Alright, so I generally don’t like writing negative reviews of indie games, especially when that game was the pride and joy of a single person. I write about games here because I want to share some really awesome stories and experiences with people that they otherwise would have missed. It’s one thing to tear apart a popular over-hyped blockbuster game that fails to meet the promises of quality made by its multi-million dollar budget, but it’s another to take a relatively obscure work, the very personal dream of a single artist, and rip it to shreds. But you know, gosh darn it, I haven’t written anything in a while, don’t have much else game-related to write about for the moment, and promised to write at least two pieces for Beta Fish this summer, so I’m going to meet that promise or die trying. Not to mention I just spent four hours of my life on the game in question, swore at my computer screen for a bit, didn’t get much out of the experience, and am kind of annoyed. Okay, maybe there’s a little part of me that is going to enjoy writing this review. Time to relieve some tension…
Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle platformer by Mike Bithell released last year. In it, you play as a group of artificial intelligences (read: colored rectangles?) who seek to empower other intelligences in their computer system to escape somewhere somehow (I don’t know). Each AI has their own special quirk (high jump, short height, buoyancy, etc), and they must combine their strengths to navigate through the computer system. It is a solid concept, but the execution is lacking.
For the most part, the game just isn’t much fun. There are a few puzzles that are remarkably clever (the highlight for me was when two characters, one who flies upward, the other who falls downward, have meet together in the middle so they can together float across the level), but most of them were trivial, and many levels consisted of each character navigating to the end of each level in isolation, resulting in little more than mediocre platforming. There are very few moments of gratification in the game – the reward for overcoming each trivial challenge is minuscule. On the other hand, there were many moments of frustration. There are a number of bugs that occur when player characters collide with moving platforms. For example, characters sometimes don’t move with the platform that they are standing on, and other times characters who are colliding with the side of a moving platform, for some reason, stop falling. In addition, the more action-oriented sequences of the game are poorly designed. Characters occasionally have to outrun a hazard or jump across a series of moving platforms, but it seems as though little thought was put into the movement and timing of the set pieces in each level. Overcoming each challenge felt like less of a testament of my skill and more of a product of chance.
Then there’s the issue of the story. For some reason, Thomas has received much praise for it’s storytelling. While the story itself is well conceived and had much potential, the way in which it is told is simply unengaging. One of the most basic rules for telling a good story is to show something instead of telling it. If you want the audience to think that a character is stupid, or eccentric, or brave, you have that character demonstrate their stupidity, eccentricity, or courage through their behavior, their speech, their facial expressions, anything. In Thomas, the entire story is narrated, and so the character’s personalities are entirely expressed through narration and nothing else. On-screen the characters are nothing more than rectangular blocks. They don’t speak, respond to their surroundings, or offer any indication of emotion. I didn’t care about them at all. You can tell me that a red rectangle is lonely all you want, but if it doesn’t actually appear lonely, I’ll just scoff at you and call it a day.
All of that being said, the game does have it’s own charms. The writing’s decent, and although I found it’s cheesiness a little annoying by the end, other people find it endearing. So if a simple tongue-in-cheek puzzle platformer about computer programs sounds like your cup of tea, go ahead and drink it. But if you want to play though an interactive story told well, then play Kentucky Route Zero (Act 2 just came out and it’s amazing!) or Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle (it’s cheap as free!). Or read a book or something I don’t know.
Alex Higgins is (almost) a junior and writes more about games at his personal blog here. At the moment he’s bitter and confused. ‘Why do other people like this thing I don’t like?’ he asks himself. He seeks the truth.