[Game Theory] Why We Empathize with Cubes in Thomas was Alone

Thomas was Alone by Mike Bithell (2011) impressed me immensely when it was just released. Though the player essentially does not do more than move different bricks, its beauty lies in how these puzzles are framed by an engaging story.

In this blog entry, I will unpack what makes this game so great in terms of narration. Not only is story well-timed and meaningful, but a surreal experience is created around the bricks, who each represent a unique AI. We can almost read the game as a deconstruction of puzzle games such as Tetris – a prototypical example often used by game scholars when they suggest that games do not have to tell stories.

Thomas was Alone shows that even in minimalist designs, such as cubes, we read personality. The cubist, minimalist design fits with the themes of the game, such as machine learning and computer game code.

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Narration in Thomas was Alone

The narration in this independent game functions on two levels. The first is by means of a voice-over (Danny Wallace), who functions as an external narrator. The voice-over comments on the events  with a tremendous amount of wit and judgment. His personification of the bricks makes this game truly memorable.

A second level of storytelling is created by means of the epitaphs which introduce each level. These are quotes by former employees of Artificial Life Solutions, journalists and even AIs themselves. While the narrator is largely a comedic device, these quotes frame the game as a oral history of sorts that actually happened and give an additional layer to the events. The epigraphs tell us about the unexpected and horrific error through which artificial life was conceived at Artificial Life Solutions.  As the epigraph of one Joey Numly, head of security, tells us: “We evacuated the facility, cut the network lines and locked the doors. We knew by that point what was coming, but we had no idea what to expect” (scenario 9).

In other words, the epigraphs go deeply into the world and its history, as well as the programming of the AI. The story is treated with a high degree of realness in these quotes. This narrator, however, supports the idea that we are playing a simulation and continuously explores the game as fiction, while the epigraphs help frame the events themselves. In other words, while the narrator-observer is highly dramatized, the narrator-agents are presented as unmediated and actual. This narrator relies on metafiction, and often treats the game as a game.

The narrator is particularly privileged and ironic in his tone of voice, not unlike GLaDOS or the game designer that narrates The Stanley Parable. His first sentence is: ‘Thomas was alone. Wow. A weird first thought to have’. The last sentence is purposely ambiguous and ironic. Whether the comment stems from a surprised Thomas or is an expression by the narrator perhaps does not matter, but it already expresses a great deal of wit.

Most of the narration in the game is directed at players. He prompts players to reflect on fiction and game culture. This dramatic narrator has several primary functions in the game. He is instructive, comments on game situations and provides characterization to the shapes or “quadrilaterals”. These three levels connect the story and the game play in a unique way that I would like to exemplify further.

Purposes of the narrator

Instruction – First, the narrator has a clearly instructive function to the player. In the first level, the narration especially takes the form of an ironic tutorial. When Thomas stands in front of a block, and has just learned about falling, the narrator tells: ‘Ok, interesting. Thomas couldn’t fall past this block. Think, damn it, think. What if there was some kind of inverted fall, some way to “jump”’ (0.3).  This witty comment aligns the player and narrator, but please note that such narration also makes us aware of the game as fiction. It removes us from the world of the characters, such as Thomas, the newly born AI.

Commentary and Comedy – As the game progresses, the narrator’s instructions function more as a mockery of the situations than an informative gestures. For instance, as the cubes run into a floating target for the first time, he comments: ‘‘This was interesting. A floating target. This would require coordination, balance and timing’ (1.10). Often, the narrator gives feedback in an ironic way. For instance, in the first level, after Thomas has learned falling and jumped across the first block, the narrator states: ‘It worked. Thomas had solved the great inverted fall mystery’ (0.3). Sometimes popular references create the comedy. The blue cube, Claire, for instance thinks of herself as a kind of super hero:  ‘Spikes, that was new. Claire avoided them. She decided that they were most likely her kryptonite’. And not the rubbish red kryptonite. The proper radioactive green stuff’ (2.9).

Personification – The narrator’s last purpose is to voice the characters thoughts. Thomas is lonely and curious, but ‘James had always been different.’ Sara is narrated in a very different way as a more egocentric character: ‘Sara leaned her wisened head back and laughed. Ha! The quadrilaterals were apparently after some friends of theirs.  How petty an adventure.’

