Thomas Was Alone: A Lesson on the Importance of Storytelling in Games
I often get frustrated by a great deal of video game narrative these days. Particularly in big budget action games at retail, storytelling in games is often trite, shallow, staged with samey-characters and saturated with the same repeating tropes and plot twists. Considering how obsessed big developers are with giving claims to high quality storytelling, they are essentially all telling the same one: There is a guy on a mission which requires him to fight a lot of people. Maybe the details differ a little bit from game to game. Maybe it’s a woman instead of a guy, or maybe instead of a gun, it’s a sword, or maybe instead of fighting people, they’re fighting robots. But essentially it’s the same template of an ultraviolent quest, only framed with different motives and setting.
In no other storytelling medium are the narratives so singularly focused on chronicling the exploits of characters with huge body counts. In film, we have violent action movies like Terminator and Aliens, but we also have a large number of movies where not a single character ever dies or is involved in an act of violence (go look at most of the critically acclaimed movies from last year). But the vast majority of video games are about powerful protagonists at the center of violent conflicts.
I understand that there are practical reasons, both technical and commercial, for why this is the case, but that doesn’t change the fact that all these games are in overly-trodden territory. Of course, there are a few good examples of games that manage to get away from the action game template, to varying degrees of success. Most of these games are descendants of the old-school adventure genre (not Tomb Raider-style adventure games, but games like Monkey Island and Gabriel Knight), such as The Walking Dead and Beyond: Two Souls. But these games are the exception, not the rule, and I’ve become tired with the situation I see. I have become a big fan of games that just get to the point and don’t weigh me down with excessive cutscenes or scripted events. It’s one reason I’ve tilted so much to indie games lately.
And man have I just played a good one, one that actually reaffirms to me the reason why games are even given stories in the first place. Back when it was released in 2010, I completely disregarded Thomas Was Alone. The game’s extremely minimalist aesthetics and gameplay led me to believe that it was just another indie game trying to be over cleverly, and in truth it is totally that. But the game attempts to deliver a message of hopefulness and wonder, and it completely succeeds at that.
Thomas Was Alone is a game about a cast of quadrilaterals who have recently come into existence and are trying to cross a series of abstract landscapes. The gameplay is incredibly simple. You switch between the quadrilateral characters present on the level and guide them to their character-specific exits. Cooperation is key, as certain characters have special abilities that need to be exploited to get other characters closer to the goal. For example, there is a large blue square named Claire who can float on water which is lethal to the rest of the crew. You can position the other characters on top of her and ferry them across otherwise uncrossable expanses. Another example, John, is a tall skinny rectangle which other characters can jump on to reach higher ledges.
As you play the game, the narrator periodically speaks up to provide insight into what the rectangles and squares are feeling and thinking. There is a meta-story going on here in which we are told that Thomas and his friends are actually emergent AI that are awakening into existence for the first time. As they cross the cyber landscapes before them, they grow to question the nature of their existence, their relationships to each other, and most importantly, the purpose they serve in being alive. Each quadrilateral is given their own personality, which is often influenced by the circumstances of their births. Thomas is the first to come into being and he is curious, observant, and afraid of being alone. Chris is a short rectangle who is often jealous of Thomas for being taller and able to jump higher. James is different from the others in that he falls upwards against gravity, and consequently feels like an outsider to the group. And there’s so many more. As the group’s journey evolves and their understanding of their destiny deepens, their relationships grow in a believable, deeply sincere way. They fall in love, become uplifted, become humbled, become enlightened, and ultimately accept the truth of their situation. Basic shapes they may be, but they are in some ways more human than most human characters of other games.
The thing is, Thomas Was Alone is an incredibly minimalist game. It’s a very simple puzzle platformer with character designs that are nothing more than basic shapes. If I was to mute the audio and ignore the subtitles, the game could be confused with someone’s first attempt at a flash game. But with narration, suddenly the game becomes so much more. You begin to feel for Thomas and his friends as they face the world for the first time. Through their successes and struggles, these little rectangles come alive. It is a tale of innocence and selflessness, with violence completely absent.
And thus, I come to realize the importance of narrative in games. The context given by the narration contributes so much to my feelings toward the game. Without it, this simple game would have been completely forgettable. As visually abstract as the presentation is, I ultimately cared about the trials of these rectangles and was vested in seeing through the path their journey would take. And, as goofy as it sounds, their fateful endings will have a lasting impact on me. If Hotline Miami is a game about the irrelevance of game plots, Thomas Was Alone is its opposite, a demonstration of the impact these narratives can have on gameplay.
So in the end, I came out a little bit wiser about storytelling in gaming. I realize now that the context it can provide can enhance the experience, not merely distract from it. I only wish we could see game design branch out farther, and not simply be restrained to aggressive tales of walking personifications of power fantasies.