Guest writer M. Joshua Cauller spent some time with Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone and reflects on the value and diversity of all people.
“Make sixty stories with four rectangles.” This was my first assignment for interactive design class. I had to use all four of them. No more. No less. I could do anything I wanted with them: put them in a row, turn them on their sides, make them hollow, etc. Still, it seemed impossible with sixty variations. Somehow by concept number thirty, I hit stride. Suddenly, the options grew limitless. It seemed like one could use simple shapes to do just about anything. But there was one thing I never thought of: giving rectangles names. Mike Bithel thought of that. He made a game out of it, called Thomas Was Alone. Somewhere in the process of naming little rectangles, he created a relational tale about a diverse community that learned to care for one another.
I met Thomas when he was lonely. The narrator, Danny Wallace, tells me of the little red rectangle’s melancholia, his ambitions, his fears and his hopes.
It wasn’t long before Thomas discovered that he had the ability to jump. Jumping comes in handy when you’re a rectangle in a platforming test chamber. And many rectangles are quite fond of their abilities. But Thomas was still very lonely. And it wasn’t until he found somebody else that the loneliness seemed to go away.
Thomas met the stout orange rectangle, Christopher. At this event, he was quite happy. He could now overcome new challenges the hostile world presented. But he was even more excited to have somebody to experience life with. Chris, however, did not like Thomas. Maybe it was envy or spite. Thomas’ dreams of companionship were almost dashed. Nevertheless, they worked together and overcame a series of difficult challenges. While Chis didn’t like Thomas, he couldn’t deny that they became a powerful force as they worked together.
Much of their time was spent solving problems with collaborative teamwork as the player switches between them. This ultimately leads to the crew giving themselves up so that the world would have their greatest gifts. But that resolve almost didn’t happen. Yes, there were some trickier puzzles but the true hamper on the rectangle team’s progress was themselves.
Chris obviously hated Thomas. But he also hated everybody. Except for Laura. He wanted her to be his girlfriend. And Laura was really insecure about her ability. It always seemed to result in people leaving once they discovered it. John was arrogant. Claire was borderline suicidal before discovering her power. And Thomas seemed to have dependency issues.
If it weren’t for the player dictating all the character’s actions, they wouldn’t have worked out their differences at all.
Thomas Was Alone helps you see the potential in everybody. You know just where and when they have to be in places or you learn how to discover it. And as you drive Thomas’s community where you want them to go, everything seems to come together. With my guidance, these beings are forced to go beyond their hangups. They change the future for sentient rectangles everywhere.
I wondered why I haven’t been this happy playing a game in recent memory. I think that’s because Thomas shows something of a realized dream: diverse peoples with complicated personalities and abilities coming together to do something that blesses the world.