Why I Love Thomas Was Alone – A Reflection on Storytelling and Characterization in Games

The Problem This weekend I played the quirky indie puzzle-platformer, Thomas Was Alone, and proceeded to feel terrible about myself.

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I picked up the game during Playstation’s Flash Sale for 99 cents. I had 4 dollars and 1 cent in my Playstation wallet at the time, and even then, I was hesitant about purchasing the title. The game seemed to feature little other than colorful squares and rectangles prancing and falling about an equally squarish backdrop. I didn’t have anything particularly against quadrilaterals, per se, but I wasn’t sure if it would be enough to hold my ever-flitting interest. However, after doing some research online, and reading some incredibly positive Wikipedia comments, I decided to give the game a chance. After playing Thomas Was Alone for a few minutes, I came upon the realization that I am a wretched human being. I am wretched and I should feel horrible about myself.

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The Reason
The first reason for this is that I only paid 99 cents for what is, in my humble opinion, a masterpiece in minimalist design. Thomas Was Alone greatly exceeded my expectations on what an indie game can and should be. The second reason is that not only did I buy the game for 99 cents, but it took me a good hour of consideration before I did it. Last week I spent 15 dollars on a plate of butter chicken that I didn’t even eat because it tasted slightly more peanut-buttery than I expected, yet spending a dollar on an indie game seemed like too big of a risk.

I cannot justify my priorities here, but I suppose I can admit that I wasn’t expecting the game to be as brilliant as it was, (not that this in any way justifies anything). I was expecting some clever puzzles and maybe some interesting visuals, but what I wasn’t expecting was brilliant writing. Thomas Was Alone masterfully combines a minimalist art style with an arguably equally minimalist narrative and the result is some of the best characterization and personality I have seen in an indie title, (and in many big name titles as well).

What’s So Great About It?
The protagonist is a red rectangle named Thomas. Thomas does not interact with the other rectangles – he does not sing or dance or make jokes; he sits motionless in the corner awaiting player input just as one would expect him to do. Because he is a rectangle.

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However, there is a narrator. The narrator tells the player how each of the squares and rectangles are feeling while the player is playing. Claire, for example, feels like rubbish. She is big and slow. She can’t jump well. She is useless. This, in itself, is not much of a story. However, the brilliance of Thomas Was Alone lies not so much in what is told to the player, but in what isn’t. We understand Claire – we understand that she is a self-conscious square. She is not as fast as the other quadrilaterals. She cannot jump as high. We know now that moving quickly and jumping high are valued among the squares and rectangles. We also now know that Claire, unlike Thomas, was not alone. There is a whole world behind Claire. Perhaps Claire was left behind because she could not jump over the platforms like the others. Perhaps she is heartbroken, her four-sided sweetie-to-be leaving her for a faster, more slender rectangle.

These things are never told to the player. They are likely not even intended to be true by the developer. However, the player imprints this history and this personality onto Claire and it becomes true. We love Claire. We hope she makes it.

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Each of the quadrilaterals has their own distinct personalities. When Claire meets up with the cynical orange Chris, the player feels anxious. Will they get along? We are worried; we want the others to like Claire, to appreciate her unique abilities and to know that she is valued and loved. There is, of course, no action playing out for the player on screen; the squarish and rectangular pieces move as the player controls them and nothing more.

But we know.

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We feel Chris’ despair each and every time we jump him on top of the taller, bouncier Thomas in order to boost Chris over yet another platform that is slightly too big for him. We feel guilty because we know, thanks to the narrator, that Chris doesn’t like Thomas. Chris thinks he can make it on his own. We feel bad for Chris when we force him to work together with Thomas.

And yet, when Chris is alone, we know he misses Thomas. Not only because the narrator tells us so, but because we can feel it. The level design changes when one of the characters is on their own. No longer is the game a cooperative puzzler amongst a selection of quadrilaterals with distinct and unique abilities – the player is forced to play a twitchy platformer during these lonely times instead. Why? Because there is only one character to select and puzzles cannot be solved alone. But the game isn’t as fun when we’re alone, and so we feel genuine joy when we’re reunited with our squarish friends on the next level, and we know our lonely quadrilaterals are happy, too.

Thomas Was Alone is filled with character interaction and development that is neither stated by the narrator nor shown to the player on-screen; much of it is completely and utterly imagined by the player instead. And, yet, this does not seem to make it any less true. The narrator gives us just enough to create a world, to keep us interested and entertained, and leaves the rest to us.

This kind of imaginary character design is similar to what we’ve seen with Portal’s Weighted Companion Cube. The Companion Cube never spoke to the player, it never moved. It never did anything, because it was a box with some hearts on it. But it was our friend. Perhaps because we were so alone, and Companion Cube was all we had. We clung to it. We loved it. We gave it “Best Sidekick” awards. It left us heartbroken.

Why Is This Important?
Creating good characters and strong worlds in video games is a challenge. Many would argue that these elements aren’t particularly important; gameplay should always be the first priority. However, when a story is created only to move the player from one level to another, it is apparent and the story becomes artificial. Grand Theft Auto has a story, for example, but the gameplay does not serve as a means to move the player through the story so much as the story is a catalyst to provide players with some good old-fashion shoot-em-up gameplay. Most players aren’t interested to see how the cocky gang-leader makes out with the local police so much as they are interested in stealing some cars, running over some “women of loose morals” and shooting down some helicopters just for fun.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Not every game has to be a literary masterpiece. People game for different reasons and that is perfectly okay. But lately I have been struggling to find motivation to complete games. In Thomas Was Alone, I did not complete every level for the satisfaction of knowing that I am intelligent and capable of solving puzzles. Not because the puzzles weren’t clever, (because they were!) and not because I don’t enjoy a challenge, (because I do!) but because I simply need more motivation to continue playing. I know that if I keep playing, I will beat the level, even if it’s challenging. There is no reason to assume I won’t because I have beaten every game I have ever tried to beat before, eventually. There is nothing to prove and while I do feel a little proud of myself for being so clever, it’s not always enough.

Thomas Was Alone motivates me because I desperately need to know what happens to each of the characters. Just as I played through each level of Portal with the knowledge that I will be awarded with a witty one-liner from GLaDOS, I play through Thomas Was Alone with the knowledge that I will learn more about each of my four-sided companions. I will see them grow and change and watch their relationships with one another develop and deepen over time.

I keep playing because I don’t want Thomas to be alone anymore.

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About Jessi

I love to create. I love to take things, break them apart, and remake them into something that they were never meant to be. Sometimes I use words; sometimes I don't. My blog is devoted to exploring storytelling in its various forms - from traditional, to experimental - and how creativity and storytelling can persist in everyday life. I am also fascinated by video gaming as a mixed-media art form, and would love to eventually develop my own indie game. I love to push the boundaries of what a "story" or a "game" can be. Twitter - @JessiTypesStuff
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