The Making Of: Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone concept

Mike Bithell was alone. It was the ninth weekend in a row he’d spent at his computer coding his new game. Or was it the tenth weekend? It didn’t really matter, because each week had become the same. “I was working in London with a 40-minute commute,” he remembers. “I’d get home about 7:30 each night, do two hours’ work on the game, then go to bed. At weekends, my girlfriend would make up a lot of excuses about why I couldn’t come out to the pub.”

Ironically, the game he was coding is all about friendship. Its titular hero is a lonely red rectangle who teams up with a bunch of other brightly coloured quadrilaterals to escape from levels full of water, traps and spikes. It’s a charming 2D platform-puzzler designed around cooperation, self-discovery and love.

Thomas Was Alone started life in 2010 as a Flash game. While working as a designer at Blitz Games, Bithell saw the explosion that was happening in the indie scene and was inspired. “I’d been in the game industry for about three years. I was a guy making stuff in a big team, and that story of one or two people making something on their own was very attractive.”

He started brainstorming ideas. Watching the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? sparked an idea for a platformer about two characters chained together like escaped convicts. There was another idea about a big hole that you had to stack characters to get out of. And then there was his love of Bauhaus, mid-century modernism and minimalism. It all coalesced when he sat down one weekend for a personal 24-hour game jam.

Uploaded to gaming portal Kongregate, Thomas Was Alone quickly racked up 100,000 plays. “A switch flipped for me,” says Bithell. “Even though I was working in the industry, I saw games as a closed shop. I thought you couldn’t get people to play your game if you didn’t have a massive marketing team or lots of money.” In a sudden epiphany, he realised that was wrong: “It was a fantastic mix of optimism and stupidity.”

Design documents show each characters’ traits – Sam was cut “for being crap,” says Bithell.

Thomas Was Alone was born in Flash, but it came of age in Unity. Bithell began work on the bigger, better version of his prototype in early 2011. He’d changed jobs, moving down to London to work as a design lead at Bossa Studios. His new employer had given the 27-year-old the unusual freedom to work on Thomas Was Alone in his own time without demanding to take ownership of it, as many other studios would.

His bosses knew he was making a game, but Bithell saw it as a process of learning more than one of development. “I’d never coded a full game before. The original Thomas Was Alone prototype was the most complex thing I’d ever built, and that was really simple. So I had to teach myself coding. Ironically, the development folder for Thomas Was Alone on my computer is called Teaching Myself Unity. For posterity, that’s what it will always be called.”

Unity represented a huge jump from Flash. By chance, though, the inaugural meeting of the London Unity User Group was held three weeks after Bithell started working at Bossa Studios. Its first talk focused on how to make a 2D game in Unity. And so Bithell found himself alone, coding in evenings and weekends.

Facing up to the constraints of his coding know-how, Bithell decided to make a virtue out of his limitations. He used the middleware component iTween for the game’s animations, but realised he had to keep his characters simple.

“I knew I couldn’t do character art in terms of motion-captured characters jumping around. I knew, from both a technical point of view and a game design point of view, that the game falls down if they’re not rectangular. Literally, characters wouldn’t be able to stack properly.”

Bithell’s notes on how the plot should unfold.

So he set out to make the best quadrilaterals he could. Quickly, his research brought him into contact with the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose ‘neo-plasticism’ canvases obsessively meditated on primary-coloured rectangles and squares embedded in grid-like compositions. They were the perfect visual reference for Thomas Was Alone’s characters.

Armed with a colour palette by his friend Daz Watford, Bithell found the game evolving in unexpected ways as he paid more attention to the ratio of composition, colour, shape and scale. “The original prototype was a game about squares,” he explains. “The final game is a game about characters who happen to be square.”

There aren’t many games that can make you care about a bunch of geometric shapes; they don’t have eyes, or faces, or expressions. And yet in Thomas Was Alone, they have personalities. Take Thomas, the hero, an observational little chap who’s inquisitive about the world. Or Claire, the blue square who’s convinced she’s a superhero because she can swim.

Bithell is certain that his game design isn’t what secured Thomas Was Alone’s success. “I don’t think it is the strength of the game, which is a shame, because that’s the main bit I did. I think it’s competent. Competent in the actual sense, not the derogatory sense. It’s a good game made much better by the storytelling and everything that plugs into that storytelling.”

Just as Bastion is given an extra dimension by its narration, Thomas Was Alone is transformed by Bithell’s script. Tonally, his inspiration was the conversational style of British comedian Danny Wallace, and he spent a Christmas locked away in a room with Wallace’s audio books. “For me, he’s the great pub storyteller,” says Bithell. “He just pulls you along on a story.”

Danny Wallace: “My job was to try to make you care about these blocks as if they were real people.”

Finding the right voice actor to breathe life into the lines proved impossible, though. The story – about artificial intelligences unleashed inside a computer mainframe due to a programming glitch – needed warmth to work. Despairing, Bithell approached the comedian directly. After all, if you’re looking for a Danny Wallace type, there’s one person who’s best placed to nail that.

