Summer of Indie Pt. 1 – Thomas was Alone

It’s summer, which in case you haven’t already noticed means that there are basically no new games coming out. With promotions like the Steam Summer Sale and the XBLA Summer of Arcade, it is clear that gamers are supposed to be playing through some indie games when they are sunbathing on the beach, if you happen to live in Florida, or dancing in sprinklers, if you don’t. So today I am beginning the first of what I hope to be many articles highlighting some indie games I have played recently. What I love about these games is that each game offers a truly unique experience that could only happen in an indie title. But I am getting ahead of myself, so without further ado lets jump in to my first summer indie title.

Thomas was Alone

Let me get this out of the way to start, Thomas was Alone (which I will now refer to as TwA) is a masterpiece. Seriously, this game it in my top five indie games of all time alongside other works of genius like Bastion and Braid. I name those two, particular games because of the shared elements that TwA employs as well. Like Braid, TwA is a story driven puzzle game. Or is it platformer? I guess it’s a bit of both. While the puzzles maybe aren’t quite as ingenious or head scratching as Braid’s, they are just as engaging. To put it in perspective, upon firing up TwA I did not stop playing until the games conclusion, solving puzzle after addictive puzzle until the credits rolled some two hours later. Yes the game is short, but it is also immensely satisfying and you could probably pick it up for less than a cup of coffee. The puzzle mechanics are simple, physics driven gameplay primarily involving jumping, sliding and falling until you reach a goal “portal” which is often located “up and to the right.” Nothing special right? Wrong. The game quickly introduces multiple character pieces who each have their own “special powers.” For example one of the characters acts as a springboard of sorts, allowing the other characters to bound off her to reach higher places in the level. Notice I said “her” not “it,” more on that in a moment. Another character can float on the otherwise deadly water, acting as a raft to ferry the player characters to new areas. The game slowly introduces each character’s mechanics before asking the player to employ them in concert with the other characters in order to reach the increasingly difficult goal “portal.” By the middle of the game I was quickly dissecting the level’s layout in order to effectively utilize my small five piece army of character sprites to get each of them to the end (you can only end the level once each character is aligned with their specific goal portal). TwA is a game that requires coordination and planning instead of quick thinking (with a few levels being the exception). Yet as complicated as these obstacle courses got, they were never frustratingly so like some of the Braid puzzles. At the end of the more complicated levels I would often sit back quite satisfied with my accomplishment before diving back into the next level.

Don’t judge a game by its screenshot. You have to see this one in-motion.

But viewing TwA as simply a puzzle platformer game would be to do it a disservice. I would even go so far as to say that the puzzles themselves are second to the actual story. Thomas was Alone tells the story of a red quadrilateral AI called Thomas. Yes, you read correctly, this game’s protagonist is a red rectangle. Upon first reading about this game I too thought this was ridiculous, but ten minutes into the game I was entranced by this plucky little sprite who was simply looking for a friend. You see, Thomas starts the game alone, forced to speculate about the word he inhabits to himself. This speculation is transmitted to the player in the form of narration by the phenomenal Danny Wallace. Wallace’s narration is both charming and intuitive, often reflecting on the very actions you are taking the moment you take them. You see, this is a game in which the gameplay and the story are interwoven to the extent that they are greater than the sum of any individual part. By the end of the story I had experienced joy as Thomas befriended each new quadrilateral, fear as he dodged the pursuing pixel cloud of death, and delight at the various narrated anecdotes.

The gang’s all here.

The story and gameplay are also augmented by a simply phenomenal soundtrack and a minimalistic art design. The soundtrack is composed of a mix of simply piano melodies and electronic beats that is always subtle and complements the narrative beautifully. I am listening to TwA‘s soundtrack right now, and am reminded by games various themes of the dynamic range the game hits emotionally with distorted piano notes punctuated with digital tones to create a melancholic sound. The art design is equally effective as the soundtrack, with Thomas’s digital world filled with shadow and light that is extremely simple but always effective. Sometimes this minimalistic design of light and shadow creates moments of hesitation when it comes to judging jumps and heights of objects, especially for those characters that can barely jump. But these are rare moments, and are never confusing. TwA uses its art and sound to contribute in meaningful ways to the narrative and gameplay, which all work together to create a incredibly compelling experience.

So in case you couldn’t tell, I am in love with Thomas was Alone, and whether you consider yourself a hardcore gamer or only play Mario, like my wife, I am willing to bet that you too would fall in love with Thomas and his gang of misfit quadrilaterals. This is a game about friendship, working together and finding out that no one should go through this world alone, and that is a game I can get behind. You simply Must Play Thomas was Alone.

Check back again in a few days when I look at two short and incredibly unique titles, Proteus and Dear Esther. See you then.


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