Could 2012 be the year of the indie? Not only have the likes of Fez, Lone Survivor, Home and Dear Esther shaken up the gaming establishment and shown just how much promise and power there is outside of the traditional publishing industry, but indie games now have their own movie too. And even among that tide of quality and imagination, the pick of the bunch has to be Mike Bithell’s marvellous warm, witty and utterly English platform puzzler, Thomas Was Alone.
Looking at the screenshots won’t really do it justice. It is, after all, a heartwarming tale of friendships and cooperation between AI rectangles who are slowly becoming sentient. Over 100 levels of physical and spatial platforming, you get to know and love Thomas, Chris, John and a host of other similarly named quadrilaterals, thanks in no small part to some fantastic writing and a brilliant narration by TV (and Assassin’s Creed’s) own Danny Wallace.
Bithell has managed to inject more character and personality into a troop of geometric shapes than most games manage with multi-million polygonned action heroes. The voice-over is a large part of that, but also the physical traits of each block are intrinsically linked to their character. Thomas is an everyman, capable of moderately high jumps, while Chris is short, squat and grumpy. John is a tall and can leap higher than the rest, making him supremely confident. That is, until he meets Sarah…
The influences are clear – it has Portal’s whimsical science, Head Over Heels’ cooperative teamwork and even a touch of Everyday Shooter’s stark but inviting visuals, but Thomas Was Alone is very much its own beast. Throughout the century of levels, where the player must guide all the blocks to the white-outlined portal exits, so many gameplay ideas are explored and executed it’s astonishing. Just when you think you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, it completely turns its entire rule book on its head.
Thomas Was Alone is a smart, savvy puzzler, but one that’s also more than the sum of its angular parts. The way the narration, bare visuals and soaring music combine is a glorious three way marriage made in geometric heaven. David Housden’s spectacular score adds weight and gravitas to every action, no matter how fiddly. It’s astonishing stuff.
While a few technical hiccups do occasionally spoil the party – there’s a touch of latency in the jumping controls and the odd little bug that makes matters a touch confusing – there’s so little to fault in Bithell’s striking debut. This is a game to admire, to enjoy and evangelise; a thoroughly English slice of indie magic that is every bit as accomplished as anything with a budget and a team. If this truly is the year of the indie, then long may it continue.