“Well, I’d definitely put myself in the top three,” laughs the comedian. A former game journalist and occasional voice performer in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Wallace remembers being instantly taken with Bithell’s opening email. “He’d had a couple of drinks, I think. I’d had a couple of drinks and he sent me this really well-written email. Immediately I felt like he was talking to me, and there was some warmth to the way he was writing.”

Intrigued, Wallace fired up the accompanying build of the game and was charmed by the colourful blocks. “It was magical and unusual,” he remembers. “When you first see a screenshot of it, you can forgive doubters online for going, ‘What the Hell is that? It’s just a block jumping over a thing!’ But when you see it move and you feel the world, the game feels much more fully formed than just a simple screenshot might imply. My job was to try to make you care about these blocks as if they were real people. But they already felt like they were real to me, really, just in terms of that world that Mike created so brilliantly.”

From Bithell’s perspective, Wallace’s involvement was just another piece of remarkable good fortune. The comedian, who’d go on to win a BAFTA for his performance as the game’s narrator, joined the ranks of people who’d gone out of their way to help the one-man outfit.

“A big part of making Thomas Was Alone has been the kindness of strangers,” Bithell says. “Things like [game designer] Eric Chahi talking about Thomas Was Alone in interviews just because he liked it and wanted to help out. Side, who did the voiceover recording, helping me out and making sure I could get into the studio at a reasonable price. These are the guys who do Assassin’s Creed. They didn’t have to do that, but they did. [And] the guys at Audiomotion, who did this awesome April Fools’ Day trailer for the game. So many people have helped out – my previous employers, who let me develop a multiplatform game in my spare time. Not many studios would have been cool with that.”

Suddenly, Bithell wasn’t alone any more. Like Thomas, he had built a team of friends around him. “I put out a friend request and the Internet answered,” he jokes. When Thomas Was Alone became available for download via a standalone website in late June 2012, and on Steam in November, it quickly found an audience. But there was one more friend left to emerge from the wings: Sony’s PlayStation division.

Shahid Ahmad loves games. He especially loves indie games. He’s a senior business development manager for Sony UK, and has been responsible for signing everything from Hotline Miami to Luftrausers to the company’s platforms. His team of consultants spend “their entire working life – as well as, it seems, their waking and sleeping lives – playing and analysing games”.

Back in 2012, his group was looking for content that would suit PlayStation Vita. When Ahmad saw the April Fools’ Day video for Thomas Was Alone, which jokily pretended that the blocks were motion captured, he was “absolutely bewitched”. Impressed to find a solo developer using non-traditional marketing techniques, he reached out to Bithell on Twitter. “At first, he must have thought I was a stalker,” says Ahmad with a laugh, “because I didn’t tell him I was from PlayStation. He thought I was just a fan.” They exchanged a few messages.

When Thomas Was Alone came out, the game charmed Ahmad all over again. “I thought it was inspired. I thought it was taking independent games in a new direction. I loved the use of narrative and that it was totally, unapologetically about squares, although that wasn’t the point of the game,” he explains. “I thought all of these unusual messages very much suited PlayStation and one of the directions in which we were taking Vita.” A deal was hatched. With the help of Bossa and Curve Studios, Thomas Was Alone was ported across to PS3 and Sony’s handheld.

The current narrative of the next-gen console war is that Sony is positioning itself as the go-to place for indies. Is that true? “This is happening,” says Bithell. “I come from a console background. I’ve developed games for consoles. Obviously, I was in junior positions in those conversations, but you could tell the kinds of relationships that took place between console developers and publishers. Sony are trying to tear down every limitation. They’re making a smart call. It’s that old war analogy: every army learns to fight the last war just in time for the next one. That’s what’s happening with console generations.”

For Bithell, Thomas Was Alone arrived on the PlayStation platform in the midst of “a period of transition, I think, from the old-school way of working with developers to something new”. He’s convinced the new Sony is a more open place. One look at the Twitter feeds of Bithell and Ahmad suggests things really are different than they were a few years ago. Ahmad isn’t just a suit. He’s accessible, interested – the human face of a monolithic corporation, much like his colleague Shuhei Yoshida, president of Worldwide Studios.

It’s a view echoed by Bithell himself. “Shahid is my man,” he says warmly. “Sony are moving with the way things are now.” He mentions a meeting he’s having with the company about his next project. “I have no compunction telling you that [meeting is happening] because [Ahmad and I] had a chat on Twitter about it. That’s a big shift. It changes a lot. It’s a different way of doing business. It suggests Sony is becoming a very different company. Maybe they have learned that focus is a good thing for them. It’s something they maybe didn’t get right in the last generation – they may have spread themselves too thin and not had quite the focus they should have had. I think they’ve learned a lot. The fact that I’m happy telling you that opinion and am happy for that opinion to show up in this article kind of demonstrates how they’ve made me feel. There’s no way you’re going to hear anyone talking about Microsoft in that way, at least not publicly. There’s a very different relationship forming.”

Bithell says he has enough capital to work on his own games for three to four years. “In indie terms, that’s kind of the only important thing,” he suggests. It’s clear that his world has changed. Mike Bithell was alone, but he isn’t any more.