My grandfather was a gentleman of the Old World. In a modern era that had moved on, he never let go of his chivalry or his sense of fashion and style. Any time he wore a suit, it would have a flower in the breast pocket. If you came to his home, you couldn't leave until you'd had a meal and a drink. He had a firm handshake for every man he met, and kissed the hand of every lady. For as long as I could remember his hair was white. He was a serious man, a hard worker, and he had lived through horrid conditions in Soviet prison camps during the war. But when he made a joke that my grandmother wouldn't like, he would get a devilish smile and clandestinely share a wink with me.
In his early 90's, before his health started to fade, he would still flirt with the women he'd meet. But not how we think of men making a pass at a woman these days. He favoured subtle, gracious compliments that would make a woman smile and blush. It was the kiss on the hand that did it. You never see that any more, or if you do it's disingenuous and sleazy. With him it was always earnest and that came across quite clearly. I think that's why after playing through Thomas Was Alone, I thought so much about my grandfather.
This game shared that earnestness and magnetism. There was no hidden agenda in what it set out to accomplish. It was always its true self and exuded charm on every level, and just like when my grandfather would share a secret wink with me, it was hard not to smile back.
Thomas Was Alone, developed by Mike Bithell, is the tale of anthropomorphic blocks, individual artificial intelligences, which slowly become aware of their surroundings. They must work together to explore their world and discover a sense of purpose. They exist in two dimensional space, have the ability to jump, and are, more often than not, ‘moving up and to the right’. This recurring theme, touched on throughout the story, seems to ask us whether fate is an actuality, or if we can wrest control of our actions from the unseen Architect of our lives.
All of the blocks have their own properties: some jump higher than others, some can float in water, and they come in a variety of sizes, but they are all imbued with personality through the expert narration of humourist Danny Wallace. The core mechanics of Thomas Was Alone are incredibly simple, but it shows how powerful story and narration can be as a tool. I eventually found myself not referring to the blocks by their colours or properties, but by their names. Personifying the blocks with their own temperaments and emotions, I almost felt a sense of cooperation, as if playing as part of a team, when solving puzzles.
Amazingly, narrative alone achieved this, cleverly teaching the rules of the world while introducing new characters, each with a different personality and new mechanics to progress the story. The voicework is consistently witty, funny, and heartfelt, and is a testament to the phenomenal writing and performances which are at the heart of this game.
The puzzles in Thomas Was Alone are intelligent in their progression and build on what is previously learned. And then, just when I thought I had everything figured out, the game turned around and played upon my own preconceptions. These later sections challenge what is expected of a platforming game. That, and the recurring theme of fate, sets this game apart from similar titles.
Thomas Was Alone has a simple art style, smartly blended with the powerfully moving soundtrack composed by David Housden. At every point, the score perfectly matched the tone of the story. When the mood needed to be somber, the music conveyed it, but it could also be playful, or powerful. Near the conclusion, it was the music which most contributed to my sense of adventure as I banded my team of anthropomorphic blocks together, like the heroes at the climax of a movie who unite to overcome all.
In Thomas Was Alone, story and narration are everything, which shows how simple elements can dramatically change our perceptions. It was so powerful I empathized with inanimate objects. The moment I caught myself referring to these blocks by name, I laughed out loud and realized they were no longer blocks, but characters, and I became invested in their journey of self discovery. What was really happening though, was that I was becoming more aware of my own journey.
Mike Bithell described Thomas Was Alone as “....a game about jumping and friendship.” For myself, it was so much more. It was a story about what it means to be human and the journey through life that we all navigate. There is no unseen force moving us “up and to the right”. How we live our lives moment to moment dictates our eventual outcome. That was something my grandfather never forgot, and his sincerity and passion for life are something I aspire to. It was hard for him to convey these lessons to me with words. It was his actions that would resonate with me as I’ve grown into the person I’ve become. Surprisingly, it was these lessons of sincerity and living moment to moment that I found encapsulated in this game, and for that, I’ll forever cherish my time with it.
So, if you’re a fan of puzzles, humourous storytelling, and, yes, jumping, you should definitely take this game off the shelf.
Time on the Shelf - 1 Year and 10 Months. Played on PC for approximately 5 hours. Screenshots