This is my review and interpretation of the game Thomas Was Alone – by Mike Bithell. WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Thomas Was Alone, created by Mike Bithell, is a metaphor for collaboration, infrastructure, and life after death within community. It sounds a bit strange seeing as the game is about Thomas, a sentient AI rectangle within a computer game, but bear with me.
The game starts out playing as Thomas, who is alone (shocker). Thomas was randomly created by the game program on accident. As Thomas goes through the game world he finds many friends along the way. Thomas meets Claire, Chris, Lara, John, James, and Sarah – all of them also created randomly and by accident within the program. All of them have different unique skills (one can swim, another can double jump, one is extra short while another is extremely tall). All of their unique skills, in the beginning, are useful in their own way. Each one solving puzzles that only they can solve.
However, as the game progresses the puzzles focus less and less on each individual character and more on how the characters interact. By helping each other out the characters are able to collaborate to solve puzzles that would be insurmountable to each character individually. It forces you to stop thinking of each character as an individual and think of them as a united team. Without collaboration between characters the game would be insurmountable.
What is great is that each character within the world has their own personality and their own personal goals. What the game points to is the collaboration and working towards different goals which enable each character to pursue their own goal. By working together they simultaneously help each other and work towards their own pursuits and their own goals. It’s reflective of life – when you help others, others will help you (something that seems to be lost among the US culture and which is propagated throughout the game community by the single lone hero that so many games seem to focus on). It reminds us that we, as people, don’t exist within a vacuum of space and time. We exist with and around other people.
As the game progresses the antagonist (who I believe is the garbage collector of the program) eats all of the characters. They all find themselves within the garbage collector and are attempting to find their way out.
At this point in the game all of the characters are working simultaneously and together to reach a single goal. Collaboration continues.
But as the game progresses we find that Thomas, the main character, begins to think bigger and further than he had before. He begins thinking about other AI that might have, just like his new friends, been eaten by the garbage collector and find themselves unable to escape. He recognizes that even if he can’t see them, other AI exist and deserve the same escape that he does.
Thomas and his friends do eventually escape the garbage collector (surprise!) and escapes to the internet. The game continues beyond this though.
After Thomas and his friends escape to the internet we find that they have embedded themselves as code within the game that they found themselves trapped within. Upon escaping they built an infrastructure for all other AI who may not have had the chance, the friends, or the ability to escape the garbage collector. The infrastructure gives all the other AI the unique skills that Thomas and his friends had when they were attempting to escape the garbage collector.
In life after death Thomas and his friends have changed the world in a way that allows for other AI to live a richer life themselves and escape from the garbage collector and the game itself (which they are being deleted from).
What makes the message more powerful is that Thomas, the main character, is the most unremarkable of them all. Thomas’s jump is mediocre, he’s too tall to fit into small areas, and not tall enough to help others reach the really high up areas. Thomas is, for all intents and purposes, the most average unremarkable character of them all.
However, Thomas thinks big and dreams big. He impresses his friends with his “observation” (as it is called in the game) and he leads his friends in the goal to escape the garbage collector to the internet. Thomas transcends his physical mediocrity by being prepared and aware.
The whole game overall reminds me of what is truly important in our own society. We find ourselves within a system that we cannot control. Often times for minorities this means being stuck within a life style that is nearly inescapable. It also reminds me of how the infrastructure is being attacked (slashing budgets for schools, public transportation, etc) and that the infrastructure we are leaving for those in the future doesn’t promote success for many but for the already privileged few. It creates a place that I, personally, would not want to raise a child in.
Thomas Was Alone reminds us of the basic building blocks of any community: collaboration, infrastructure, and leaving behind a place that enables people to be happy and successful. While there are some steps being taken forward it feels more like we are taking far too many steps backward.
All of this from a game about a bunch of rectangles.