Thomas Was Alone is a game about rectangles. Okay, there are some squares, but all the characters in the game are basic colored quadrilateral polygons. The story of theses characters is one that will make you feel things you wouldn’t expect a story about colored quadrilateral polygons to make you feel.
Gameplay-wise, Thomas is a fairly straightforward platformer. You, as Thomas or another one of the shapes, jump and maneuver your way upwards and to the right. Like any platformer, really. Mario, MegaMan, Sonic; you’re almost always moving to the right. Nothing special there. Where Thomas Was Alone shines is in its narrative cladding. Chapters are given a small preamble that reads like developer’s notes on a project or excerpts from a later book on the events of the game. They’re snippets of flavor text that set the game in a bigger scale, they tell of the kindling of true Artificial Intelligence and of selflessness. But that’s not where the meat of the story comes in.
It’s the narration, presented clear and wry by Danny Wallace, that really communicates the story. In each level, the narrator tells us what the characters are thinking (“Thomas was alone. What a weird first thought to have.”) as they move through the level. Now, the old adage does say to show, not tell, and Thomas Was Alone does a fair amount of telling, in that it’s through the narration that we find out that Thomas is an inquisitive rectangle who makes notes of his observations, or that Claire wants to be a superhero, or that Chris and Laura are falling for each other. The narrator tells this, and so we ascribe these emotions and intentions to the plain rectangles doing the most basic of platforming.
As humans, we intrinsically interpret events as stories and narratives. Not just in our own lives, but in what we see happening. In 1944 Marianne Simmel and Fritz Heider published An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior wherein the showed a simple animation of a bunch of shapes moving about the screen and had observers describe what happened. Despite the animation being crude and, uh, just shapes, stories were described of violence and heartbreak; shapes were described as being mean or scared.
Again, this is all just shapes.
But we as people have a tendency to not just tell stories, but to anthropomorphize the world around us. When we see a big triangle closing in on a small circle, we ascribe motivations to those actions and shapes, just attribution theory says we do it to people. We find a narrative, we find a story.
While the narration of Thomas Was Alone does much of the narrative legwork, the gameplay serves to reinforce it. In the beginning, Thomas is alone, but when he meets the other characters, the platforming gets a little more tricky. The shapes need to work together to keep going upwards and to the right; maybe John needs to jump on Thomas to reach a switch so that Chris can get to the end; maybe everyone needs to balance on Sarah to make it across the toxic water. The gameplay reinforces the narrative idea that the shapes need each other because you need each one to be able to beat each level. Also, the personalities that the narrator prescribes to each shape stick, not just because of our human need to anthropomorphize, but because each shape has a different color and shape, behaves differently, and makes a different noise when they jump. Thomas and Sarah feel different when you’re controlling them, and so they feel like individuals. It all works together.
That Thomas Was Alone is able to tell a genuinely moving story through shapes and basic platforming a testament to both Mike Bithell’s game design and the human capacity for empathy and storytelling. We like stories, we like being moved. And that’s even if it’s just colored quadrilaterals.