“Minimalist” is a term that can be interpreted in a bunch of different ways. A lot of the time it’s all about a lack of material possessions, keeping only what you really need to live a good life. At other points it’s the absence of complicated visuals; the presence of something that is simple yet appealing to look at, with no sharp corners or brash colours to distract the eye. Or sometimes it can go to the extreme, as is the case with Thomas Was Alone; a game that’s mad enough to consist of nothing but simple lines and rectangles.
I’m honestly not kidding – that’s pretty much all that’s on show here. Apart from a few subtle lighting effects working away in the background, this is very much a textbook example of what you see is what you get. Yet the overwhelming simplicity of this world isn’t as bad as you might be coming to expect; what really matters here is how the story builds up what this world and its inhabitants represents.
You see, this is a tale of AI programming becoming self-aware, and via some brilliant and funny narration by Danny Wallace (Whose works you should check out, by the way!), each little AI block you control is given their own distinct personality. The main character of Thomas, for one, is naturally inquisitive and logical. Others you meet along the way have their own unique traits; there’s a deeply cynical square, an arrogant yet caring tall rectangle, and another bigger square that has delusions of being a super hero… On and on it goes, with new faces appearing all the time. It’s done to such a level that as the plot moves along you actually start to care for each of them in a weird little way. It’s never to the extent that you’re going to shed a tear for their plight, but it’s enough to keep you engaged with them throughout their journey – even though they’re just little coloured shapes. It’s ingeniously done.
So your gang of crazy characters is set up, but what exactly are you doing with them? Puzzle platforming, that’s what. It’s up to you to switch between all of them, using their unique abilities to navigate through each level, and getting everyone to their respective exits. That’s it. If anything, the gameplay is as minimalist as the art style – but again, that’s by no means a bad thing. Thomas Was Alone’s main strength when it comes to its gameplay is in the way its difficulty and pacing is second to none. Each and every level presents a challenge that is both not so hilariously simple that you can cruise through it in two seconds, but also never hard enough to create a situation where your progress comes to a screeching halt. The game also introduces new ideas and character abilities at a steady rate, keeping things fresh and entertaining, but never at a pace where everything feels overwhelming.
The process of actually navigating your way through each of these challenges, however, is where the cracks begin to show. For one, the act of switching characters is cumbersome, requiring you to cycle through all of them in turn to reach the one you actually desire, the camera trying to zip towards every character in turn at an almost nauseating pace. This isn’t too bad when there’s only three shapes to control, but when there’s six or seven, the endless cycling can start to infuriate somewhat. Couple that with a soundtrack that I found so incredibly annoying I proactively sought out the sound settings just to turn it down, and you can perhaps see how the blood pressure can slowly start to rise.
There are a few other minor factors that also don’t help. The jumping mechanic, for one, feels at points oddly heavy and stiff, creating situations where I felt I wasn’t fully in control of where my jump was going – with a missed jump often wiping out a hefty chunk of progress in an instant. The level design at points also didn‘t help my mood, and really dents into what is otherwise flawless pacing – you can complete the bulk of some levels, only to realise you need to backtrack and do something with a character near its beginning.
Perhaps I’m just rubbish, but whether you attribute these problems down to poor play or not, they still lead to situations with feel unnecessarily annoying. All these minor niggles created a situation whereupon,
once I realised I was nearing the end of the story, I was quietly hoping it would hurry up and end already, just so I didn’t have to put up with another inconvenience. Considering the game itself is only three hours long, however, and… Well, you can perhaps see why that might be a bit of a problem.
Thomas was Alone is far from perfect, then, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. It’s still perfectly playable, and the charming narration and story do a lot to help plaster over the faults that might rear their ugly head as you move along. It’s a fine example of how much you can do with so very little, and also stands as a perfect counterpoint against the sheer flood of lazily made indie games with tiny budgets that flood the market every day. So don’t be a square – check this out.