The Austin Chronicle

This Week's Waste of Time

By James Renovitch, January 13, 2011, 4:43pm, Picture in Picture

It takes so little to give characters in video games some, uhh, character. You don't need lengthy cutscenes with attitude-laden exposition, all you need is something as simple as a unique jumping style. Case in point, this week's waste of time, Thomas Was Alone.

Mike Bithell developed this browser game in 24 hours, so he didn't have time for things like detailed backgrounds, massive story arcs, or even characters that were more than just variously shaped quadrangles. However, Bithell smartly adds a unique moving and jumping style that is the backbone of the obstacles that face the player. On top of that functional reason for the differences among the four playable shapes there is also the bonus of making recognizable characters from almost nothing.

I was reminded of how important the jumping mechanic is for platforming video games while reading The New Yorker's profile of Nintendo braintrust Shigeru Miyamoto. In that article the writer paraphrases Jamin Brophy-Warren of Kill Screen magazine talking about the genius of Super Mario Bros.: "There is something in the amplitude and dynamic of Mario’s jumps – just enough supernatural lift yet also just enough gravitational resistance – that makes the act of performing that jump, over and over, deeply satisfying.

And when you get right down to it. The four characters in Thomas Was Alone play in very similar ways to the four characters in the often derided Super Mario Bros. 2. The correlations are as follows:

Short brown rectangle = Mario
Tall Yellow Rectangle = Luigi
Orange Square = Toad
Squat Red Rectangle = Princess Peach

Compare and contrast and tell me I'm wrong. They're not exactly the same but I'm not making this stuff up. The important thing that Bithell understands is that it's easy for players to put personality on something as abstract as a geometric shape when you give them a little something to work with. As one of the commentators on the game's web page says, "Everyone has the one fat orange friend that they jump on to get places.. If you don't have a fat orange friend... it's probably you."

What's the point of all this blog blathering? Two things. One, Mike Bithell has made an impressive game for 24 hours of work. You should play it. Two, AAA designers need to abandon the cut-scene model of character development and start using interactivity and play as more than just a way to get a character from here to there. Because the way a person runs and jumps can be just as revealing as what a person says.

Click here to play Thomas Was Alone.

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