Apparently, whenever I can’t decide on a game to play, I choose to play no game at all (or just watch the numbers scroll across the screen in Clicker Heroes). The more games I have to choose from, the harder it is to decide. I need help. Luckily, I have a friend who is amused by the embarrassment of riches that is my steam library. I’ve decided to let him guide my PC gaming experience until I can learn to make decisions for myself. Last week, he texted me with my first assignment: Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone.
Thomas Was Alone is about red rectangle named that can jump. That’s it: the simplest explanation of the entire game. The rectangle doesn’t level-up, get bigger, or gain new abilities. It has one way to interact with the world around it—two if you consider dying a method of interaction—and navigate a series of short stages.
quadrilateral: (noun | quad·ri·lat·er·al) a shape with four sides
However, as you guide Thomas through these levels, you gain control of other quadrilaterals. Some of these shapes can jump higher than Thomas, and some are simply larger. Each shape’s unique characteristics become necessary as the levels present more complex challenges. In spite of slight increases in complexity, the levels never become exceedingly difficult… even for someone who isn’t very good at video games (cough*me*cough).
The strength of Thomas Was Alone lies in the subtle layer of narrative that is provided by the game’s narrator. This narration provides some necessary context, which allows the player to derive some meaning from what is otherwise an extremely simplistic set of play mechanics.
The mechanics are representative of the human experience. We are like Thomas in that we have limited means of interacting with the world around us. If we continue to play the game—or live life—we will eventually encounter a challenge that is bigger than us. And that is why we need others. The ones who are aren’t the same shape and color as us are probably just the allies we need to reach the next ledge. It’s a beautiful sentiment that represented with elegant simplicity by the game’s mechanics.
As I mentioned before, this narrative is subtle. Like the cast of quadrilaterals, the narrator gave me just enough spoken guidance to reach the pieces of the thematic metaphor of the game. He trusted me to put those pieces together myself, which is more compelling than offering up a heavy handed monologue about the communal nature of humanity or the beauty of selflessness. I did manage to decipher the message of the game while jumping through the stages.
One of the highest aspirations that I have for experiencing art in an any medium is to feel something. During the 3 hours that I spent playing Thomas Was Alone, I felt something. My friends was right to recommend this game to me, just as I would be right to recommend it to you.
It is a gift to be able to watch the medium of videogames slowly develop into a mature form of art. Thomas Was Alone may never be canonized as a genre-defining work among the ranks of Braid or… some other game that is also emotionally resonant. But not every game needs to grapple with the heaviest feelings. Thomas Was Alone makes its impactful statement of positivity, and it does so with surprising deftness for such a short experience. Go play this game.
What a time to be alive!