Meta  – Through the narrator’s remarks, the fourth wall is often broken. For instance, ‘The world seemed unstable and it seemed to Thomas that it could let him down any moment. He was starting to suspect it might even be doing so on purpose. Nah. Paranoia’ (0.5) The narrator continues, somewhat later: ‘Was the world testing him? Nah. Too obvious’ (0.8). After a particularly cumbersome bit of platforming, Thomas finally concludes: ‘The world was training him’ (1.0). Like the player, Thomas is getting more and more competent at traversing this simulation.

These purposes may go hand in hand in some of the remarks of the narrator. He often voices the characters in a way that mimics the supposed thoughts or observations of the player: ‘Thomas explained this to the others. It was impossible to gaze their reaction. After all, they were just rectangles. (7.1) In this quote, the status of the game as a game or construct, with a specific visual style, immediately becomes clear.

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Cubes as Props or Characters

Thomas AT-23-6-12 wasn’t special. He was just the right AI at the right time’ (scenario 1).

Thomas is the first AI that the player can control – a little red square with an observant and cautious personality. Chris, Claire, Laura, James, Sarah and many others join him later on. Their color codes and shapes convey their personality. For instance, Claire is a depressed, large blue square, who is quite insecure. The color blue also reveals her capability – she can float on water. When the AIs, thanks to Sarah, connect to the internet (the “fountain of wisdom”) they experience that there is more to life than the computer main frame. Thomas decides to re-invent the world and becomes an “architect”. Thomas and his friends sacrifice themselves in “the creation matrix” to set the other AIs free.

Friendship and freedom, then, are two key themes in the game. The game ends with a last shot of the computers of Artificial Life Solutions which turn white during a red alert, suggesting that the AIs have escaped. This scene refers to the events that the players have read as epigraphs during the game. AIs and humans now live together due to the “emergence” event. The original architects, Thomas and his friends, are immortalized and praised in the epigraphs for their sacrifice.

Raw, self-learning computer code – that’s what these characters consist of. They are literally the code that we play with in the game. To me, that seems perfect. How else to represent an AI? Yes, it could be fully fleshed out and humanized as an interface (see Horizon Zero Dawn), but the minimalism is a solid approach. AI will probably look and act very different from humans.

Still, even these shapes can evoke empathy. Many players may have shed a tear at the end of the game (I know I did). Visually though, humans are prone to like characters and toys with faces. Why is it that we care so much about the life and times of a few bricks?

Of course, the idea that cubes can convey character is not new. Historically, cubism broke new ground in art, and painters like Picasso showed us that it was possible to abstract figures and characters to a high degree. He proved that it was possible to create stories and empathy around simplified visualizations. As art, Thomas was Alone greatly resembles those that came after Picasso, such as the Dutch De Stijl (e.g. Mondriaan, Rietveld) who explored stories and concepts through simple colors and squares.

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In games and pop-culture, we have seen famous AI such as Hall from Kubrick’s Space Odyssey that – even if it’s just a simple red “eye” – we can relate to. The Companion Cube is a famous example of how players elevate props into characters. Similarly LEGO bricks or other non-facial characters have become loving toys and characters to many.

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Abstraction in games is often associated with a lack of storytelling. As Eskelinen (2001) notes in his famous piece on why games are play, and not stories: ‘Outside academic theory people are usually excellent at making distinctions between narrative, drama and games. If I throw a ball at you I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories.’ As he notes on the abstract game Tetris: ‘In abstract games like Tetris there are settings, objects and events but definitely no characters. In addition there are events in games that change situations but do not convey or carry or communicate stories. A goal in a soccer game is an event that changes the situation, but there’s no story in it; a goal is a goal is a goal.’

In a way, Thomas was Alone can be read as an in-depth critique of abstract games. It shows us that a story can unfold around them, and in a very powerful way. Though this game was released years ago, I still remember it fondly as a true indie darling.

Abstraction is a powerful device in any art form. We love to love cubes, game designers, if you let us.

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