Up and to the Right

The story of getting this game is an interesting one. I bought it by accident. I was only getting a couple of PS1 classics for my brother while this got left in the cart. I wish there was a way to bookmark games in the PlayStation Store. Now I’ll have to stop that habit to avoid unwanted purchases but my trigger-happy thumbs will not be blamed for this particular title.

Thomas Was Alone

“Thomas Was Alone” is a deceptively simple puzzle platform game. It was released on Windows and Mac last year while the PS3 and Vita versions became available April this year. This review is for the PlayStation 3 edition.

The game’s characters are basically these squares and rectangles. The titular character is the mid-sized red rectangle. You switch between characters to accomplish the goal of taking them all to their corresponding portals in every level. There are about 100 levels in the game but the puzzles are never really that mentally challenging. They might test your patience though. For instance, there’s a trophy that you will only get after dying 100 times which means you have to be failing a lot. I was surprised when that trophy notification appeared in the corner. Nice, I thought, this game rewards failures, or perseverance, to put a more positive spin on it. But the gameplay is not what makes this game special.

Because it was an accidental purchase, I knew next to nothing about the game aside from the description in the store. Little did I know, I was in for a ton of surprise. The first thing I noted playing this game is the beautiful soundtrack. I have this neurotic routine of exploring the settings and extras first before actually playing the game. I went to the game credits and from that moment on, I was hooked. The score composer David Housden deftly mixed piano, strings and digital bleeps and the result is a magnificent sound perfect for this game. The in-game music is mixed quite differently from the album versions and so here I will echo the wish of many of this game’s fans for an extended edition of the soundtrack. I will have to go back to some levels to verify but I could swear some of the music in the game is not even in the soundtrack released. Or maybe indeed it’s just the mixing.

So I played the game and listened as the narrator said the following words in a brilliant British accent:

thomas was alone wow

The charming narration of Danny Wallace won a BAFTA award, and deservedly so. It felt like you were being read a bedtime story by your dream British father! One memorable part for me is this line being narrated while I was obsessively taking notes.

loneliness

The way Wallace said it had me in stitches. It’s a good thing they didn’t just get anyone to narrate the story. The game wouldn’t have been nearly as delightful to play.

So what’s really the story of these quadrilaterals? Without giving out much, Thomas was alone and then he wasn’t. That’s it. So it’s all metaphors again but I wouldn’t accuse the game of pretensions. There were genuinely lines that had me stop playing just to try to make sense of what the narrator just said. No, I meant I always stop and listen whenever Wallace is narrating unless one of the characters is about to die or in a precarious position. You’d think it’s impossible to get emotionally attached to a bunch of polygons. Think again. And I’m not just being sentimental here. I really felt like these were people and not just a cluster of pixels. If ever there was a prime example of good narrative and characterization transcending the sparse visual imagery in a game, this would be it. The script is truly well-written and not just for a video game. I would not hesitate buying a book of this in large-print format complete with all the narration and illustrations on every page.

One thing I don’t like about the game is what happened in the latter part of the story. I wish the ending was less open to interpretation and/or it ended earlier. Having said that, I do see the appeal of the ending chosen by the creator. It’s not a fairy tale ending is all I would say but it’s okay.

The game could be finished in under 3 hours if you could manage to whiz through the levels. In my case, I finished it in two sittings of approximately 5 and 3 hour blocks. I do think I have a terrible reflex which is silly if you’re a gamer and that’s why I’m not. So I’m glad the game isn’t too long or difficult either. It’s probably intentionally short and easy (although quite tedious in some levels which made me take a break) otherwise the narrative would have severely suffered. Maybe I’ll find that balance of short but good gameplay and tight narrative in another game.

After Journey, I didn’t think I’d find another game that would be close to it but then came Thomas. This discovery led me to find other games similar in style to them. The kind serious gamers would dub (for good or ill) artsy games. I don’t have anything against AAA titles and I do want to play The Last of Us. But there’s something about this recent outcropping of indie games with good storytelling and captivating music that has pulled me to explore this interactive side of entertainment. They may be shorter than most adventure and FPS games that have huge campaign modes but I do believe there’s a market for this other type of games. Their replayability will vary with each gamer but personally I haven’t grown tired of Journey and Thomas Was Alone. It’s nice to know I have these two excellent games to play and ones that wouldn’t demand an entire day to completely experience. I do hope I could add a few more to this collection soon though. As it is, I’m happy finding these two and thankful as well for the inspiring music they’ve introduced me into.

Despite being maddeningly frustrating at times, Thomas Was Alone is a beautiful game. As one reviewer noted, it’s a thought-provoking, life-affirming, wonderful lesson on friendship, love and trust.

http://www.thomaswasalone.com/

Side-note: I just realized some Journey players are doing Morse code. Ah… so that’s what the singing was. Moral: Learn Morse code?

“I’m not a gamer.”

