistent approach to designing every single element: the minimalism of each individual features is enhanced by the minimalism of the other features. The minimalistic story makes sense because the characters’ personalities are so simple, which makes sense because their visual depictions are as minimal as possible, which makes sense because the gameplay mechanics in which they participate are so simple, and so on.

The problem with Thomas Was Alone, however, is that while some games use minimalistic gameplay mechanics to create complex puzzles and strategies, the actual gameplay design of the game never exceeds the minimalism of the mechanics. To put that more simply, the simple mechanics never created complex or challenging puzzles. There is no challenge in the game: the proper approach for each level is immediately clear upon starting the level. This can lead to several of the levels being more tedious than anything; even knowing what to do, it can still take a few minutes to do it. As a result, you’ll want to complete the game because of the appealing narrative, but you won’t want to play it on its gameplay merits alone. That narrative, unfortunately, ends up unsatisfying as well, making Thomas Was Alone a superficially compelling, but ultimately disappointing, game.

The Game
Thomas Was Alone is a simple puzzle platformer made of 100 levels divided into ten groups. On each level, you take control of a number of colored rectangles, and your goal is to get them to their given exit portals. The different rectangles have different properties: they move at different speeds, they have different sizes, they can jump different heights, and some have special powers like the ability to float or the ability to propel other rectangles upwards. Using these properties, you must move the rectangles to their destinations. Sometimes this involves stacking them to climb over obstacles, other times it involves carrying them across on one rectangle to avoid deadly obstacles, etc.

The narrative of Thomas Was Alone is told by a separate narrator at the beginning of (and sometimes throughout) each level. The narrator gives each rectangle a name and describes their personalities, thoughts, and relationships. In addition, each of the ten groups of levels starts with some commentary from the fictitious developers behind Thomas and his friends foreshadowing the coming events.

The Good
Despite the remarkably simple graphics and narrative style, Thomas Was Alone does a remarkable job of creating an engaging set of characters and a surprisingly enthralling narrative. In many ways, the simplicity actually serves the narrative, which is a major accomplishment on its own.

Consistently Minimalistic
If there was only one word to describe Thomas Was Alone, it would be minimalistic. I use the word ‘minimalist’ to describe Shadow of the Colossus, Uncharted, and other games as well, but those are minimalistic with regard to the typical implementation of their genres. Thomas Was Alone is minimalistic when compared to the industry as a whole. It’s hard to imagine a game more minimalist than this.

Minimalism isn’t an inherent strength, but rather is an artistic choice; how the minimalism is used, then, dictates whether it was a good choice that contributes to the game’s appeal. In Thomas Was Alone, it most certainly is a strength in large part because of how consistently it is used throughout the game. Minimalism is the defining underlying mantra of every element of the game design. The character design, if you can even call them characters, is as simple as it can possibly get. The narrative behind those characters is very simple, and is told simply as well. The controls involve only three dimensions of interaction, and the goals of the levels are always given in the most straightforward way possible. The level design involves very few pieces or obstacles, typically amounting just to black boxes with occasionally a couple other features.

The reason the minimalism in Thomas Was Alone actually works is that it is applied so consistently throughout anything. A complex plot would make no sense with a set of colored rectangles as the cast, nor would a set of faces and voices fit with such a simple plot. You wouldn’t expect colored rectangles to interact in an abundance of ways, and thus the gameplay mechanics fit the characters and narrative perfectly. It is the fact that the minimalism is applied so consistently that allows any individual part of the game to work in the first place.

Beautiful Narrative
Given the minimalistic narrative, the true achievement of Thomas Was Alone is that it manages to provide a compelling narrative in the first place. I found myself getting surprisingly attached to the characters very early on based only on the little bits of narrative provided by the narrator. This is the other area where the game’s minimalism is applied beautifully: the emotions expressed within the narrative are simple, but that also makes them relatable and compelling. It is easy to identify with the characters because they represent such raw, simple human emotions.

