Who knew that quadrilaterals of various colours could be so emotionally engaging?
As everybody who’s written on TWA has said, Thomas is not alone. He’s alone for a little bit – while you get to know the controls and premise of the game. Then he’s joined, quickly, by:
- Chris – a cynical and small, fat square who can’t jump very well
- John – a lithe, arrogant high-jumper of a polygon, who’s yellow and looks like he got lost from a packet of French fries
- Claire – a very big-boned blue square that can float
In true ‘solve these problems using all your characters, you bastard’ fashion, the strengths of some fill in for the weaknesses of others.
To that end, the game is hinged on your ability to switch between each shape, in order to have them jump on top of each other to scale new heights, or to squeeze through holes that only one of them is the right shape to fit through; and each scenario is complete once everyone has reached their ‘portal’, a little white outline which fits their figure.
But for a little bit he is alone. If TWA has a surface vacuousness, as TV’s Danny Wallace speaks softly over each level about how Thomas is in a world which seemed “designed to test him”, in which “he could jump very high”, and so on, you start to realise, the longer you play, that those twee affectations actually suit the game really well.
That’s because the game handles humour and pacing wonderfully. For example, early in the game John, who is a little arrogant about his jumping ability, is slowly warming to the fat hanger-on that is Chris and the overly enthusiastic Thomas; because, as Wallace tell us, he has a certain humorous respect for Chris’s cynicism, and most importantly, because Thomas applauds him every time he jumps.
But there are no sound effects. We’ve been with John, Thomas and Chris, together, for some time – and it’s only after making these lifeless shapes perform all kinds of jumps drops that we learn, every time we’ve made John perform a task, that Thomas has supposedly been applauding him.
It genuinely makes you laugh out loud – partly because of the absurdity, and also because the order of actions and their correspondence with narration is nicely disturbed, to comic effect.
But there’s no denying that playing Thomas Was Alone is a bit like getting to control your infant school art project. TWA points to that itself: the keyboard-driven, plinky-plonky electronic music is saccharine in its childlike tones; the narrative is patronisingly delivered.
Plus, the game is not very hard. With such a simple premise, TWA is masking ‘comment’ with gameplay; so that instead of spoon-feeding you a certain idea (as you might do in a determinate medium, like a novel or a film) it grants the illusion of agency, while the narrative element washes quietly over you as you overcome obstacles and solve not-hard-to-solve puzzles.
Descartes with a D-pad
TWA, perhaps, goes back to that childhood aesthetic because it very much wants to say “this starts from the beginning”. When the game begins, Thomas is all alone (yes, I know) in a small box, with only his corresponding portal for company. The narrator, in the succeeding scenes, makes it quite clear that Thomas has just been ‘born’; he has no idea where he is, but he’s slowly working out what the world does and how it relates to him. He thinks that, because he can jump and the world is made up of things to jump in order to get to where he wants to go, it is designed for him; but then he dismisses this idea as too obvious. He asks whether these portals lead anywhere important, and what their significance is; he wonders if he has been made, in an existential sense, to jump.
You can see where this is going. First, Thomas is a game player playing his own game, which is his life – and the cold glare of the laptop screen, as you sit and stare at him, very much points that back at you. He is in his infancy, and he wants certain questions answered, as the simple-looking world that is so beguiling unfolds around him.
Sound familiar? Probably so. TWA is simple, because it seems to be more about exploring in a mental sense, and the games that get played with us, than about playing a game. It really isn’t difficult to get through each level – because it doesn’t need to be, for that purpose – and it keeps things just tough enough for you to think ‘I am playing a game’ rather than ‘I am digesting a mini-treatise’.
So it’s playing its own game, really. And it’s a good one, which only costs £6, and runs on most laptops. Like a lot of indie games, TWA, which is about presenting something thoughtful, is also pretty democratic – because let’s face it, a number of people want a game they can play in a spare 15 minutes, which they can buy for less than £50, that they can actually run on their PC without buying a ridiculous graphics card, and which, maybe, asks them something.