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