The culprit: Thomas Was Alone (PC via Steam, Mac, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U)
Who would have thought that a 2D platformer about bouncing squares and rectangles could produce relatable characters? And yet, Thomas Was Alone demonstrates that this is, in fact, possible. Deceptively simple in its controls and gameplay, the game gradually draws you in and makes you genuinely care about the fate of its geometrical protagonists, all the while spinning out a surprisingly elaborate storyline.
The game takes place within a computer system, where several A.I.s have become self-aware as the result of an unexplained event. None of the characters can speak, but there is an omniscient narrator (the same VA who voiced Shaun in the Assassin’s Creed series), who describes the main events, as well as each character’s personality. It’s a lot more charming than it sounds, and the narrator plays a huge part in making the cast relatable. The titular Thomas is the first one you encounter: a red rectangle, described as being curious, observant and a compulsive note-taker. At the outset, he is, indeed, alone (it’s actually his first independent thought). But he eventually encounters Chris, a grumpy, pessimistic orange square; John, a tall, haughty yellow rectangle; Claire, a jovial, large blue square who believes she’s a superhero; and Laura, a long pink rectangle who is wary of being used by others and is also followed by a strange dark cloud. Which doesn’t prevent Chris from developing a crush on her. Yes, there is even a geometrical figure romance.
Thomas, Chris, John, Claire and Laura form the initial team. Then they get separated, and Thomas meets up with two more characters: James, who looks like a green version of Thomas and is afraid of being bullied; and Sarah, a very small purple rectangle who has had her own adventure before. Then, the final chapter of the game introduces a second generation of A.I.s, who are all different (not 50, thankfully) shades of grey: the aptly-named, devious Grey, who is steel-grey and shaped like John; cautious Jo, who is dark grey and looks like Thomas; her more adventurous partner, Sam, who is very light grey and looks like Chris; Paul, who is a small, khaki-grey rectangle, older and more perceptive than the others; and Team Jump, a group of five tiny steel-grey squares who always act as a team. Sarah’s previous adventure also gets explored in a prequel DLC called Benjamin’s Flight, which introduces two more characters, who are prototype A.I.s that existed before Thomas: the eponymous Benjamin, a small green square who likes sandwiches and inherits a jetpack from his father, and Anna, a recalcitrant long blue rectangle, similar to Laura.
Each character besides Thomas has its own quirks. Chris is short enough to fit into small spaces, but his jumping skills are rather pitiful. John, on the other hand, can jump very high. Claire can float and ferry other characters across water on her ‘back’. Laura can serve as a trampoline for other characters, hence her fear of being used. James can jump upwards instead of downwards. Sarah can both fit into small spaces and double-jump. Benjamin can fly, courtesy of his jetpack. And Anna is better at jumping than Laura, although she doesn’t share her trampoline properties.
The second-generation characters behave like their lookalikes (except for Paul, who doesn’t have a first-generation counterpart), but can temporarily change that by using Shifters. These look like striped coloured blocks and grant any second-generation character that passes through them the abilities of the first-generation character of the corresponding colour, visually indicated by patterns of the corresponding colour appearing on the character. For example, if Jo passes through a blue Shifter, she will acquire a blue C-shaped pattern and be able to float, like Claire. Grey will get two coloured stripes, while Sam will only get one, Paul will get a horizontal C, and Team Jump will get spike-like shapes. A grey Shifter will return the character to their default state (including removing the coloured patterns).
The game is subdivided into ten levels, each further subdivided into ten short stages, for a grand total of 100 stages. You can be controlling anywhere from one to five characters within a given level, and you can switch between them freely to solve the various puzzles. The selection bar appears at the bottom right of the screen. The goal is to use each character’s unique ability to help the team traverse the levels, until they find portals, which look like white outlines of each character. This showcases the game’s theme of teamwork bringing out the best of each individual member. There are also 20 ‘pickups’ scattered throughout the levels, which look like little black squares. Collecting all of them awards an achievement, just for a little something extra to do.
There are negatives, of course. First, while the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, it can get a little repetitive towards the end. The gameplay is also fairly simplistic, and while each character has their own gimmick, they’re very easy to master, so people who like challenging gameplay mechanics might feel somewhat short-changed. I also thought there were a few characters too many, with the result that some felt redundant. In fact, all of the second-generation characters felt a bit tacked-on. Making geometric shapes personable isn’t an easy task, so it’s important that they a) are easily recognisable and b) have sufficient screen-time for players to get used to them, both of which happens with the first gen, but not the second. They may be different shapes, but they’re all varying shades of grey or taking on other characters’ colours, which doesn’t do much for their individuality. They also get a lot less screen-time, making them even harder to distinguish. There *is* a valid storyline reason for introducing them, it’s just that it could have been handled better. Maybe by splitting the game-time more evenly between the two generations. Or maybe by having fewer second-gen characters; Team Jump, for example, came across as somewhat expendable, even if they were cute and introduced an interesting gameplay mechanic.
Overall, though, this is an original concept and an interesting, good-humoured way to tell a story about A.I. gaining sentience, as opposed to the usual “evil robots will kill us all” approach. It won’t be winning any Game of the Year awards, but it’s a fun and quirky experience for people who like their games a bit off the beaten track.