Thomas Was Alone is the puzzle-platformer redesigned as an exercise in empathy. It seems determined to make you identify with a handful of blocks of different proportions, and even to care a little bit about their personal problems.
It manages to do so, too, which might explain why its story and characters, rather than its challenges, stick in the memory. The faceless rectangular cast each have strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to use them in combination, and the 2D world they inhabit is artful and minimalist, but it’s their dispositions that make them special, and their foibles that keep you playing.
So Claire’s not just the floating blue square that can get you across lakes. She’s also the painfully deluded one who thinks her abilities make her a superhero. Sarah, meanwhile, is a purple oblong that can pull off a double jump, but it’s gone to her head, and she’s lofty and patronising because of it.
The psychodynamics of your group (explored with comic restraint in Danny Wallace’s voiceover and accompanied by David Housden’s clinical but moody score) provide a welcome hook, particularly in the initial stages when Thomas Was Alone seems to be a clever but bloodless collection of mechanics. It’s Staircase: The Game for the first few levels – you’ll shuffle your growing army of pieces, balancing the bouncy one on a shorty to trampoline the low jumpers to distant platforms, or tipping the floating one into water to act as a raft for the rest. The tests you face are beautifully designed, but more a masterclass than proper adventure. It’s often simple to spot what to do – and how elegantly the designer has arranged the action – but it’s easy to feel faintly irritated that you then have to put the plan into action, delicately moving pieces to achieve the right order before prodding them to a white-lined goal.
It gets much better, though, when the levels start to split the characters into more manageable groups and the scenarios offer a welcome element of twitchiness. By the time you near the end, you’ll be hurtling along, each challenge offering a new idea, each end-of-level portal leaving you eager to see what the gang faces next.
And it says a lot for the storytelling skills on display that you will think of these blocks as a gang at all. Designer Mike Bithell’s script provides them with bickering, fretful personalities, and their relationships tug you onwards through even the fiddliest puzzles. Thomas Was Alone isn’t a hard game, but it is occasionally a taxing one; its ultimate cleverness lying not in the gauntlets you run through so much as the surrounding soap opera that makes even the most annoying of them a little more palatable.