Monday, 20 August 2012

Video Game Review | Thomas Was Alone, dev. Mike Bithell

In the beginning, Thomas Was Alone.

Thomas is a skinny red rectangle. Not much of a looker, no, but what of it? He's alive!

The simple visual representation of an AI in the right place at the right time - or so the story goes - Thomas becomes conscious of his own existence in the opening moments of creator Mike Bithell's blissful brainchild. Almost immediately, he decides to record his observations for posterity, and as he has them, thanks to Danny Wallace's mostly measured narration, we hear them.

For less long than I might have liked, Thomas has a jolly old time running and jumping and falling around the levels of some strange purgatory world — or rather what little of it he has access to. As his awareness grows in depth and complexity, however, so too does the abstract, graph-paper plane he inhabits. Soon, sadly, Thomas finds himself overmatched by the environment... it's a stroke of luck when he bumps into Chris, a small orange square — even if he is a bit of a hater. Despite his dislike of Thomas, Chris helps his accidental companion navigate the next few levels, and of course the skinny red rectangle returns the favour, because he fancies himself a bit of a hero. They can either work together towards something more, they realise, or continue to exist where they are alone.

Through the next portal they go, then... where they meet another AI. Someone who is a little bit different from either of them again.

In the beginning, Thomas Was Alone, but by the end, my oh my had he made some friends!

For an indie game made almost entirely by one man, the aforementioned Mike Bithell, Thomas Was Alone is truly an incredible accomplishment. It's short at around two to four hours of gameplay, but so neat and sweet in that tiny amount of time that it leaves a hole in your heart when - all too soon - it's over.

Not unlike a game along the lines of Fez, but maybe more like Super Meat Boy without the madness - indeed the meatiness - Thomas Was Alone has you doing very some simple things in increasingly complicated situations. Each of the AIs Thomas meets over the course of his awakening has a unique ability, and a personality to boot: for instance Claire, a big blue blob, has self-image issues, but she can float in water, without which skill Thomas and Chris are plum unable to progress.

Later we're introduced to various other AIs. Many others, as a matter of fact, and given that the player controls them all - switching between them with the Q and E keys - for a moment it feels like Thomas Was Alone is going to descend into tedious micromanaging. But Bithell is on the ball: he never insists that we do any one thing for too long, introducing new characters and dispatching those that have served their purpose with a ruthlessness that belies the astonishingly heartfelt tale Thomas Was Alone tells. Nor are any of the mechanics repeated often enough that they wear out their welcome; a lesson the vast majority of games today would be well to learn.

Mike Bithell might be the primary mind behind the machine, but I should stress that Thomas Was Alone isn't a wholly solo specimen. The sound, say, is as good as the look, which is simply striking: all but unadorned, yet absolutely alive. Anyway, each of the game's ten worlds comes complete with an original ambient track by David Housden, whose atmospheric music complements the aesthetics of the entire smartly.

Credit too to Danny Wallace, whose performance - excepting a few awkward attempts at inflection that put me in mind of early audiobooks - gives credible personality to each and every one of the AIs.

But the writing, the coding, the art, the everything else... that's all down to Bithell, and Bossa Studios' erstwhile lead designer hits it out of the park. In fact he hits it up, and to the right!

That's a bit of an in-joke you're just going to have to play Thomas Was Alone to see the sense of. I wouldn't be surprised to see it come to the PS3 at some point in the future, but for the moment it's PC only. Ideal, then, that it runs like a dream — even on creaky machines like mine.

You can get a copy of Thomas Was Alone direct from the developer via this link, and I dearly recommend you do.

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