This review features the opinions and musings of Derek Littlewood, with whom I engaged in some asynchronous and completely non-interactive back-and-forth.
Derek: I keep wanting to acronymise Thomas Was Alone, but something about the initials just makes me think people will get distracted. And it’s important to not get distracted, because Thomas Was Alone is a wonderful, unique thing that deserves your full attention.
NY: One thing you certainly can't criticise Thomas Was Alone for is trying something new. Unique is a good word for it: while this game features many well-known concepts and mechanisms, they are brought together in a presentation that makes the experience feel fresh.
Derek: The first thing that strikes you is how familiar it all feels. At least, it is for anyone like me who grew up on a diet of 2D platforming games long before they even really knew what an FPS even was. That carefully-weighted momentum of characters and their precisely-measured jumping speed and height dials right into muscle memories I haven’t used in years, and stripped down to the rawest of visual treatments there is no room for imprecision, and no chance of mistakes that are anything but your fault.
NY: It's been a while since I've played a platformer that has made me consciously remark how tight the controls feel. The various characters in this game all move with their own separate dynamics, but all in a predictable and satisfying way. It is immediately obvious which jumps can and can't be made, and it's this fine-tuned platforming that makes the twitchier levels such a joy to play. A shame, then, that so much of your time is actually absorbed in the more mundane activities of cycling through your bloated character-arsenal, moving them out of each other's way, and generally micromanaging. It's a shame too that as good as the controls are, the levels rarely give you the opportunity to flex your platforming muscle.
Derek: The narrative in Thomas takes a great huge shotgun blast out of my previously-cherished theory that the most rewarding stories in games are about the experience rather than the script. Although it makes for a captivating experience, it’s the deftly-written script and the characterisation it brings to those little coloured rectangles that really elevates it to something truly memorable. It’s funny too, with fan-pleasing nods to Portal and a few internet memes that show the game really knows its audience.
NY: The main point of praise I see for this game is that, in what seems almost an experimental success, the game manages to make you care about characters whose visual complexity is limited to their height, width, and fill colour. And admittedly you do eventually associate personalities with each quadrilateral. They are, however, rather two-dimensional personalities, restricted to perhaps one or two defining character traits that then get beaten to death throughout the game. And it's hard to keep caring as the cast size grows unmanageable and the vague plot leaves you with little ambition to carry on. The script is twee, but not a warm and comforting twee like Stephen Fry narrating LittleBigPlanet. It tries too hard and is too self-knowing. Danny Wallace's smug voice unfortunately detracts from the experience, and Portal jokes belong in 2007.
Derek: It’s certainly not perfect though. Some occasionally unpredictable physics lets it down from time to time, some of the later levels don’t stretch your skills as much as you might hope they would, and the wonderful, haunting music is, dare I say it, in places just a little repetitive, although that will likely be because you’re so hopelessly captivated by the game that you’ve been playing it for three hours straight, after which time any tune might start to grate a little.
NY: The levels themselves have this bittersweet combination of the fun of working out how to get the characters to their goals, and then the laborious process of actually doing it. Once the--typically obvious--solutions click in your mind, it's rarely that exciting to enact that solution. Perhaps that's why I seemed to enjoy the levels where you control only one character the best: they seemed more geared towards making the environment fun and fast to traverse. The music is indeed chilling and quite stirring as far as game music goes... until you've heard one track on loop so many times that it starts to grate.
Derek: But the thing with Thomas Was Alone is that whilst it’s not perfect it is utterly adorable. Partly I think this is because it’s so lovingly made and so well-judged, but also because it was clearly made for people like us – gamers for whom lavish production values and big explosions are secondary to perfectly-honed mechanics and genuinely appealing characters.
NY: In all fairness I wouldn't sell short the production values of Thomas Was Alone. For a game that has Flash roots, it doesn't look out of place on home consoles, with stunning dynamic visuals and effects. Though it seems simple at first, a lot more is happening on screen than is initially apparent. Even the menu interface is impressive: pleasingly sharp and clinical, sleek and matte. I can see where this game gets a reputation for being “lovely” and “adorable”, but for me it was perhaps overwhelmingly so. What's more, it simply wasn't underpinned with a strong enough gaming element.
Derek: Anyway, anyone that disagrees is clearly a total TWA.
NY: I'll need to Google that