- Title: Thomas Was Alone
- Developer: Mike Bithell
- Publisher: Mike Bithell
- Console: PC, Mac, PS3 and PSVita
Profound. That’s not a word that I, or anyone, should ever use lightly. To ascribe something any level of profundity is to register it as a higher form of something. To say that something has ellicited a level of feeling and thought in us that deserves not only special attention, but praise. It is a difficult task to be profound, that it is.
And especially in videogames, it is hard to believe that anything can be a “profound” experience. Most lack that certain something, maybe due to rigidity of form, or an intent that they just can’t shake in the name of deeper meaning. Or maybe some try too hard. Or, in other cases, try too little and the only “profound” nature they have is to be profoundly dumb, or profoundly disappointing.
And yet, now and then, they do make their way to us. Shadow of the Colossus, a masterwork of isolation and stark beauty. Journey, a short but painfully gorgeous adventure that acts as one big allegory for the paths we all must take in life. And now, I can honestly say that Thomas Was Alone has joined those ranks because, although it might not have their beauty or depth, it manages to do the almost impossible; to tackle what it means to exist, to understand our place in the universe and alongside our peers, and it tackles it with a sharp wit and a deeply compelling heart.
One is the Lowliest…
We start out with Thomas. Thomas is a geometric shape in a sort of surreal, computer program-esque background. Think Tron minus the lines. Thomas doesn’t talk, but we get insight into his thoughts via a soothing British narrator, basically acting as an inner monologue/third-person observer for Thomas as he goes about his work.
The premise of each stage is simple: guide Thomas, via jumping and avoiding killer water (because that’s geometry’s number 1 enemy. Water) on his way to the other side of the stage, and a white outline marker that signals the endpoint. After a while, Thomas is not alone. He meets up with fellow travellers, such as the bitter, misanthropic Chris or the flighty, semi-delusional Claire.
You may notice how I’m ascribing character traits to PIXELS, and may be thinking “Oh Hachi, you get wayyy too into your games, you silly man!” Well, condescending butthole, that…may be true. But it’s not the case here. Simply through a combination of brilliant writing and the excellent voice over of Danny Wallace. Each character’s inner musings do as much to give them full, humanized personalities as any amount of VO could have done.
Said writing is frequently hilarious as well, from Thomas’ slightly silly excitement at his limited capabilities (“Thomas knew he was a MASTER at falling”) to John’s raging ego (“John had grown quite fond of his companions; they finally gave him an audience”), the frequently thoughtful, occasionally silly and regularly dry inner dialogue imbues the lines of pixels with more humanity than most JRPG protagonists.
All of this goodness is bolstered by a strong soundtrack, which swings wildly between being melancholic and hopeful, uplifting and beautiful, while catchy and chiptune-centric. It’s a truly great soundtrack that does absolutely nothing but add to the mood of the game; one that is both simplistic and deep. Seriously, I could put anything here as a sample and it would make my point. I put this here merely to fill the space, but I must assure you, every single song on this soundtrack is equally good.
To Mean Something…
“But Hachi!” you cry, “What about this game is so deep? You’ve talked about how endearing and nice it is, but that doesn’t mean deep!” Well, oh snarky voice from beyond, get ‘ello to THIS paragraph!
The game, for all its fun and personality, is basically the story of a group of beings suddenly given consciousnes. As you go about your business, a slight framing story emerges, one that alludes to Thomas’ sudden explosion into consciousness, heralded by his initial realization of his loneliness, and how this sort of “spread” to others. Burdened with thought, the blocks, while moving toward their goals, also pursue something more ephemeral: their purpose in life.
I know that sounds very heady, but here’s the greatest trick: besides the between-level stories, the game never beats you over the head with this idea. You are AWARE that their journey is momentous, but mostly, you take their first baby steps into self realization with them. You’re discovering the meaning of their existence with them, and because of that, the game becomes a marvelous expression of what it means to even be alive and aware. Again, this is never the STATED purpose of the adventure, it’s just an understanding of the deeper message of the game that emerges as you take this short-but-sweet journey with them.
The other meaning of the game is friendship. These guys, for all their eccentricities, could not get anywhere without eachother, and because of this, a beautiful little fellowship develops, one that helps you become more and more fond of the little blocks, and worry for their trials and tribulations. None of said tribulations may be particularly hard, but by the time the game is concluded, you feel like you’ve taken a long and meaningful journey, one you can be satisfied with.
To Touch the Sky
I can’t stress this enough; over the three or so hours I played this game, I grew incredibly close to a collection of pixels. I could smile fondly as I told you about each character’s quirks and little traits. The friggin’ BLOCKS. That achievement, to humanize completely featureless shapes, is one that cannot be overstated. And the fact that the journey is one rich in depth and meaning only makes it all the more special. Trust me on this; buy the game, experience it, shed a few tears, discuss it with friends, and be better for the experience. Who knows, you may even look at the world a little differently after.
I know I am.
Playability: The game plays just fine; controls are precise and functional, and really, all you’re doing is getting from point A to point B. Kinda hard to screw up. 16/20
Graphics: Kinda hard to quantify, given the game’s purposefully minimalist approach. I suppose some of the graphics could have been a little cleaner, and it doesn’t really make as good use of its limits as, say, The Unfinished Swan. But given the game’s meaning, such complaints feel somewhat banal. 13/20
Sound: The crowning achievement of the game’s presentation, the soundtrack is haunting, sad and hopeful and upbeat. A seemingly impossible combination achieved with an equally minimal audio style, all chip beates and plinks and synth. A true marvel. 20/20
Gameplay: As enchanting as the game is, truth be told, there’s simply not much to the gameplay. It never gets boring, what with the constant introduction of new characters and strengths, but nor does it really challenge. And unless you’re swept up in the feeling of the game, this may be an issue for some. 11/20
Content: The game is a little on the short side, hell a lot on the short side. But because of both its content and mood, the relatively short length feels like a blessing. It doesn’t overstay its welcome: it conveys its message, and moves on with life. While it lasts, it’s a hilarious and heartfelt adventure. 14/20
The Weight: FEELS! FROM BLOCKS! 10
Rounded Score: A Lego Showcase of Depth and Meaning, 8/10