Up and to the right
Occasionally you encounter a video game that makes you think about things differently. I imagine Thomas Was Alone as the result of one of the most challenging creative writing classes you could imagine; a perspective so alien to ours it becomes unfathomable. Try this for yourself…
Imagine you are a 2-dimensional shape living in a 2-dimensional universe that consists purely of squares and rectangles of various sizes. You can move freely around this plane, subject to an equivalent to gravity, and somehow communicate with other sentient rectangles. What would you do? What would you say? How would you tell a story?
Getting British comedian Danny Wallace to narrate is a good start as his gentle voice is the perfect contrast to this world of sharp edges. The story is told in a third person perspective, giving insights into each character’s thoughts without ever getting too personal. The story switches perspectives often using lines like ‘Thomas thought’ or ‘James felt’ to inform us what the coloured squares and rectangles are up to. The game is split into many short levels, some of which can take only twenty seconds to complete but which gradually get complex and longer as you progress. Every level contains at least one bit of narration, some multiple soundbites, so that as you progress inexorably up and to the right a dramatic tale unfolds which, despite featuring only squares and rectangles, becomes profoundly moving.
The eponymous Thomas is curious, inquisitive, and friendly, three qualities which whilst hardly unique in this world make him the perfect candidate to bring about it’s ultimate destruction. As he explores his surroundings (learning sensations such as falling, jumping, climbing) he encounters other rectangles who all differ slightly from himself. At first it’s just smaller rectangles, such as Chris who can hardly jump at all but is capable of fitting through smaller gaps, who regards Thomas with jealousy. Then they encounter John, a tall thin square who can jump fantastic distances and enjoys the sensation of showboating his superior skills to these two inferior creatures. Claire, a large blue square with little jumping ability, discovers that (uniquely) in this world she can float, and thus declares herself a super hero with the task of rescuing other squares from a watery fate. Chris, who feels left out of this group, discovers Laura, whom hides a dark secret; the fact when other rectangles discover her they can bounce off of her! Initially fearful that Chris is abusing her ‘unique’ properties she comes to admire the little orange square, and he falls in love with her in turn. Yet his building love is threatened by the presence of a pixelated cloud which lingers around Laura, threatening to break up this little group by killing them off one by one.
The tale unfolds with surprising depth, small backstory soundbites giving you a little context to this bizarre 2-dimensional world and without ever telling you what’s going on inferring how it’s relevant to our three-dimensional existance. It handles themes such as love, fear, self-loathing, jealousy, pride, friendship, self-sacrifice and greed as Thomas and his compadres discover about the pixel cloud and the wider world beyond. The characters seek enlightenment and then escape, something in their hearts they know can be found only ‘up and to the right‘.
A profound message on the structure of platforming video games and an excellent short story to boot.