The allegiance to those simple emotions is what allows the narrative to attain the kind of simple beauty that is lacking from many games released recently. The emotions portrayed are pure and accessible, and there is a natural desire to see such pure emotion rewarded. The romance in the game might only be portrayed by a couple tossed in lines like “He found himself falling in love with her”, “She missed him”, and the like, but because it is portrayed so simply and earnestly it becomes very easy to truly care about the characters. Jealousy, self-consciousness, loneliness, fear, joy, courage, and selflessness are all expressed so purely that although the characters are barely even one-dimensional, they become worthy protagonists.

The Bad
Thomas Was Alone has one major weakness, but it’s a doozy: the level design itself is weak. The minimalism of the gameplay is a good thing, and more complex mechanics would have felt out of place. However, the level design never dictates thoughtful or interesting applications of the underlying mechanics, meaning that for much of the game, playing is a chore incentivized by the narrative rather than enjoyed on its own merits.

Plodding Level Design
The flaw in Thomas Was Alone is that the levels on their own are not engaging at all, leaving the narrative to do all of the driving in keeping the player engaged. The narrative succeeds, fortunately, but not without occasionally making the player question whether the tedious levels are worth the pay off.

As mentioned above, the gameplay is as minimalistic as the rest of the game. You control a few different moving rectangles, each of which can jump different heights, as well as potentially provide a couple other abilities. The goal of each level is to get each rectangle to its predefined place. Usually this involves using them to help each other over steps, across bodies of water, and through other obstacles. Sometimes, only certain rectangles can hit certain switches. Overall, however, the gameplay is almost as simple as it can be: at any given time, you have only three dimensions of control (direction of your current rectangle, whether or not to jump, and whether to switch).

Simple gameplay isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s desirable. Simple mechanics allow for a very low learning curve, quick mastery of the control scheme, and quicker engagement with the underlying game content. The reason why many games are not simple, however, is because it is difficult to create complex, engaging content with only a simple control scheme. That is exactly the trouble with Thomas Was Alone: the content is never more complex than the controls.

Puzzle games – and I would consider Thomas Was Alone to be a puzzle-platformer – typically involve three stages of puzzle completion: figuring out what to do, figuring out how to do it, and then actually doing it. To take Portal as an example, the first step is to figure out what the objective of the level is, such as getting a cube onto a certain switch or getting to a certain platform. The next step is figuring out how to actually accomplish that goal. The third step is actually doing it. In my opinion, the best puzzle games are the ones where the middle phase is the most difficult, but certainly at least one of those phases ought to be challenging.

In Thomas Was Alone, however, none of those phases are challenging. Figuring out what to do is easy (as it should be) because the goal is immediately outlined for you. Figuring out how to do it, however, is almost always very easy as well. The game uses relatively few combinations of mechanics, such as climbing over rectangles to get to higher heights or using one rectangle to transport others, and as such upon starting a level it is abundantly clear what has to be done. The execution is never difficult, either, but it is often very time consuming. Some of the rectangles move very slowly or do not jump very high, meaning that to complete the level, you must methodically stack them up to get them over obstacles or across chasms. There is never a question as to whether you are doing it right, and there is rarely even a question as to whether you will succeed; it’s just a matter of putting in the time to do so. The time, however, is often far too long given how simple and plodding the task itself is.

Creating complex content from simple controls is not impossible, though. The Angry Birds franchise is barely any more complex than Thomas Was Alone, yet the levels can provide incredibly complex mechanics that dictate a multitude of strategies. World of Goo does a decent job of this as well, although it ultimately falls prey to overcomplicating itself. Simple gameplay mechanics can give rise to complex levels and challenging puzzles, but the mechanics in Thomas Was Alone never successfully do that. The result is that while the player keeps playing the game to see the next bit of narrative, find out the fate of the surprisingly interesting characters, or uncover the mysteries alluded to at the beginning of each chapter, they certainly do not keep playing just because the gameplay is fun.

