- Developers - Mike Bithell, Curve Studios
- Publisher - Bossa Studios
- Platorms - PlayStation 3, PS Vita (both tested)
- Price - £5.99
- Release date - 24 April
Thomas Was Alone
Despite the cold logic of Thomas Was Alone's many puzzles, there's a warmness to it, a pleasantness, which you don't often get from independent games. Although like in Braid or The Stanley Parable there's conversation about game making, it's not as angry, or indignant. Creator Mike Bithell certainly knows the idiosyncrasies of his medium, but rather than rant or rally against them, he ponders them, noting them down like the eponymous Thomas with a semi-contemplative "hmm."
Starting with the game's plot, you play a group of artificial intelligences trying to break free of their programming. Each one has a different name, personality and appearance, and they all have different abilities. John, for example, is a tall, thin yellow rectangle that moves quickly and jumps very far. Claire on the other hand is a squat, blue rectangle (all the characters are rectangles) which can float in water.
There's a self referential quality to this set-up. AIs becoming aware; AIs breaking free of their programming; AIs ignoring their creators to go on and make things for themselves. It's all a bit BioShock. Bithell's plot advocates player agency, and encourages people to explore in games, do what they want and create their own stories. And it's handled well. It's occasionally funny and Danny Wallace's narration is gentle and ingratiating like a really good audio book.
As I mentioned, compared to the acid chucked by a lot of independent games, the way Thomas gets its point across is refreshingly calm and a lot more mature. It's an optimistic rather than aggressive take on the medium. You get the sense that, despite their shortcomings, Bithell isn't angry at computer games.
It can occasionally come across as a bit twee, though. Thomas Was Alone is so relentlessly lovely that you find yourself wishing one of the rectangles would just swear or something. And that goes for the puzzles themselves, too. In short, they revolve around combining the abilities of your group of rectangles.
If there's a long gap filled with water, say, you use Claire as a kind of boat to get everyone else across, before stacking each rectangle on top of the other in order to climb onto high platforms or up staircases. One rectangle works like a trampoline, another has inverted gravity and clings to the ceiling. You have to use every ability your group possesses to navigate platforms and this gets more complex as additional characters are introduced.
It's never that difficult, though. For this PlayStation 3/PS Vita version, 20 downloadable prequel levels are available which aim to be more challenging than the game proper. Apart from those, Thomas is a breeze. There's the occasional fiddly jump or new mechanic that you need to get your brain around, but generally you can shoot through it without too much thinking. Again, it's nice, it's pleasant - it helps Bithell's minimalistic plot to wash over you - but it's also a little insubstantial.
There's not much to sink your teeth into here; if the puzzles were kept exactly the same but the aesthetic was more conventional, Thomas Was Alone would feel almost totally empty.
But that's not the case, so it doesn't. Arranging the rectangles might feel laborious rather than challenging, but there's still plenty to engage with in Thomas. Especially in this port (the original game launched on PC in 2012) the levels feel tactile and compulsive. Thomas Was Alone isn't cerebral to the extent of maybe Portal or ICO, but it's like a crossword puzzle or a Sudoku; your eyes and your hands just kind of do it while you relax.
Get it on Vita, where Thomas works best, and that goes double. It might not sound so much like a compliment, but Thomas Was Alone is a great way to pass the time. It goes in; your brain just likes it. Especially on the 1080p ports, the simplistic visuals are easy to process. Behind those, the mechanics are stripped back and simple to do. The vaguely medicated quality of Thomas Was Alone's look and feel is its greatest asset. They make for a game that's not only impulsive and enjoyable to play, but that digests easily; once Thomas has lulled you in, Bithell's plot permeates completely.
It all fits, basically. Like Thomas, John and the rest of the rectangles, Thomas Was Alone locks its style, gameplay and writing together. It's an attractive game - your eyes and your brain just want it - and when it has you, the loftier ideas, ideas which are worth hearing and well-written, seep in.
Mike Bithell and Curve Studios have done stellar work bringing Thomas Was Alone to PlayStation. If you haven't played this already, these new ports are the best place to turn. They look great, they handle well and if you get the Vita one, which you really should, you can even play it on the train.
Thomas Was Alone is a smart and ambitious mix of ideas. It combines the tempting kinds of gameplay you get on mobiles with the incisive, occasionally haughty writing you get from indie games. Without wanting to make it sound like you're buying crockery from an auction, at £6, this is a steal. Get it.
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