In October 2010, during a 24-hour game jam at Blitz Studios, Mike Bithell hacked together a flash-based physics puzzler using quadrilateral shapes of varying sizes and abilities. These unassuming rhomboids represented a group of sentient AI programs, trapped within a computer mainframe, who become self-aware and realise a common goal to escape the confines of their system.
The game opens with Thomas, a small red rectangle pondering his own existence and jumping through portals which enable him to progress through the many and varied instances of the AI ‘testing environment’. Over the following levels we are introduced to Chris, Claire, James, Laura, John and Sarah, each with their own distinctive shapes, abilities and personalities. Some levels feature one or two characters helping each other reach their respective portals; others will showcase the combined might of all seven individuals working in symbiosis to escape.
At its heart, Thomas Was Alone is a very clever platformer, but it’s Bithell’s storytelling that sets it apart from the competition. The personification of these little bouncing coloured shapes is thanks to a BAFTA winning narrative performance from British humorist, Danny Wallace. In a recent interview with IGN UK, Bithell recalled how he wrote the original treatment – while slightly inebriated – and emailed it directly to Wallace on-spec. Wallace, upon reading the script, immediately consented to add his unique vocal talents.
It’s this smart, snappy dialogue that keeps you playing. Clever references to popular culture are peppered throughout the character monologues. You also gain insight into each shape’s personal views and opinions of the group. There comes a point when you genuinely connect with their varying predicaments.
Ultimately, this is a game about friendship. It’s not trying to be grandiose in its ideals, but it provides enough thought and depth of character to rival some AAA titles. It even garnered a BAFTA nomination for ‘Story’, ranking alongside heavy hitters like Mass Effect 3 and The Walking Dead.
You can only control one shape at any time, switching between them with either the Dualshock triggers or an intuitive touch interface on the Vita. After a few levels you really do stop seeing the shapes and instead start to recognise these little blocks for their unique strengths and weaknesses. Some AIs can jump immense distances but are too tall to fit through tight spaces; one of them can swim; one can act like a trampoline, providing support for the less agile blocks.
Graphically, the visuals are basic but striking, with a highly polished aesthetic backed by a catchy electronica soundtrack courtesy of David Housden.
The latter stages become quite tricky, requiring pixel perfect manoeuvring of the shapes to ensure all the sentient AIs make it out of the instance. However, the game has a near perfect learning curve, and so mastering some of the trickier levels provides a lot of satisfaction, especially when utilising all of the characters’ abilities.
There was some repetition evident in the puzzle solving – which may even have been intentional - but overall the flow of the game builds to a satisfying conclusion. New mechanics are worked seamlessly into the later levels, such as meshes that change the behaviour of AIs passing through them.
The PSN crossplay feature is also a welcome addition. On several occasions I found myself leaving my PS3 and syncing on the go with my Vita to continue to story. The intuitive controls make it easy to pick up and play in small sessions. It’s also currently available as a free download to PS+ subscribers.
It seems strange that such a simple looking game, featuring nondescript shapes of differing colours and sizes, can conjure so much emotion. But upon playing Thomas Was Alone, the depth and scale of this title are immediately evident.
Critical and commercial success has enabled Bithell to become a full-time self-funded developer. He has stated that he currently has no specific ideas for his next endeavour. The only certainty is that he will be utilising the skills and experience garnered from Thomas Was Alone and mixing that with one more vital ingredient: feedback from the friends he has made along the way.