Thomas Was Alone

Let’s start with that title. It’s unusual, isn’t it? Thomas Was Alone. It’s evocative and mysterious and a little bit sad. Like a lushly illustrated picture book or animated short preceding a Pixar film, it conveys a sort of somber simplicity that aims straight for your heart. It demands that you feel something. Not many video games do that.

Thomas Was Alone is one of the most moving games I’ve ever played. Stick around. Let me tell you about it.

It’s hard to pick a place to start, but a good one might be David Housden’s score. Listen to it, it’s beautiful.[youtube]

That tender piano with the binary sounds of ones and zeros trying to break through—staccato interruptions that move from motif to melody as they learn to be human, eventually replacing the acoustic instruments entirely—it’s all of Thomas Was Alone in microcosm, and you don’t even know it yet. But you feel it. There’s something earnest and honest there, something that makes you stop and think, hey. This is going to be something very different.

Created by Mike Bithell, Thomas Was Alone is described as “a minimalist game about friendship, and jumping.” It’s like Super Mario Bros., except instead of an Italian plumber you play as a number of differently shaped rectangles that jump their way through dangerous levels. Through bits of text and wonderfully charismatic narration from Danny Wallace, these rectangles come to life. There’s the eponymous Thomas, who becomes self-aware only to discover that he’s by himself, and sets off on a journey to find others like him. You’ll also meet John, the tall, slender, yellow rectangle who can jump higher than anyone (and is quite egotistical about it), Chris, who is not good at jumping (and is quite bitter about it) and Claire. Claire is a superhero. You’ll see why once you play.[youtube]

And play you should. Thomas Was Alone is a simple, kind, and friendly game. It is brief, and broken up into bite-sized levels that can be played on the go or in a single sitting. This week, Thomas Was Alone—which was originally released on Mac and PC in 2012—made the leap to next-gen consoles and Android devices. It is now very hard to find a screen that doesn’t have a way to play the game. I urge you to try it if you haven’t already.

Video games are a fascinating medium, but one in which genuinely moving experiences are extremely rare. The feeling we describe most when discussing a game is “fun” — the buzzy pleasure we get when the ways a game works finally click for us, and we realize the things we can potentially do within it. It’s a great feeling. But it’s not the only one.

When I finished Thomas Was Alone, I was nearly moved to tears. It’s not a particularly sad game—bittersweet is more accurate—but it made me want to weep. Because someone had an idea and decided that it had to be a game. Not a book or movie, but a video game—something that had to be played to be understood. Someone typed endless lines of code into a computer for days on end, trying to preserve that experience for people to play, a process during which an endless number of things can go wrong. They deftly wrapped it in a narrative that gently encouraged you to connect with it. They did it with wit and charm.

They made a video game. One that sold a million copies.

Turns out Thomas isn’t really alone at all.