That’s my standard response whenever I’m asked about what games I play. It’s not an accurate statement though since one way or another any 20-something year old city person must have already had some experience playing some kind of video game. The closest I ever got to genuinely appreciating the gaming phenomenon is with my already dead PSP. I have some good memories playing with that console even though I’ve never played the hardcore stuff. But after the PSP, somehow I got myself into a personal vow never to waste my time again on any long-form video game. I guess my renewed interest in reading books helped in justifying that decision. Ever since then (even though I would never say this out loud to anyone especially if they’re a gamer) I’ve held the opinion that games are a huge waste of time. As far as entertainment value goes, it was at the very bottom of my list. I thought movies, music and books were better ways to entertain and enrich oneself.

Then I got the PS3 early this year. It took almost 2 months after unboxing before I seriously considered using it. As a casual gamer who has a bit of a tiff with video game violence, my options were very limited. But finding this one game wasn’t very hard because of the accolades it’s been getting since it was released last year. But still, another month passed before I actually bought the game.

Journey

“Journey” is a Playstation-exclusive game developed by an indie game company. This company also created the game “fl0w” which I enjoyed on the PSP. You can see that I have a weird taste in games. I’m not really the type who’d go for first-person shooters or those RPGs with epic storylines. Sure those look fun to play too but I still gravitate towards these “strange” games.

So this game is one of those “hard to describe let alone review” stuff. To put it simply, you play a character who has to journey through several places just to reach this mountain. Why? Again, it’s really hard to explain the game. It’s one of those things which the expression “the less you know, the better” applies. There are several walkthrough videos scattered on the web but those do not give it justice and likely only spoils the experience.

“Journey” is a gorgeously beautiful game despite it being in 720p only. (The nerd has to criticize even the resolution.) The music is also amazing and it got nominated in the Grammys. But the real selling point of the game is the innovative co-op style it utilizes. While playing the game online, you will eventually meet a companion. This is a real person somewhere in the world playing with you there right now. And you can’t talk to him using words. You can only “sing” and then maybe develop a certain language to communicate using this method. You don’t know his name and his PSN ID is not revealed until the end of the game. Because of this, virtually no prejudice will come up in your mind and thus a genuine sense of companionship is developed between the two of you. You meet several of these “companions” along the way but only one at a time. On paper this feature doesn’t sound much to brag about but in actual gameplay, it’s the major thing that makes playing this game a unique experience.

The game is really short by normal game standards. Depending on your intention, you can finish it in 2 to 3 hours. And this is one of the reasons why I love this game. It is an experience as well as a story. It was obviously designed to feel like a cinematic experience so it can’t be any longer.

Instead of explaining the elements of the game in a detached critic tone, I’ll try something different. I’ve met several companions and there’s many things I wish to say to them. Rather than writing one for each, here’s a general letter for all of them. Brace for the drama.

Companion,
I was very hesitant entering this game. The solitary feeling in seeing miles and miles of sand around me. How small and utterly alone I was. Then you appeared out of nowhere. I didn’t know what else to do so I just followed you and believed you knew where to go. I was basically just glad I was not alone anymore. It was all a bit awkward at first. There were times I thought you were getting competitive collecting all those symbols before me but then I later realized it was all just you trying to make it fun for us. Please excuse my paranoia.
You waited for me before you crossed the long bridges. We floated over them like angels but then what happened at the end? I humiliatingly fell right on the edge of the last one! I was running around in circles at the bottom scolding myself for not paying attention when I needed to. I knew it was a long way back to the start of the bridge and I was certain you had left me and moved on. The length of your scarf showed your experience and that just told me you wouldn’t waste time on a beginner. But then you suddenly dropped beside me and beckoned me to join you at the starting point again. You couldn’t see me at the time but if you did you could have smiled because I bolted out of my seat and just shouted with joy because you did that for me. That was the point I believed I was really gonna love this game.
You were mostly leading the way for me from here. I knew you were trying to tell me some things especially on those places I got bat-shit scared of those flying rocks but I just couldn’t understand any of them. If I had only tried harder to listen to you more I wouldn’t have been hurt. I got hit twice and both times you rushed at me singing something which I guess is you asking me if I was okay. Now every time I meet beginners, I remember how helpful you were to me and try my best to do the same for them. There’s one which fell on a bridge too and I unhesitatingly went back for him. He profusely sang when he saw me at the bottom.
But just as I was wondering if you will be with me all the way to the end, you stopped and then sat on the snow. Silly me didn’t know how to sit so I tried singing but you didn’t respond. Your image slowly faded away until you were gone. Witnessing your companion disappear right in front of you is the saddest thing in this game. I was left all alone again and so I had to face the harsh end all by myself. If I’m allowed to be a bit poetical, I’d say the game does reflect the path of human life from beginning to end which is quite beautiful, actually. But I’m a fake poet so never mind that. Our story is over anyway and I’m sure I could now make other stories just as vivid as the one we had because I was lucky enough to find you as my first companion. A companion who was patient enough to show me the ropes and didn’t hesitate to go back for me because you knew I needed it. What happened in the end doesn’t matter much. Cliched as it will definitely sound, it was really all about the journey.

Signed,
<my PSN ID I will not divulge here but surely has the word “wolf” there somewhere>

I have to say that “Journey” has changed my opinion about games in general. While they’re still not at the top of my priority list, I will no longer be that cynical about playing them which is really only another way of creative expression that is just as valid as the other forms of art. But this game is special because I believe there should be more games developed along the lines of vision and purpose this one had.

http://thatgamecompany.com/games/journey/