[Blog] Thomas Was Alone – Puzzles with Platformers

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Released: November 12, 2012

Finally getting around to clearing out some of my STEAM backlog, first starting with Night In The Woods and now going through Thomas Was Alone, a puzzle platformer made by Mike Bithel.

This is one of those games that I remember hearing all about over the years, cited for everything indie related from how to make appealing programmer art to how even simple game ideas can be enormously successful. It’s one of those indie games that everyone played and loved and I always felt like I was missing out because I never got around to playing it until now.

While I can understand why people loved this game, in all honesty Thomas Was Alone didn’t quite “do it” for me. I enjoyed the visuals and the narration, Danny Wallace is an excellent orator, but if I took anything away from the game it was a realization/understanding of my own tastes in games. I don’t tend to play puzzle or platformer games, and Thomas Was Alone, being a combination of those genres, showed me why that is.

I tend to quickly lose interest in a puzzle game because the main mechanics and tricks are all laid out relatively soon and the novelty wears out fairly quickly. The challenge of them tends to be in rearranging those mechanics in unfamiliar environments, and puzzle games tend to approach the solving mechanics in two main ways;

  1. Linearly – the puzzle has actions that must be done in order (I.E. hit the switch with this character then move the next character etc…)
  2. Open – the puzzle can be completed in most any method so long as certain keypoints are done.

Most puzzle games probably incorporate a bit of both types. It’s difficult to explain without visuals (maybe I’ll add them in later), but for example, in Thomas Was Alone, some levels are essentially split into two or three “sections” where you have to hit certain switches in order, but can complete those “sections” with their respective characters.

When a puzzle is more linear, like Steven’s Sausage Rollwhere most every action needs to be done in a particular order, what tends to happen is I’ll breeze through a large section of it, seeing a good portion of what the game has to offer, and then hit a brick wall where I’m already burned out from the game’s mechanics and want to move on.

With a more open-ish puzzle, the solution tends to be immediately obvious and the main challenge is supposed to be in figuring out how to combine the mechanics to achieve that solution. Often times, though, how to combine those mechanics still ends up being a “linear” and at that point it becomes a slow slog for me to just get everything in place. With Thomas, you control multiple characters, and each character has their own traits and abilities, and the most tedious parts of the game were the levels where the goal is on the other side of the map and the main challenge is to slowly get every single rectangle in place, which is even slower for the rectangles that can’t maneuver as easily as the others. It feels less like I’m solving a puzzle and more like I’m taking extra, unecessary steps to get from point A to point B.

Bah, I’m probably not making as much sense as I could. But this has gotten me thinking on puzzle game design and how I might approach it with my lukewarm feelings towards puzzle games. Maybe I’ll figure out some mechanics, try to puzzle my way through to making something out of it. Research into that stuff.

Sincerely,

~Tomer Braff

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