Thomas Was Alone

For never was a story of wore woe than this of these little sentient AI squares trying to find their place in the big, wide universe.

Replay value, or replayability if you really want to use the word, is much prized amongst the gaming community. The ability to go back to a game and gain a different experience or a new perspective is much prized and something I have talked about previously. Perhaps it is because a game is an interactive experience, you wouldn’t demand replay value in a film after all. But in part it is about the story. When the story is such a big part of the game it’s difficult to have that same experience ever again.

Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle platformer set in the inner workings of a computer where you start off controlling a little sentient square by the name of Thomas who is searching for friends and freedom. The further you get into the game the more you meet of squares of different colours, each with their own personality and special abilities. Not to provide any spoilers but the game soon turns into a adventure with a monster, romance, and a prophet. All narrated to you while you bounce little squares around.

I’m not even going to make the Twilight joke here, this is a real love story

The gameplay is quite simple, the different squares have different properties and jump heights and you must use them together to get them from one side of the level to the other (up and to the right…). The puzzles are all well designed but don’t offer huge challenge to those already well versed in puzzle gaming.

But the main property that makes Thomas Was Alone such a fun experience is the story. Narration is, I feel, oft underused in games despite its use as a literary tool. It could be argued that it creates a certain disconnect between the gamer and the game but can anyone really say they felt disconnected from Bastion because of the narration? I think the narration, and the soundtrack, really made that game. It works really well in Thomas Was Alone, to the point where you can feel an emotional connection to a coloured square.

Oh Claire, Super-Claire, you’re so awesome.

The problem with Thomas Was Alone, referring to what I said in the beginning, is that there isn’t much in the way of replay value. The platforming is fun and the puzzles entertaining but not the sort you can spend hours on, but to be honest I don’t have a problem with it. I would still recommend it because it is an experience in story-telling that is unlike any other. It is a real credit to the game that you can empathise with coloured squares that don’t talk or even have any features on them.

Like the aforementioned Bastion the game also has an excellent soundtrack that really contributes to the vague serenity of the game, even in the more dramatic moments. It does a great job of keeping this surreal atmosphere to the game.

I really love this first line.

I have stated before that replaying a story is a hard thing to do. You can never conjure up the same experience when you learn everything for the first time unless you have forgotten it completely. So how you tell that story is very important. Many games are very simplistic in storytelling style, you play a character, sometimes a group of characters, and proceed through the story from start to finish. So telling the story in a different way can make a fun little game into more of an experience and this is Thomas Was Alone’s greatest triumph.

It’s fun, it’s unusual, it’s not very expensive, and it provides an interesting look in styles of storytelling. I may not have played it to death but I feel that I gained a great deal from a single playthrough. One final note, I really want a Team Jump t-shirt.

I realise that the pictures for this article have mostly just been coloured squares


Blackwell Series

What better way to spend an evening than to wander around New York with a ghost from the 1920s, solving puzzles and bestowing eternity onto lost spirits everywhere through the use of a mystical tie. I certainly can’t think of anything.

Developer and Publisher Wadjet Eye Games hold particular esteem in my eyes as the creator of some really good adventure games. I haven’t quite played through their whole list but of the ones I have played there has only been one which I can say I didn’t enjoy. But I definitely enjoy the Blackwell series, currently at four games with a fifth in the works.

The Blackwell series are a series of adventure games about Rosangela Blackwell, a medium whose duty is to help lost spirits move on to the next world. She is aided in her task by Joey Malone, a ghost from the 1920s who acts as her spirit guide. Each game is a very typical point and click adventure game. There are a few twists on the classic formula with the use of multiple characters and frequent use of clue combining, but any fan of adventure games will be very familiar with the style.

I love pixel art style. Just look at that fancy hat

When it comes to gameplay adventure games tend to have three challenges: Object/Inventory Puzzles, Dialogue Puzzles, Straight up Puzzle. For non-adventure gamers here is a very quick breakdown. Object/Inventory requires you to use objects in your inventory or on the environment in order to solve a puzzle. Dialogue requires you to pick the right option through a dialogue tree in order to proceed. Straight up puzzle is just a straight up puzzle, this can range from sliding puzzles, pin puzzles, chess puzzles, it’s a pretty broad category.

The Blackwell series is fond of the first two which I am very glad about. In the games Rosangela and Joey must investigate lost spirits and try to convince them that they are dead in order to move them on beyond the world of the living and into the afterlife. Of course it’s never that simple and there is generally an evil presence working against the team. The series is episodic with each game linking to the others and creating an overarching plot, with each game seeming to raise the stakes as it goes. This means the games themselves are pretty short but they are priced accordingly so that isn’t too bothersome.

*Sigh* What now? Is a demon after you? A crazy murderous spirit? Or just some guy with strange evil powers?

Adventure games tend to be short and unfortunately have little replay value. After all once you’ve solved a puzzle it remains solved, the only way to really enjoy it again is either if the game has alternate routes (which few do) or to wait until you’ve forgotten what happens and play it again. I chose to replay these games after acquiring the Blackwell Bundle from Steam.

I also chose to play them with the commentary from creator Dave Gilbert and I have to say it was very interesting to listen to all the behind the scenes stuff regarding characters, actors, and the fan reaction to the game. As you play each one you can tell that there is a refining and experimental process going on and listening to Dave Gilbert acknowledging how and why these changes came about is very interesting and well worth it. But play the games without the commentary first unless you want serious spoilers.

Apart from you, obviously

The story is really engaging and the relationship between the two main characters is always entertaining. Wadjet Eye does excellent characterisation and always has excellent voice acting. There are a few actors that appear in pretty much all of Wadjet Eye’s games and this is acknowledged in the commentary.

But Dave Gilbert is no Tim Burton so people like Abe Goldfarb,who provides the voice of Joey and a whole host of other characters in other games, don’t feel tired and overused. It’s as great hearing him here as it is hearing him as the little robot companion in Primordia.

I am a fan of Wadjet Eye; it’s great to see original story-telling, beautiful artwork, and seeing it delivered frequently and consistently. More than that it’s also good to see a company actually learn from their games and always try to improve them. I think that’s one of the things that impresses me most and will always make me come back to try their next game.

Moti the dog! I would like to see more of Moti in future games.

An Update…

Apart from my review of the Testament of Sherlock Holmes I’ve had very little that’s truly bad to say about the games I review. There is a reason for this, I mostly buy games after a lengthy decision process because I don’t have a great deal of money to spend on them (I do live in a frozen wasteland after all). So I generally already know if I’m going to like it or not. I admit this doesn’t always make for riveting entertainment to hear someone gush about things endlessly, even though I do always try to point out the bad.

But it is hard trying to review a game when I already feel that I am going to like it going in. So I’m going to try and take this blog in a slightly different direction for the time being and make broader discussions about genres and the gaming industry in general. We’ll see how it goes and if you have any feedback leave me a comment. Until I manage to either get a decent job or decent money from writing (Hey I’m publishing a book soon, just a warning that I will be plugging the hell out of it) I won’t be able to do objective reviews so you’ll see more discussions and maybe rants, everyone loves rants.

Nevertheless I will still title these as reviews of particular games, the only difference being that these reviews might veer into the territory of articles as well.

Thanks for reading and on with the Blackwell series!