Looking for personality in ‘Thomas was alone’
The evolution of indie video games has a turning point at the beginning of the century. While the first models of computers during the 80s had provided tools for the amateur person to give free rein to their ideas, it is not until the popularity and accessibility of the Internet (and with it, tools like Flash) that these opportunities are opened to a wider audience. It is not only about having the possibility of developing a videogame, but also the possibility of distributing it in a direct and immediate way, leaving behind the times of shareware.
Kongregate was a web platform for Flash games founded in 2006. Two years later, it was more than consolidated and generating an important investment. In 2010 it was acquired by Gamestop. It is in October of that year that Mike Bithell releases a first version of Thomas was alone as a flash game. In principle, there is nothing that could stand out: a minimalist aesthetic inspired by Bauhaus and Mondrian of rectangles that jump platforms and need to combine their skills in the style of The Lost Vikings (1992). It is with its official release on PC, in the version we know now, where the game takes on another dimension.
In the space that Bithell used to develop the game, different things happened in the indie scene. Braid (2008), Minecraft (2009) and Super Meat Boy (2010) had created an image of what a future indie golden age could look like and the growth of titles started to be exponential. Thomas was alone came out in the perfect environment where indie games were in the spotlight, ready to prove Roger Ebert’s famous article, ‘Videogames can never be art’, wrong, for such was the “discourse” of the moment.
What set this new version apart? First, Danny Wallace’s narration would become iconic. Through its humorous tone, giving the various rectangles not only names but anxieties about how their abilities are perceived by others, the game went from being a simple combination of puzzles and platforming to a full-fledged story. A narrative about the inner world of this handful of pixels who need to collaborate and understand each other even if they then don’t know how to communicate with each other and live in fear that others will judge them for being different.
Naturally, this was candy for the critics at the time: here was an indie game that used very basic resources to lay out an elaborate plot with several characters and their relationships and different combinations. In the end, an ambitious idea. My question is, what is the role of this game ten years later, when the need to claim the indie as the salvation of the medium has dissipated?
The first impression on returning to Thomas was alone is that, as much as Wallace’s narration and story writing gives a lot of personality to the various protagonists, the game is somewhat less fresh than it pretends to be. Nevertheless, it’s a great puzzle game: the levels flow along very smoothly, some with simple solutions, others that require quite a few steps (but nothing too frustrating) and other levels that have a, shall we say, more “narrative” aspect, where the level itself is an excuse to make time while the narrator provides yet another snippet of the story.
Until we get to the middle of the game.
From its midpoint, Thomas was alone decides to keep introducing new characters, a consequence of linking each of them to a mechanic in the face of the fact that the game needs to renew those mechanics as it progresses. On a narrative level, these characters appear when the emotional conflict is already presented and, while Bithell is very clever in how he presents them, they have less time to be as memorable as the original group.
Another element involved in the evolution of these mechanics is the time factor. From solving these spatial situation puzzles in a more or less relaxed way we move on to some screens where reflexes and speed are determining factors. This change is a major setback, since it now depends less on our intelligence to understand the logic of a puzzle and more on our ability to do so while jumping and running in different directions and changing characters at the right time.
“4.8” is the turning point. In this screen, a spike barrier is advancing and forcing us to head towards the goal, to the right. One of the two rectangles we control is the slowest in the game but is the only one of the two that survives in the water. The idea that the player can think of at this point seems obvious: a quick exchange between one and the other, coordinating them to pass the obstacles as quickly as possible. This assumption is wrong: in reality, we can advance with the faster one to the goal, switch to the slower one and jump with this one without the barrier accelerating too much. In principle, basing this screen on what the player can assume and turn it around is very ingenious, but it is also a proof of how here the puzzle logic disappears, simply changing a way of playing in harmony with the narrative themes (cooperation between characters of different skills) for an “every man for himself”.
While it never gets really difficult, it does show how the narrative interferes with the game itself. The story needs an antagonist and tension, it needs to grow in intensity, but… maybe the game doesn’t.
Recently Bithell skated a bit with The Solitaire Conspiracy (2020), a card game, emulating classic solitaire, that incorporated a whole framework of spies and conspiracies with video elements that don’t add much to a mechanic that already works. In fact, it’s distracting and I couldn’t help but think all the time about the enormous production effort that must have gone into it. It’s not so much the vaunted effect of the (all together!) “ludonarrative dissonance” as the feeling that, while the story is what gives Thomas was alone a differentiating factor, it also brings with it certain problems when it comes to making it shine as a puzzle game.
Later on, in “7.4”, diamonds, a sort of keys, are introduced. So far we have activated new accesses with buttons (white or the color of the specific character that must activate it) but in this last third of the game, these solid, diamond-shaped elements appear, which we no longer have to “touch” but move to the appropriate “lock”. I can only define the experience as playing basketball with a rock. I managed to pass this with relative ease but with the feeling that I didn’t have enough control over the movement of the diamonds, having to resort to “pinching” to lift them up and hit them in the middle of a jump, hoping that this time they would fall on the opposite side of the obstacle. Another example of how the logic of the puzzle is left behind in favor of a skill that the mechanics do not support in the most ideal way.
In the later stages, the number of manageable characters and the size of the screens means that rotating from one to another can become a constant motion sickness with the camera moving from one to the other, which doesn’t help to orient yourself well, especially when some of the characters are already in place and you’re forced to rotate through them even though you don’t want to move them. The variable size of the camera, being out of the player’s control, makes some puzzles more complex by the fact of not being clear which direction to take, which forces a lot of trial and error.
Because, in the end, Thomas was alone is, in effect, a puzzle game. It is not a good platformer, this being its least polished aspect. Without having many problems in its handling, the complexity of solving obstacles does not come from our ability and hence the screens that require making a sequence in a certain time are the ones that suffer the most. It is clear that this was evident during development, as evidenced by the various checkpoints unevenly distributed along some screens.
The right time and place made Thomas was alone a game to highlight. I don’t want these comments on some of its aspects to make you think that I don’t find it a more than interesting game and prevent anyone from playing it. Today it is possible to analyze it better in its many facets and everything it wants to do, with perspective. By focusing so much on its specific and transparent design, it is an ideal tool to see how the mechanics and level design works and what it does well and what it does not do so well. Perhaps this is its greatest virtue: a clarity of exposition, a way of stripping platform and puzzle video games of all the frills to present the most diaphanous image possible.
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