Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Story in Games: Thomas Was Alone

We are living in an age where story creators have never had more tools at their disposal to make stories in games, then how come most of them fall flat despite motion-capture photo-realism.

For me the classic example of a game not needing all this, is the 2012 indie title Thomas Was Alone.
The entire graphics of the game is simple shapes and colours, with the story being told by narration accompanying the gameplay.
When explaining to someone who’s never played or heard of the game, it to them often sounds like the most pretentious and ridiculous statement to make that Thomas Was Alone profoundly moves many who play it.

Despite the references and the often light hearted humour, it manages to create a bond between you and the characters.

Each coloured block is a character, the title character of Thomas is the red rectangle, he is joined by Christopher (orange), John (yellow), Claire (blue), Laura (pink), James (green) and Sarah (purple).
There’s also other characters along the way and the in DLC, but I am going to focus on the main ones.

Each character is a different gameplay mechanic, Thomas can jump and is the average character. John can jump really high and far. Clare is slow and can’t jump well, but she is able to float across water and take others with her (each of the other characters dies as soon as they touch water), Sarah can double jump, Laura acts as a jump pad, James plays like Thomas, only he is upside down. Chris, well he’s small and doesn't do much.

First and foremost, Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle-platforming game where you need to get the characters in the level to a slot, once every character is in their corresponding slot, the game progresses to the next level.
As the game goes on and gets more complicated, you’re required to constantly swap between characters in order to use them together to solve the puzzles.

An example of a level from the game.

These won’t be the most challenging game you've ever played, in fact I feel confident in saying that if you’re used to 2D platforming games, that you’ll won’t be stuck too long on any particular puzzle.
That’s not to say there’s no challenge, there certainly is, just a manageable level.
(Excluding the DLC which is stupidly hard and could very easily make one rage.)

But the puzzles are not why Thomas Was Alone is acclaimed, it’s not even its mechanics or its stellar soundtrack.
It’s the narrative and how it weaves itself into every aspect of the game, the one word I would use to describe Thomas Was Alone is polish.
Polish from start to finish, but I am talking a bunch about vague descriptors here, let me try to get a bit more detailed.

The voice over narrative is voiced by Danny Wallace and is triggered at specific points during a level, often in reaction to something you've done or something you’re about to do.
Otherwise it’s talking about the characters, their thoughts, their past, their emotions and how they related and interact with each other.
For example at the start of the game John sees himself as some kind athletic superstar (due to his long and far jump), he concludes that the other characters are there merely to observe his skill and to enhance his reach, however as the game progresses he becomes more humble along the way as he sees the skills of other characters (particularly Sarah’s) and how he can’t get to specific places without the aid of others.

Each characters own personal story works to create the overarching narrative of friendship, sacrifice and ultimately the meaning of life.
Of course there’s also a villain of sorts, commentary about humans creating AI, the nature of AI and free will.
This is where I am being deliberately vague as to avoid the all-important spoilers.

But to bring it back around to my original contention, I find it rather interesting that a game made by one man is able to move me and take me on a journey which the large budget studios could not.
All the writing teams, all the massive orchestras, all the motion-capture in the world often doesn’t seem to have an effect.
Maybe Thomas Was Alone’s inherent impression of simplicity aids it, maybe it’s lack of grand ambition makes it excel, it’s a simple game in many respects and I think that’s it’s greatest success.

The creator of the game is now working on a new game called Volume, but now with a studio and backing of Sony, I truly wonder if it’s larger scope will allow it to capture the same profound effect Thomas Was Alone did, it keeps elements such as Danny Wallace, but who knows.

Not even Kevin Spacey could make me interested in the story of Call of Duty.

But one thing is clear, you don't need gilts or glamour to tell a compelling story and to move players.
Ever since I found out about the game from a review on ABC's Good Game, I had to go out and buy it and I never regretted the $10 I spent.

Thomas Was Alone was created by Mike Bithell, more info at http://www.mikebithellgames.com/thomaswasalone/

Game is on PC, Xbox One and other platforms.

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