I have never connected so much to a quadrilateral more so than when I played Thomas Was Alone. To be fair, I’ve never felt a strong connection to any shape ever in my life but that’s neither here nor there. What matters is that I found myself feeling empathy for these small bouncing rectangles. They made me laugh. They made me sneer. They had me rooting for them! And yet on the surface they were nothing more than a colorful shape jumping up and to the right.
Thomas Was Alone is a 2D platformer developed by Mike Bithell featuring 100 levels of puzzles, each with varying degrees of difficulty. It follows the story of a group of AIs, represented as colorful shapes, who become self-aware within a computer program.
The first AI players are introduced to is Thomas; a small red rectangle full of curiosity for his new environment and about his own abilities. He’s also an exceptional note taker. He observes that the world he lives in is complicated and unstable with threats like toxic water that should be avoided. But most of all, he feels the loneliness surrounding him becoming unbearable… And that right there is just the first gut punch of the game. Nobody ever wants to feel alone, but there Thomas is, on your screen, yearning for company. I think we can all relate to that feeling, at least at one time in our lives or another. Throughout the game there are numerous moments like this where the characters reflect human emotions such as pride, jealously, and insecurity to name a few. It didn’t take long for me to realize this wasn’t going to be just a game where I mindlessly jump obstacles to kill time. No, this game was going to be something so much more.
Along the way Thomas encounters other AIs, each with an ability that is unique to them, and with personality to boot. Some are cynical and some are honest. Some are brave while others suffer from low self-esteem. And some simply feel like an outcast. I found as I got to know each character that their individual personality traits felt like extensions of myself; I could relate to each of them on a very personal level. I understood how one AI could feel jealous of the other. I sympathized with how another was learning to trust again. Pretty deep stuff coming from a bouncing rectangle.
Over the course of the game each character’s story unfolds, all the while a force from the outside world lingers, threatening their very existence. To get through each level the AIs need to jump, fall, stack and work together to get from one side of the screen to the other and fill the empty frame of their shape. Once everyone is in their frame the level is complete. Some levels only have one solution while others allow players to come up with their own way of solving the puzzle. It begins with very basic jumps for players to learn the mechanics and then the game eases players into more advanced jumps. But even the most advanced technique isn’t impossible. While some levels take a little longer than others, the overall gameplay is fairly easy. Truthfully Bithell designed the game to make players feel “awesome” as they complete epic jumps. And after 100 levels? I feel pretty damn awesome.
Stylistically there’s something beautiful in the simplicity of the graphics. I particularly loved how Bithell plays with the lighting and shadows in each level, giving dimension to what otherwise could feel like a flat setting. I also appreciated how the shadows help to dictate the feeling of space. There are levels where the characters are confined to darker tight areas and it’s difficult for them to maneuver around without hitting an obstacle or bumping into each other. While other spaces exhibit more light creating a wide open area for players to stretch the AIs abilities, leaping freely across empty spaces. Each level is unique, for the most part, with some design inspirations stemming from Uncharted, Mouse Trap, and oddly enough, Robert Downey Jr. (sort of).
The writing is witty and powerful but the voice-over is what really brings the script and characters to life. Bithell wrote Thomas Was Alone with the voice of British filmmaker, writer, and actor, Danny Wallace in mind. Thinking he would never convince him to join the project Bithell auditioned several soundalike actors but he couldn’t find the perfect fit... Until one night, after some liquid courage, Bithell asked Wallace to join the project, and he did! Admittedly I can’t imagine this game being as good as it is without his voice narrating the inner dialogue of the quadrilaterals. His comedic timing is on point while his voice helps to command the pacing of the game. But don’t just take my word for it; in 2013 he earned the game a BAFTA for his performance. So yeah, he’s pretty great.
The music by David Housden is a nostalgic callback to the old school arcade music with its bleeps and bloops but with an added layer of orchestral builds. It’s incredibly moving and compliments both the plot and setting. Best of all, the unique scoring never feels like it’s on a loop, even if you’re stuck on a level for an extra minute or two. If Danny Wallace’s narration doesn’t help dictate what emotions you should feel with each twist and turn then David Housden’s scoring certainly will. And when you get to the end of the game? Epic. It truly feels epic.
Thomas Was Alone was originally released in 2010 as a Flash-based browser game. By 2014 the game became wildly available on multiple platforms. While it’s been at least a few years since my first playthrough of the game, it’s still one of my favorite indies that I continue to revisit again and again. The story, writing, voice-over, and music all work together to make Thomas Was Alone a truly special experience.
See for yourself how incredible these jumping quadrilaterals are on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Android, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, iOS, OS X, and Linux.
Check out the trailer below: