Indie Platformer Marathon: Thomas Was Alone

After finishing with Dustforce, the next platformer on my list was Thomas Was Alone, which has been getting rave reviews from pretty much everyone. It’s a puzzle platformer, which is a very popular sub-genre these days, especially amongst indie developers. Players take control of Thomas, a small red rectangle, and his quadrilateral friends as they work to escape the strange platforming environments they’ve founds themselves in. Each character, in addition to having a different shape, behaves differently: some can jump quite high while others have special abilities such as being able to float in water. To escape the various levels, players must use each character’s unique abilities to help everyone reach the exit points.

All of this adds up to an interesting little puzzle game, but Thomas Was Alone becomes much more than that due to some top-notch writing. Delivered primarily through excellent narration by Danny Wallace, it imbues those little rectangles with distinct personalities, quirks, motivations, and worries. I found myself caring more for the abstract shapes in Thomas Was Alone than I have for nearly any other game character I could name.

This works so well not only because the writing is of high quality, but because it is actually fused to the game design. Many games have a story that runs separate to the action, but in Thomas Was Alone the levels are specifically designed to support the narrative. We’re told that John, a tall yellow rectangle, likes to show off with his high jumps, but we also see it, as we must use him to jump around the level and hit all the switches that no one else can reach, then backtrack to help everyone else through. Christopher is rather unpleasant, always jealous of his allies’ abilities, and he acts as a nuisance in the levels as well, needing constant assistance to pass even the simplest of obstacles. Even the sound he makes when he jumps sounds grumpy. Thomas Was Alone is full of this kind of design, with levels that might otherwise feel too simple or tedious given purpose through the story, keeping the experience compelling for much longer than it would be otherwise.

Although still a short game, Thomas Was Alone is longer than I expected, and I was surprised to find I didn’t mind. I actually think it’s the perfect length, allowing for the tale to become something larger than it seems at first. I also love the framing of the story, in the form of quotes and excerpts that give just a little hint about what’s happening outside the world Thomas and his friends inhabit. But it’s Thomas himself, and his friends, who steal the show. It’s remarkable that each character is realized so fully with so little. A few sentences of narration and a simple platforming level are all that’s needed to make each character convincing. The focus is largely on how the characters feel about their abilities — some are proud, like John, while others are more self-conscious, or simply curious. These abilities become important in the grander story as well, tying everything together artfully. The final experience really is remarkable, and one I can highly recommend.

Some players might deride the simple graphical style, but in motion it’s actually quite beautiful. The muted background colors, surprisingly spiffy-looking water, and real-time lighting provide a great aesthetic to the levels. The music is superb as well. In fact, I was reminded a little of the fantastic World of Goo, despite the two games having completely different gameplay. There’s something similar about the audiovisual presentation in both. If I were to make any criticisms about Thomas Was Alone, it would be that it can sometimes be tedious to ferry each character across the larger levels, especially in certain cases where making a mistake means starting the process over. The puzzles are seldom difficult to figure out, but are often tricky to execute, and there were a few points I had to repeat more times than I would have liked. Only a few, though. Most of the time I was enjoying myself thoroughly.

So it turns out everyone else was right: Thomas Was Alone is indeed fantastic, and absolutely worth playing. Check it out here. You won’t be sorry you did.

EDIT: The Indie Platformer Marathon is now complete! See all the posts here.

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