You Might Have Missed: Thomas Was Alone

It’s no secret to anyone who’s ever booted up Steam that there are a lot of indie games in the world. I’ve even heard the suggestion that Valve should curb Greenlight—their crowd-sourced independent access program—at least for a while since it lets through so many subpar projects that it makes sorting the diamonds from the rough seemingly impossible. But that stunning variety and low barrier to entry also allow those creative, out-of-the-box projects that would never get greenlit by major developers a chance to shine. Things like Undertale, or Race the Sun, and today’s subject: Thomas Was Alone.

More than anything else, Thomas Was Alone is reminiscent of the first Portal, and that’s high praise coming from someone whose love of PC gaming was more or less initiated by Chell’s first escape from the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. For both games, their writing was their biggest strength, and Thomas comes the closest of any game I’ve ever played to channeling Portal’s brand of entrancing, atmospheric story inside the (normally narratively simple) framework of a platformer. But while Portal had the full assets of the Source engine to help it on its quest to glory, Thomas Was Alone has only its 2D, Bauhaus-inspired brand of minimalism and a legion of colored blocks.

And that’s really what makes Thomas such an incredible game—it manages to turn seven blocks of slightly different shapes and colors into fully fleshed-out, emotionally resonant characters, and it does that with nothing more than Danny Wallace’s charmingly British narration. In the world of Thomas Was Alone, a company called Artificial Life Solutions had been creating AIs to populate their intranet. These AIs see themselves as colored quadrilaterals in a 2D world, and instinctively realize that—to reach the portals (a reference I’m certain was intentional) that conduct them farther into their mysterious world—they must move and jump in that usual platforming pattern: up, and to the right.

Thomas is the first AI we meet, and the narrator’s first line echoes the game’s seemingly simple title: “Thomas was alone. Wow. A weird first thought to have.” At the time, it seems whimsical, perhaps a little mysterious. But by the end, it becomes the lynchpin around which this entire game revolves.

Because Thomas Was Alone, despite its lonely appearance, is a game about companionship. Each of the shapes has their own personality and flaws—John, the egotistical yet altruistic yellow rectangle; Chris, the cynical and vertically-challenged orange square; Claire, the depressed, melancholic blue block that decides to become a superhero when she realizes she can swim (water is this game’s instadeath pit)—and their narrative revolves around their relationships with each other. Some levels feature only one, some two, some five, and late in the game, some with all seven of the “Architects” (as they come to be called). And this leads to some intensely emotional moments, such as when, about halfway through, an antivirus starts to pick them off one-by-one. The last one to be taken is John, who after watching his friends start to vanish, makes an unanswered wish—”take me next; I don’t want to be alone.”

That final level, with John alone jumping up and to the right, with its mournful soundtrack playing in the background, actually jerked a few tears.

That reminds me—Thomas Was Alone would not be nearly as compelling without its stellar soundtrack. Like Portal, and like several recent indie games (Shovel Knight, Undertale), it draws a huge amount of its strength from its music, with backing tracks that lend a kind of emotional palette to every set of levels. Each track is noticeably different, but all channel the same style, and all evoke the same visceral reaction. A particular standout is “Ghosts of the Past,” which backs the aforementioned chapter with the antivirus, and which I’m actually listening to as I write this. It overlays a series of slow piano riffs with a melancholic guitar and shimmery, ethereal notes that even now—completly separate from one of the game’s most impactful sequences—conjures the lonely nostalgia of a fruitless journey, and the optimistic, irrational hope that underlies the game’s most powerful sequences.

So there you have it: a game about friendship, sentience, and hope, built entirely of colored squares. Mike Bithell, Thomas’s sole writer and programmer, said he took inspiration from Valve’s games, and the Portal influence is clear. Yet Thomas Was Alone is still its own project—a surprising, phenomenal exercise in just how transformative good writing can be, and an absolute must-play in the crowded field of indie games. If you haven’t checked this one out, go give it a shot. I promise you won’t regret it.

(A final note: last December when I started writing these little things that no one reads with Race the Sun and Undertale, I made this blog’s subtitle “for the little things you might have missed.” To actually try and live up to those words, I’m making this the first in a hopefully recurring series about all the older indie games I play, or older films I watch, or older books I read, and which ones are worth your time.)

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