Artificial Intelligence has a new face.
I put off playing Thomas Was Alone for a long time. If you have read some of my reviews, you could probably assume that I am wary of most indie games, save for a few. While that is not entirely correct, there is some truth to it. I hold no issue with the existence of indie games, but I do not encourage the mass production of poorly constructed cash-grabs under the guise of being “retro” and “indie.” Perhaps I’m cynical in that, but ten to twenty dollars for a game is enough money for me that I feel as though I’m making a commitment to said game. I want to enjoy the game and appreciate the chunk of change that I spent on it. Unfortunately, Thomas Was Alone had a relatively high price tag stamped to its name for quite some time, and that coupled with its suspiciously uber-retro graphics and style kept me from experiencing this game for too long. I heard great things about it from friends and finally found it for two dollars during a “Flash Sale” on the Playstation Store. My only regret is that I did not get to give Mike Bithell the full amount of money that the game deserved. Thomas Was Alone is the best kind of retro indie game.
Thomas Was Alone is a fairly rudimentary 2D puzzle platformer on the surface, and just below is a wondrous, existential, almost Promethean story that leaves you pondering the events that just unfolded before you. It deviates slightly from a run-of-the-mill platformer by introducing a cast of distinguished characters who each possess unique abilities to master, with later stages having an almost symphonic level of cooperation required between the dozen or so characters in order to complete the elaborate challenges.
Thomas Was Alone is remarkable for a number of reasons. The simplistic design is used to evoke feelings of nostalgia, akin to the likes of Tetris. It uses the distinctive style in more than one way, giving a meta reason within the game for why the graphics are the way they are. Thomas Was Alone is about a group of rogue AI who learn of their existence and long to break out of their digital prison. They view everything around them as geometric, two-dimensional, block based shapes and landscapes. The story follows the AI, and Thomas as their reluctant leader, as they form strong bonds and relationships with each other, and work together to achieve freedom. Each of the characters have individual, idiosyncratic personalities to set them apart from each other, in more than shape and color. One of the total highlights of Thomas Was Alone is the witty, dry humor of the narrator. The narrator serves to explain the plot and introduce the characters as each stage unfolds and is ostensibly there to give meaning to the puzzle solving and seemingly desultory exploration.
The platforming is mostly vanilla, with the only real variations being in the one unique ability that each character possesses. One character is bouncy as a surface, allowing others to use her to achieve previously unreachable locations. Another character can naturally jump much higher than all of the others. They all have a distinguishing trait aside from their color that allows them to be unique from the other characters. It required a good deal of patience and cleverness to figure out suitable strategies for getting particular characters across difficult obstacles.
The soundtrack for Thomas Was Alone is fantastic: mixing dulcet, soft piano chords and strings with chiptune rhythms. It sounds like the wondrous love child between the creative thought inducing soundtrack of Minecraft and the imaginative, yet experimental and sometimes industrial soundtrack of Sound Shapes. I listen to video game music while I write, study or edit, as it typically doesn’t distract too much, but keeps my mind focused and inspired. Thomas Was Alone’s soundtrack has recently been added into my playlist of “thinking” music, and I welcome this new inclusion.
Thomas Was Alone is a relatively short game; I think I clocked in somewhere at around six or seven hours at the most. But, what it lacks in apparent substance or longevity, it makes up in spades by having a wildly unique approach to the AI-focused story. The style of a 2D platformer is well known to most people, yet this game strays enough from the mold to feel fresh and very original. The story was inventive and paced very well. It does not hold any replay value, in my opinion; it feels like it wraps up at the right time, and on a poignant note. Whether Thomas Was Alone is discounted or at its full price, which is typically ten dollars, it is completely worth it. I look forward to seeing what else Bithell Games has to offer.