Platform | Release Date
PC | June 30, 2012
Developed by Mike Bithell
Published by Mike Bithell
A game about friendship and jumping. Guide multiple characters through 100 puzzling levels. Narrated by Danny Wallace, and featuring an epic procedural orchestral chiptune score!
It’s getting easier to pin the tail on the indie game donkey. Between Kickstarter and hugely successful pay-what-you-want bundle schemes, the indie game scene has arguably never been busier or more profitable. I’m used to the days when people still used the term shareware; a time when providing free downloads was the only way to get your project out there. Having lived through that, having put games out myself (albeit, not necessarily ones worthy of much attention), I’m happy that indie developers can make some cash these days.
That doesn’t make it any cheaper to make the game in the first place though. Sometimes indie developers can’t quite do it all themselves. The indie dev probably has a strong idea of how the game plays, but it’ll cost him a fair bit to make it look the way he wants if nasty programmer art is the best he can do with Adobe Illustrator. Either poor indie dev finds some cash, or he keeps things simple.
Thomas Was Alone does the latter, and tries to make the most of it. With stark black levels, it tells the story of a bunch of brightly colored, artificially intelligent cubes and rectangles. In a scenario not dissimilar to Portal, the shapes are left to muddle their way through tests, or scenarios as they are called here, on a journey of self-discovery.
With the simplest animations, it’s impressive how quickly you become attached to the various characters. Narration by cheeky British television personality Danny Wallace gives each of the shapes their own distinct personalities. They exhibit various neurosis or confidences. This sometimes causes conflict or conjures up friendship, but it always makes you think about your own relationships.
Musical accompaniment by David Housden compliments atmosphere created by the narration, and is of an excellent standard throughout. At times it’s as if the twinkling backgrounds and bouncy squares are all playing along with the chiptunes in the background. You can buy the soundtrack on Bandcamp, and that’s really not a bad idea.
I’m avoiding talking about something important though. I really wanted to like Thomas Was Alone in its entirety. I wanted the lo-fi visuals to work with the music, and in turn with the narration. Most importantly though, I wanted it all to work with gameplay that was addictive. Puzzle platformers have to be addictive, right?
Thomas Was Alone isn’t. After the first scenario, it feels like lead developer Mike Bithell ran out of level ideas. Gimmicks are introduced, but at its heart the game has very little to offer other than repeatedly juggling different sized shapes. Far too much time is spent fiddling with the smallest squares, trying to let them use the larger or bouncier ones as a means to get up to high points. This is heartbreakingly tedious.
There’s a lot made out of the fact that Thomas Was Alone has 100 levels. The developer is never going to call any of them filler, but that’s what it feels like. Too many are dominated by the weaker characters. I’ve read comments from some likening the game to a platforming version of the Towers of Hanoi — the sequential stacking puzzle. That’s a pretty accurate description, so try to imagine that staying fun over the course of 100 levels.
When a game like Thomas Was Alone comes along, you want to put your support behind it. Mike Bithell deserves respect for turning a quick project into something bigger; something with enough character to capture people’s interests. Unfortunately, Thomas would be better as a short film than a game. Great narration and music can’t save it, making it an incredibly tough recommendation.