Narrative in Video Games #5: Thomas Was Alone

While thinking about the narrative of Flower, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another game I had played some time ago. In presentation it was considerably more abstract, but in narrative it was more grounded… sorta. That game was Mike Bithell’s indie puzzle platformer, Thomas Was Alone, released on Steam in 2012. 

The striking part about Thomas Was Alone is its minimalism. From the outset, it’s clear that the game’s goal is to get the player to sympathize with a group of colored rectangles. No faces, no discernible expressions or “body” language, just a group of rectangle and a narrator. One would think this a recipe for failure, but it’s fascinating how well this works out. Every rectangle has its own unique color and proportions, but they also have different attributes. For example, John, the yellow rectangle, can jump higher than the others, while Laura, the pink rectangle, can bounce other rectangles off of herself. These small mechanical differences help characterize the rectangles beyond their simple appearances, and makes for a surprisingly character-driven platformer.

For the game’s strengths in character, however, it falters in actual story. Each rectangle is actually an AI that has become self-aware and perceives the virtual world as a 2D plane and itself as a rectangle. Their goal is to escape to the outside world via the internet. A little convoluted, but simple enough. Late in the game, however, Thomas and friends sacrifice themselves to become the “Architects” for all other AI to escape. Mechanically this means that special fields appear that allow you to augment the properties of whichever rectangle you’re controlling, but narratively we’re now in the fourth act with a fresh slate of characters headed for a second climax. It pulls the rug out from under the narrative’s pathos.

Thomas Was Alone suffers from some pacing issues and a narrative perhaps a little too complicated for its own good, but its minimalistic approach to characterization pays off surprisingly well.

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