One Giant Leap, 2012: Thomas Was Alone

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we learn the value of friendship (and minimalism!) in Thomas Was Alone

Okay so first I owe you an explanation. At the end of last month’s article I said I was doing Fez this month. Well, I tried. I played Fez for maybe 30 minutes. Fez is a game with a a really neat and immediately eye-catching central mechanic; the game is purely 2D but the levels are all 3D. The player can, at any time, rotate the world by 90 degrees, changing the layout of platforms once everything gets flattened back down to 2D. It’s the sort of inherently interesting idea that meant, even though I had never played Fez before and had no real pre-conceived idea of where the article would go, I simply had to play it.

The mechanic in action

However, Fez is a very open game. The starting island gives you plenty of freedom to scour it for all 8 cube pieces you need to progress, and once you do the game keeps opening up, being1 mainly about player freedom and loosely-directed exploration. And that’s a totally valid thing to be. But it’s not for me, fundamentally. If I don’t have a limited possibility space and clear expectations, along with constant positive reinforcement, I get intimidated and shut down2 Through no fault of its own Fez and I are just fully incompatible.

So! We instead turn to a quite constrained game, one that I can fully grok, fellow indie platformer hit Thomas Was Alone. Thomas is conceptually quite interesting on a production level. Mike Bithell is credited as “creator”; there are two other people credited under “meshes”, and beyond that it appears that Bithell is responsible for all design, art, and programming in the game. Bithell comes from the “professional” side of the industry, where he is almost always simply a designer. So, all that to say, Thomas Was Alone is a game from someone who normally doesn’t do professional level art or programming, and who has to compensate for that. As a fellow designer I feel his pain.

The main way Thomas Was Alone compensates is immediately obvious. You play, initially, as Thomas, and later as other characters after he stops being alone. All of these characters are simply colored rectangles. They deform a little bit when jumping, a very clean squash and stretch that even a total art scrub like myself could do. It’s an aesthetic that takes next to no technical expertise, and yet immediately gives the game a unique aesthetic. It even ties directly into gameplay, as the characters’ varied shapes are often the focus of puzzles. It’s one of the most obvious cases you can find of turning a weakness into a strength.

The gang’s all here!

Thomas Was Alone is, structurally, very much a Flash Game as a genre, if that makes sense.3 You start out quite simply, with plain old Thomas doing plain old platforming, then as the game progresses it slowly doles out more and more complications, first in the form of new level elements (toxic water, switches) and then with new characters with new abilities (can jump high, can serve as a bounce pad for the others). It’s the sort of tight spooling of interest that works just perfectly for me and my need for constant gold stars, but beyond personal psychological baggage it’s just quite well set up. It’s not a game that exhausts you with too steep escalation, and it’s not a game that bores you by making you do too much of the same thing.

This variety is also used really well to tie into the game’s story. At a 30,000ft glance, Thomas Was Alone is a story about building friendship, and the power thereof. “We are stronger together, a bundle of arrows is strong, etc” that sort of thing. The game’s various characters can use their different abilities to help each other out, sometimes even literally forming a staircase to make sure no one gets left behind. A blunt ludic metaphor but I’m not opposed to bluntness4. The story doesn’t work perfectly with the gameplay. As the story progresses, Thomas and his friends gain more agency, escaping the system that created them (they’re AIs that gain sentience, basically). But the entire game is just reaching the end goals of linear puzzle platformer setups. All of this story about characters choosing to do things happens as narration. Maybe the tension here is intentional, and I’m simply missing the point of it, but it doesn’t really work for me.

Overall though Thomas Was Alone is a fun experience. It’s a testament to what you can accomplish even with limited visual art skills which, as a designer who can’t draw for shit has always felt personally inspiring. It’s another great game that started life as a free Flash release, something that’s sadly going to quickly stop happening as we get further and further out from Steve Jobs’ accursed decree. And it’s a game where you always know where to go; sometimes that’s the most important thing of all.

Stray Observations:

  • Although I don’t have much to say about Fez, I do remember its creator Phil Fish being a lightning rod of controversy in early 10’s gaming press before he ultimately left game dev entirely. If you’re interested in that odd, mostly-forgotten phenomena then video essayist Ian Danskin has you covered
  • It’s less relevant, but Thomas Was Alone coming from a non-programmer is also obvious if you know where to look. The way that characters will sometimes get stuck against platforms or bounce when riding moving platforms is just what you get/got with out-of-the-box Unity rigidbody physics. If you’re a fancy engineer you can compensate for and eliminate all of that, but if you’re a designer who’s more comfortable with scripting than capital “p” Programming then you get the foibles that come with your shortcuts. Most people won’t notice; someone who has herself tried to make a platformer feel good in Unity circa 2012 will call your ass out every time.
  • When Thomas gains access to the Internet for 12 seconds, he sees the wonders of “cats who couldn’t spell, …the arrow through the knee…a thing called cake, but…it was a lie” which, even for 2012 that sure is a store-bought joke. I’m not completely heartless though, there’s also a “tighten up the graphics on level 3” reference that I appreciated.
  • I didn’t necessarily need the final few sets of levels to exist. I feel like when we leave the main crew and introduce the new characters the game wears out its welcome. It’s such a short game that it’s not a huge deal, but still.

Other 2012 platformers of note:

Spelunky is another game I almost covered this month. It’s a rougelike that (say it with me!) started life as a Flash game a few years prior…except psych it wasn’t Flash, it was freeware made in GameMaker5. It’s simultaneously a cave exploration game and an Indiana Jones pastiche. As part of that, you can rescue damsels in distress, an element that came in for some criticism6. The developer’s solution is very “early 10s well-meaning dude”, offering players the option to change the damsel to either a beefcake dude or a cute pug, a choice that is simultaneously kinda cool and also subtly misses the point.

The fourth option is a randomizer, not a hideous hybrid beast (sadly)

Elsewhere, Journey is an interesting, experimental multiplayer game. You play coop online with a randomly assigned partner. There’s no voice chat, so the two of you build a bond and cooperate entirely with in-game actions. It honestly sounds really neat, and if the nature of the game didn’t make it hard to revisit 11 years and 2 console generations later I probably would have covered it this year. Maybe. 2012 has options, clearly.

Next Time: We keep the multiplayer cooperation going (or, you know, throw each other off the edge) with Super Mario 3D World.