Games as Art (A Review of Thomas Was Alone)

There has been an ongoing debate in the video gaming community over the past few years over whether video games are an art form. Influential cinema critic Roger Ebert (who has consistently refused to actually play a video game himself), has claimed that “Video games can never be art,” and uses his own definition of Art as an argument to back this claim.

I find his stubbornness as frustrating as his inaccuracy. Gaming has evolved rapidly from what it was in the era of Pac-Man and Mario, and is capable of telling rich stories and stirring deep feelings within players. Take, for example, a  game called Thomas Was Alone.

Thomas Was Alone was released in July, 2012, and was developed for over two years by Mike Bithell, who completed the project almost singlehandedly. The game is simple enough; you control one of several small rectangular shapes, attempting to make it to portals that take you to the next level. Each stage increases the challenge, and requires more  critical thinking and problem solving. Where the game truly shines, however, is in its storytelling. The game’s story is relayed impeccably by the soothing British narration of Daniel Wallace (of BBC Radio fame). Wallace gives personality to each of the shapes as they make their way across simple yet treacherous environments, lending each of them a unique charm.

About halfway through the game, a certain substance (which may or may not from time to time hit the fan) begins to get real, and tragedy befalls the comical troupe of jumping squares. It was at this moment that I realized something: I cared about these little shapes, a simple and rudimentary as they appear. While playing, I watched the eponymous Thomas (a small, red rectangle) and his acquaintances grow and develop as characters. I tried, failed, and tried some more on each challenge, feeling not only the satisfaction of completing the challenge itself, but also the satisfaction of helping a good cause. At some point, the little rectangles had ceased to be mere colors and shapes and had become very real characters, with motivations, lives, and personality to spare. When one of them, at this critical juncture, was killed, I was emotionally impacted rather deeply.

Yet, all I had been doing was getting shapes from one end of a platform to another. I was in control of the story only in that by finishing a level, a new section of the narration was revealed to me. I might as well have been reading a book. Roger Ebert would certainly describe this as evidence that video games cannot be art; that their mere existence is a parasitic one that disguises other art forms in an attempt to mask its own shallow nature.

But he would be wrong. I know that if Thomas Was Alone was a book, it would not sell. It would not be a good, or fun read. If it was a movie, it would not be nearly visually interesting enough to capture its audience’s attention,.. In these forms, Thomas Was Alone would not be able to get its audience to care about the characters in any real way.

It was through the actual playing of this simple little game that I began to care about the characters. They are only given so much personality by the narration.  The rest of their character is a reflection of the player himself. If I had simply read in a book “Thomas attempted to jump across the gap a few times, then finally made it on the fifth attempt, and It was very difficult,” I would feel no connection to this struggle.After a few attempts at jumping over the gap myself, and then hearing Thomas remark that this gap was particularly difficult, however, I am able to emphasize with Thomas. The emotional impact of the game relies upon the interactivity of the medium through which the story is conveyed.  Any attempt to relate the story through non-interactive media would fall flat.

That, to me, is enough to qualify video games as art: a medium that creates an emotional impact through the interaction of the player and the character. Rather than just watching a character on screen or reading about a character’s actions in a book, games let you experience the struggles for yourself, with no necessary description. The feelings of these characters are not being described to you, they are happening to you.

Thomas Was Alone drives this point home with remarkable precision. It’s a rather short game, and the average player can complete it in five or six hours, but its 10 dollar price tag more than makes up for that. When you can either spend 15 dollars at the movies to see the latest thriller film that you’ll forget in a week or two or you can spend 10 dollars exploring the nature of a newly formed medium that may affect you for months… well, I think the choice is obvious. Even if you have never played a video game before, I still heartily recommend Thomas Was Alone. Or you could just go out and see Michael Bay’s latest attempt to string a bunch of explosions together (starring Shia LaBeouf).

Thomas Is Alone is available through Steam or direct download from for $9.99. A Demo version of the game is also available from the website.



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