Within my profession there’s a certain movement known as “programmer art”. This is usually identified as something created in Paint, taking results from a Google image search, or by use of very simple shapes. For the most part it plays its role as a placeholder until the real professionals breeze in, knock something gorgeous out in a matter of hours, and make me wish I’d never boastfully mentioned my A-level in art.
In the right setting, however, this look thrives. Listening to Mike Bithell’s director’s commentary for Thomas Was Alone, the simple shapes forming the core aesthetic came about because they were easy to work with. Couple that with a striking approach to shadowing that developed due to a wish to get something up and running quickly, and you have a game that is not only built on programmer art but defined by it.
It does nothing to diminish the game’s qualities, however. In fact it enhances what’s on show as the lack of high polygon models or master-crafted sprites highlight the heart of the experience, that of platforming and that of Thomas.
Each of the hundred-or-so levels are simply constructed, built from solid black lines where geometric design is key. There are no gentle slopes or undulating plains, everything is at 90 degrees to one another creating a world of floors, staircases and floating platforms. Strip away the tile editor from the old-school Mario or Megaman games and you’d probably find a very similar aesthetic, it’s just that Thomas Was Alone is not afraid to show you behind the curtain.
What this achieves is a distilled platformer. There are no trappings to distract here, leaving you to focus on traversing the levels with nothing but the jump button to rely upon. Stripped of everything it puts a lot of pressure on the core mechanics but happily there is a subtle brilliance to the control you have over your cube and his friends.
With each dab of the stick the movement feels solid and as you leap through the air your momentum is predictable. With so few – in fact zero – visible cues from your characters it would have been easy to feel detached, as if you were merely guiding rather than commanding their path through the world. Yet the controls are tight and responsive and are a joy to play with. This isn’t the floaty feeling in LittleBigPlanet but a far more measured approach where you have utter confidence about when and where you can jump and exactly where you’ll land.
This foundation is built upon with each shape having different talents. Initially you’ll meet Thomas who is a rectangle of average height and possesses a relatively good jump, whilst Chris is a small, stocky cube who fails to jump anywhere near the height of Thomas. Levels that were easy for Thomas are now slightly tougher with a short-arse in tow, and so cooperation is required. All the characters at one point or another will become extra platforms for their less able chums to clamber up, though, not to be heightist, the smaller ones will be able to sneak through low gaps to trigger switches. It’s all about choosing the right shape for the job and then ensuring they can get there.
As well as mere size and reach, further shapes are introduced which add extra complexity to levels. Some can be used as trampolines, others float in water, though the best physics defying cuboids are left for later in the game. These in particular add a sense of experimentation and come about at just the right point to reinvigorate proceedings.
Left here Thomas Was Alone would go down as a very elegant and well-executed platformer. It reduces the genre down to a base set of components and then builds up a stead degree of challenge. However there is more, as surprisingly the developer manages to inject personality into these simple shapes, causing you to care about them more than most polygonal game leads you’ll meet.
As the various quads are introduced, so are their characters. Our friend Thomas turns out to be an optimistic chap, fascinated with the world, and yet Chris is a dour, grumpy sod. He gets along with Thomas, but more because he has to rather than as a willing companion. It may seem a little contrived initially but as your time in this Flatland-variant continues you forget you’re puppeting faceless shapes. They turn rather into abstracted personalities and are very well suited to the form and its properties.
I remember back during the era of Worms and Cannon Fodder that my hapless soldiers would always develop their own traits, be it the coward always hiding at the back or the grumpy bugger that continually whinged because he had to carry the heavy rocket launcher. The same is true here, with Chris who always seems to need that extra helping hand due to his diminutive stature very believably having a chip on his shoulder. Then there’s the lean athlete who quite fittingly has the cocky attitude that he’s carrying the rest along, right through to the very self-conscious larger lady. I may be committed after this next sentence, but each shape is perfectly cast.
These personalities are all brought to life through the narration of Danny Wallace who at the start of each level reads an insight into the minds of one of our party. From the personal struggles of each through to the larger team dynamic, this storytelling makes the whole experience feel far more compelling than just a well-crafted platformer. It becomes the tale of personal struggle as a misfit bunch try and come to terms with not only the world about them but their own personal demons.
It’s a surprising outcome for a game primarily focused on getting you to jump from left to right but proves almost more rewarding because of it. Your motions are analogous with the shape’s journey and your reward for reaching your goal is helping them towards theirs.