You might not think it to look at them, but games are made entirely of maths. Not just your normal maths, either, but a special kind that has to be shipped in from California. Some of that was probably used to create the game behind the twelvefethef advent calendar window. But not much. Not much.
It’s… Thomas Was Alone!
I can’t stand Danny Wallace and his face and his hair and his voice, but I really dug Thomas Was Alone. This alone is probably the highest praise I could ever offer Mike Bithell’s puzzle-platform game about introspective shapes. In a similar way to Portal, it’s an easy blend of semi-cerebral puzzling and a story that tells itself as you play, rather than forces itself upon you.
There are a dozen reasons I immediately regret raising a Portal comparison, but I do so because I think it’s a high watermark of how to bring about a complex, character-rich game narrative without interfering with play. Thomas goes one further still – while GlaDOS did enact the science, madness, jealousy and vengeance she invisibly spoke of, these rectangles never outwardly demonstrate their Wallace-spoken third-person monologues of delight, envy, mistrust, arrogance and affection, and for all their strong feelings about their similarly right-angled companions they do not and cannot share them.
The story is a collection of secrets only the player knows, a stash of diaries accidentally stumbled across, and from this spawns projections of emotion and reaction onto the faceless, bounding shapes. This is the game for the sort of person who says “I know cats technically don’t have the right muscles to smile, but I’m sure my cat smiles.” In today’s age of death-by-cutscene, such playful abstraction is precious indeed.
But please, get one-time guest star Log to narrate the next one, not that smug chap with the hair.
Thomas Was Alone is sweet, melancholy, witty and thoughtful.
It’s a puzzle game that uses a few shapes and basic movements to present new ideas without confusing or frustrating the player.
It’s a story that uses a few shapes and a narrative voice to create characters who are quite capable of changing the world, but are much more concerned with their own inner conflicts.
It’s a game with a character called Chris who has a proper arc and everything, even though he’s a little brown square. I enjoyed his company more than plenty of actual people I’ve met. I’d like to go for a drink with Chris, to cheer him up while laughing at his grumpiness the whole time.
Abstraction and minimalism can be shortcuts but Thomas Was Alone wouldn’t work any other way. I played the majority of it in the wee small hours of the morning and when I was done, it practically plumped up the pillows and tucked me into bed. Even though the audio is so important, both in the voiceover and the splendid music, Mike Bithell has crafted one of year’s quietest and most soothing games. And that’s coming from someone who normally punches through at least fifteen walls every time he hears the word ‘puzzle’.