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 Thomas Was Alone : From 24-hour prototype to fully-fledged game

Thomas Was Alone: From 24-hour prototype to fully-fledged game Exclusive

June 26, 2012 | By Mike Rose

When you're working in a creative medium such as video games, sometimes it takes a little push from outside forces to tell you that you're onto something worthwhile.

Thomas Was Alone started life as a Flash prototype in 2010, created over the course of 24 hours by lone coder Mike Bithell. When the abstract puzzle-platformer began to gain traction both in press coverage and with players, Bithell felt an expansion on the theme was justified.

The London, UK-based designer currently works full-time at Merlin: The Game studio Bossa Studios, and has been putting the fully-fledged version of Thomas Was Alone together in his spare time.

"It seemed like enough people were commenting really positively to justify playing with the concepts more," he explains to Gamasutra. "There were also a bunch of ideas for interactions, levels and mechanics which I'd not had a chance to get in. Unfinished business and untested ideas, which is hell for a designer."

The game follows a small red rectangle called Thomas who must overcome obstacles and reach a series of portals. Gradually throughout the course of play, more shapes are added, and the player must organize each such that pathways are created and every shape can reach its particular goal.

While it may appear on the surface that the game is simply about a lonely rectangle, there's a deeper, underlying context to it all. "I don't want to go into too much detail, but as the game goes on the player becomes more and more aware that they're witnessing something bigger, an event way beyond 'lonely red rectangle becomes less lonely,'" adds Bithell.

The way in which the various shapes interact with each other via narration, coupled with the overarching sci-fi styled storyline, is certainly attention-grabbing. Notes the designer, "I've never written a script before, and I'm really chuffed that people seem to be liking this one."

Bithell originally went with a blocky, abstract visual style for the prototype as a time-saver, so he was able to throw in all his ideas in such a small space of time. However, when he came to making the full game, he found himself regularly going back to the original design.

thomas was alone.jpeg"When I decided to return to the project, and specifically when I decided to do so in Unity, I had a ton of options. I experimented with cartoon faced blocks, blocky space suits, mechs, aliens, all the obvious ideas a game designer would go through. But none of them really felt as good as rectangles," he says.

"I'm a big fan of [Playdom VP of creative design] Raph Koster's stuff, and the way he describes players as almost seeing through art when playing... players think about game spaces in terms of collision spaces. I kinda felt the game was best served by exploring that idea."

"Also, rectangles are really resource cheap and I'm a rubbish coder," he laughs.

What really tips the balance for Thomas Was Alone is the narration throughout play, voice by Scottish comedian and writer Danny Wallace who is known in the video game space for voicing Shaun Hastings in the Assassin's Creed series.

His performance is heavily inspired by that of Stephen Merchant portraying Wheatley in Valve's Portal 2, and gives the entire game an extra dimension that it wouldn't otherwise exude.

Says Bithell, "I originally planned to use in-world typography projected on the walls, but when Splinter Cell and Max Payne 3 went down that road it felt less original, and I was constrained by the limitations of my spaces. I knew I wanted a fun narration which told a story in a jovial way, so rooted around for reference."

He continues, "I had some of Danny's audiobooks, and the tone was perfect, so I started writing the script with that voice in mind. I spent ages trying to find a voiceover actor who could deliver the lines how I wanted, but one evening I just emailed his public email account on a whim -- and amazingly he went for it. He's a big gamer (and ex-reviewer) and he really liked the demo I sent him."

Thomas Was Alone is set for release on June 30 for both Windows PC and Mac.

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