Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Thomas Was Alone

These days, it's no longer revolutionary for a game to use its gameplay systems as narrative devices.  But doing something really well is always rare, and while Thomas Was Alone is pretty visibly influenced by Portal and Braid, it's influenced by their smartest aspects.  Like those games, it uses the foundation of the puzzle-platformer genre as a place to build a cleverly cohesive fusion of gameplay and narrative.

From Portal, TWA gets the idea of making a story out of its own construction.  Most puzzle games are set in stylized, often deliberately "computery" worlds, so the player just accepts their conventions without too many questions; no one's going to ask whose engagement ring these three matching gems are for.  But Portal was set in a realistic 3D environment, so it needed some explanation for why the universe was a series of just-barely-transcendable barriers.   The game's story of a person who had to make her way through computer-operated tests was a series of gentle pokes at the fourth wall, jokingly putting the player in the same position as the character, though with a bit less risk of falling into a fire pit.

Thomas Was Alone is visually nearer to Tetris than Portal, which makes it a touching act of gratuitous creativity that that designer Matt Bithell gave it one of the better game narratives this year.  We would have just accepted that the little dots have to get to the outline because the outline is the right size for a little dot, but TWA turns the progression through levels into drama.  TWA's tale of computer-generated dots getting to the end of a program raises the bar on Portal's metafiction by openly acknowledging that all its characters are not just in a computer-generated environment but are themselves computer-generated.  There's a thrillingly modernist, even Marxist materialism in such frankness.

It helps that the story is told with a narrative compression that a lot of big-budget games could learn from; there's just enough information to spark the player's imagination without drowning us in irrelevant detail.  And despite the deliberately crude visuals, Bithell cleverly built character traits around each dot's abilities--- the jump-assist character is too eager to please, the low-jumper is jealous, and so on---so that I found myself somehow feeling like each dot looked exactly like that character would look.  Which is a neat trick when they're all a bunch of colored pixels arranged in an inexpressive line!

Better still is TWA's use of game mechanics as vital narrative elements.  As the verb tense suggests, Thomas Was Alone is a game about the shift from solitude to society, with all the attendant risks and rewards: companionship, mutual aid, obligation, betrayal, and the simple irritation of having to deal with people who aren't like you.  You start the game controlling a single character, and you're gradually joined by more as the game shifts from heroic quest to ensemble drama.  Initially, as I had to switch between multiple characters in the quest for the goal, I found myself instinctively trying to play like I did in the early levels---get a dot to its goal, go back and get the next dot to its goal, and so on.  But it quickly becomes obvious that the dots can only get to the end by working together, and the act of discovering that the characters must work as a team nicely forces identification with the characters learning the very same lesson.

As gamers, we're used to investing personality into what are really just a bunch of lights.  Usually, designers work to obscure that from us, lest we become ashamed of our anthropomorphizing sentimentality; Thomas Was Alone makes that the point of the game.  Even more striking, it does so while making a bold attack on the thematic foundations of typical video games.   Most single-player gaming is inadvertently, and perhaps inescapably, driven by a sort of sociopathy.  Everything you meet in the world must answer only one question: "How can you benefit me?"  With gentle, sweet-natured good humor, Thomas Was Alone nudges the player to a much more human question: "How can we help each other?"

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