That's right! I believe that thomas was alone is not a game. To be more specific, I believe that it's not about the game. None of it was about playing, and even though I felt challenged at times, it wasn't about the challege either. It wasn't about learning and it wasn't about frustrating myself to death in some levels.
Spoiler alert! If you haven't played thomas was alone and intend to do so, proceed at your own risk. I wouldn't want to be held responsible for runing such a unique experience for you. My advice would be that you walk backward slowly from this post, turn around with caution, and go play thomas was alone. After you've done that, not only is everything going to make so much more sense in this article, but also I will rest at ease knowing that I didn't spoil this experience for you.
The experience of playing one specific game is unique to each player, and even though most games cause the same basic feelings on most players, there can be - and there usually are - exceptions. It is one of the many beatutiful things of designing games, you just don't know all the experiences that may result in playing your game, however elegantly it is built.
thomas was alone. The feels!
Ah! The emotion behind thomas was alone was so complex and so diverse, I almost thought it was about a game! It wasn't easy to understand which ones were particularly strong and prominent for me while playing. As you can read in my previous article Distilling Game Design, as a Game Designer you should always start by stating what you intend to make your player feel, and thomas was alone was, for me, a game about the fear of dying alone, about understanding one's destiny, and of sacrificing oneself for the sake of others.
The complete experience touched emotions as deep as the deepest mysteries of being alive. It wasn't a game, it was a story which I was lucky to be a part of. If we really distill the game, I could have just closed my eyes and listen to the story, and I would have felt basically the same way.
Elements to create the basic emotions
According to Tynan Sylvester in his book Desgning Games: A guide to engineering experiences, when constructing mechanics, the game designer gives the player the base to generate events, these events are unique to each player and to each experience of play, and will lead to emotions, and these emotions will be significant to the player if they modify a human value.
Human values are basically, wahtever rocks the player's world in a good or in a bad sense when it shifts between states, whatever, if changed, will be significant to the player. Common and very extensively used examples of human values are "Life / Death" "Ignorance / Knowledge" "Winning / Loosing" "Together / Alone" "Danger / Safety".
thomas was alone moves deep human values and shifts them throughout the experience, the main ones go from together to alone, from strangers to friends to strangers to enemies, from danger to safety to danger, from player unskilled to player skilled and from ignorance to knowledge.
So, understanding what the basic emotion is about, we can go ahead and list some elements that Mike Bithell used to create emotions and shift values.
- Narration: The narration was the key piece of the experience. Danny Wallace performed such and impecable work hinting what each level was about, that I literally stopped before completing a level because I just wanted to listen to the story (see? Not about the game!).
- Music: The music wasn't too present, which was perfect, it gave me a feeling of wonder, of not knowing what was happening, and of being both eager to learn more, and afraid to do so.
- Unique characters: There is such a variation of characters that it's almost impossible not to connect with at least one of them. To feel what they must be feeling and to inevitably feel a deep void when they enable their sacrifice to help others.
That's it, these are the bones of Thomas was alone, it's an experience about characters, voices and music. thomas was alone distilled is about a story.
A word about characters
The characters in thomas was alone are such an important part of the game that I coulnd't just go ahead without talking about them.
They are so complex and so wonderfully crafted, that you forget that they are rectangles (even though the narrator himself says so in several levels!). Even more, the fact that they are rectangles makes it easier to generate inmersion (empathy with the character and its emotions).
The character design was constructed upon personalities, instead of graphics, and every aspect of these characters matches that personality, even their jumping SFX! Taking Chris, for instance, he's pesimistic and resentfull, even though deep down he seems kind. His jumping SFX is grave, perfectly matching his downbeat personality.
Another thing I loved about the characters is the character-based mechanics (or mechanic-based characters). Each character serves a purpose, for instance Sarah can double jump and Claire can float in the water. These mechanics are a key part of the puzzle solving, and when the characters know that there is simply no escaping out of that world, they themselves become pure mechanics in the levels, so that the player might find a purple area and know that by touching it, his current character (gray, generic but interesting characters after the group's sacrifice) will get Sarah's abilities. This merging of characters and mechanics was a very elegant piece of game design present throughout the complete game.
Playing thomas was alone wasn't all about loneliness and fear of dying, Mike Bithell included just the right amount of secondary emotions that enhanced the main emotions, rather than disrupting them.
Just the right dose of challenge was a key part of the experience, not too challenging so that you would be stuck at a level for ages and get lost in the thread of the story, it was instead a bit dull in terms of challenge, which was absolutely perfect since it didn't make the player get lost in overcomplicated levels and loose sight of the story's thread, which is the main emotion.
However dull the challenge was, though, it was just enough to make me feel smart at the end of each level (even the first one).
It's not common in videogames that a story dresses itself as a game so beautifully and elegantly that the player doesn't notice unless he's playing very close attention.
The design of thomas was alone reminded me that it is possible to maintain a quality design by adding just the minimum amount of elements that complement it. thomas was alone, in its own unique little way, mocks the use of hardcore graphics to generate experiences (which is completely legit if it fits with the experience), and challenges traditional game design to strip their games of all that's not needed and focus on the main experience. It is, to me, one of the best examples of a distilled game that wasn't very polluted with secondary elements in its development.