Little Pay-Off
Thomas Was Alone does a remarkable job of making you root for characters portrayed with simple colored rectangles with tiny bits of narrative to fill in their characters, but the other major problem with the game is that attachment lacks any real pay-off. You find yourself rooting for the lovers to get together, for the self-conscious rectangle to find confidence, for the arrogant rectangle to learn humility, but none of that is ever really capitalized upon. The story largely fizzles out. The game alludes to some deeper truth or higher narrative that, quite honestly, flew way over my head, and perhaps the pay-off was intended to be found in that portion of the narrative. However, if it was, I totally missed it.

Even if it was, though, and even if I had realized the point of the overall narrative, I believe I would still feel that it missed the connection with the remainder of the game. Despite its characters being a collection of different-colored rectangles that never have faces, voices, or any defining features besides a name, a color, and a control scheme, Thomas Was Alone is a character-driven game. The story does not aim to connect back to the characters, yet it is the characters that are the reason to keep playing the game in the first place. The characters and narrative drive the game even when the gameplay becomes plodding and boring, and yet there is no pay-off for liking the characters. They, to a large extent, just kind of disappear.

The Verdict
Thomas Was Alone goes all-in on a consistent minimalism applied throughout every element of the game, and to a large extent it succeeds. The gameplay, story, mechanics, levels, narrative, characters, visuals, and every other component are beautifully minimalistic. In an era where video games are getting more and more complicated, it is impressive to see a game demonstrate such restraint. By constraining themselves to simple mechanics, the developers forced themselves to make every bit of narrative count, and ultimately succeeded in creating a surprisingly compelling cast of characters.

Unfortunately, however, the gameplay never rises above the simple mechanics. The levels are merely tasks to complete, not challenges to meet or puzzles to solve. With very few exceptions, the solution to every level is completely clear the moment it loads, leaving the player nothing but several minutes of tedious block-moving to get to the next narrative point. The narrative does the driving, and yet it ultimately drives into a brick wall: there is no pay-off at the conclusion of the narrative. There is no triumph or tragedy for the characters to whom we become attached. There is no reward for developing a connection to Thomas and his friends. The game just ends, with an esoteric concluding plot line that disconnects from the game’s original appeal.

My Recommendation
It’s an interesting curiosity, but aside from being remarkably different from the rest of the gaming industry, it does not have much intrinsic appeal.

3 Responses to “Thomas Was Alone”

  1. Lord Bob Bree says:

    You know, this review made me notice something: usually the adage is “show, don’t tell”, but the game seems to do a lot of telling. And yet, I’d say it works. I wonder the reason for that. The gameplay traits of the characters help with it, as their characterization and relations seem to develop from that.

  2. Sir Poopington says:

    You make some great points on the gameplay. But I disagree about the narrative pay-off. I thought the idea of the “second generation” of programs succeeding was clever. (I don’t want to use use details for spoilers purposes. Sorry.)
    The game appeals to a whimsical person who doesn’t mind an easy game & cofuses “story” for gameplay.

    Anyway, did you ever think of eliminating the score number? I know you have to usse them for Gamefaqs, but you don’t need them here. You make well worded points, but it all boils down to a “6” or “8.” I see it as picking a number that justifies your words, but your reviews are so long/detailed that a “6” doesn’t cover it.

    I could say more, but I’ve rambled too long 🙂 You have always use good research & well thought out ideas to make your points. Keep up the great work.

    • Personally, for the story, I felt like there may have been a beautiful underlying narrative, it just didn’t quite come through at the top level. It might have just gone over my head, though.

      Regarding the score, I did think about that actually, but I’m ending up going in the opposite direction: in the future, I plan to very carefully operationalize my numeric scoring mechanism so that even though it boils down to a number, that number communicates a much more significant meaning. That is, if I ever get around to doing that.

      Thanks for the comment!

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