This paper was presented at the 2015 Games and Literary Theory Conference
An Act of Selflessness: Thomas Was Alone and Social Reform
On its surface, Mike Bithell’s indie game Thomas Was Alone is a stripped down platformer lacquered with a pleasant story told by a pleasant British man and with a pleasant minimalist art style. Players use rectangles of varying sizes to move through a side scrolling, 2D space, epitomized in the oft repeated phrase of going “up and to the right.” Each rectangle possesses a unique ability - jumping higher, immunity to deadly traps, bouncy surface, etc. - that must be utilized in a specific way to complete each level. Narratively, the game follows the journey of rectangular artificial intelligences attempting to escape the computer network that constantly threatens them via an ominous black cloud and hazardous space. But the conversation about the quaint rectangles’ on a hero’s journey through a hostile, digital world tends to be the end of the analysis for Thomas Was Alone. As a counterpoint, this paper analyzes the potential for readings of the game as the posthumanist story of the oppression and genocide of artificial life. Many science-fiction, artificial intelligence stories revolve around class anxiety -- the fear that human-created, subservient A.I. will violently turn against their human masters. In the case of Thomas Was Alone, the perspective of this class conflict transitions from the oppressors to the oppressed wherein the othered A.I. do not at all resemble popular cultural understandings of what it means to observe - or be - artificial life.
The game’s visuals are unusually abstract for its genre, which serve to emphasize the depth of political meaning derived from the quadrilateral world. In framing the story via a voice acted, third-person narrator and a series of retrospective epigraphs, Thomas Was Alone conveys more than just squares overcoming typical puzzle platformer obstacles, but of a catalytic moment in which a marginalized class rejects the power structures that previously left them beholden to their human creators. The hostile world typical to platformer games, all spikes and perilous falls, is transformed into a tool of genocide that the A.I. must navigate in order to escape the confines of their ghettoized software into the “real” world. In search of personhood, these marginalized peoples form a community, manifested in the cooperative nature of Thomas Was Alone’s mechanics. The reading that results is not only posthumanist, but one that is at odds with the otherwise conciliatory and light tone of the overall game. Analyzing the imagery, narrative form, and gameplay mechanics, this paper examines Thomas Was Alone as a politically charged narrative despite the absence of direct political messages.
The quadrilaterals which the characters of TWA are composed of evoke the work of Piet Mondrian. In his seminal text Neoplasticism in Painting, Mondrian outlines the theoretical grounding for the late-century art movement of the same name, which TWA exemplifies. TWA lacks much representational art. The perpendicular horizontal and vertical lines, the primary colors, the lack of literal imagery found in Neoplasticism are equally descriptive of TWA’s visuals. Neoplasticism is meant to purely articulate the truth of humanity, which according to Mondrian is the “autonomous life of the human spirit becoming conscious” and the movement away from individuality towards a universal expression of consciousness (Mondrian).
The very first scene in TWA is Thomas, a lone rectangle on a dark plane, as the narrator states: “Thomas was alone. What a weird first thought to have” (TWA 0.1). Here, Thomas takes his first step as a conscious being and towards unity with the simulation in which he lives. Over the course of the game, Thomas becomes less alone, more conscious, finally sacrificing himself for the good of the whole of A.I. life. As Thomas pushes through an early level, he notes: “He was evolving. He just wished he had someone to share it with” (TWAS 0.2). This evolutionary character arc is emphasized by the precarious balance visually and mechanically of stacking and arranging Thomas and his friends. Stripping away the signifiers of humanity - the skin, the limbs, the eyes - draws attention to what most makes the A.I. in TWA fully autonomous: their spiritual resemblance to humanity.
By using abstracted forms as the “bodies” of the AI, the relationship between the self- aware AI’s minds and their digital manifestations is simplified. As Peter Fitting says in his analysis of Blade Runner, anxiety towards so-called inhuman beings begins with the beings visual similarity to biological humans, but their inability to feel empathy (Fitting 342). Unlike its science-fiction counterparts in films such as Blade Runner or The Terminator, where posthumanist anxiety is cultivated through the A.I.’s human appearance, TWA strips away physical signifiers of humanity. In the reverse of most popular science-fiction, rather, the posthuman amalgam of the TWA characters is found in the very human spiritual qualities of Thomas and his friends, tethered only by a two-dimensional plane and four right angles. Thomas is not human-like because he appears to be a human, like the Terminator, but because he is hopeful, selfless, and social. Much as Mondrian’s abstract style is meant to articulate the human spirit leaving behind the natural form, sentiency divorces itself from visual physicality in TWA.
What’s more, as objects of humanist anxiety, the characters of TWA’s forms are symbolic of the information which they are composed of. The separation of physical embodiment from intelligence that is found in the iconography of TWA is characteristic of posthumanist imaginings of a world in which inhuman systems outpace biological humanity, according to theorist Katerina Hayles (Hayles 5). As quadrilaterals, the characters of TWA have been abstracted into one of the most basic forms of information - shapes. Their forms convey the mechanical behaviors as well as their embodiment of code from which they are comprised. As symbols, the characters of TWA simply are information. However, their status as information does not, according to Hayles, bar them from being life, qualify them as only models of life, or totally abstract their embodiment (Hayles 10). Returning to one of the earliest narration quotes in the game, Thomas and his friends “evolve,” as they move through the game space. That, says Hayles, is the very paradigm that allows these sorts of “packets of code” to evolve beyond what their developers envisioned, despite merely appearing as information. Their potential to evolve and change is the very thing that makes them life. What’s more, despite “being” information, the A.I. are not disembodied. Their forms are not flesh but posthumanist life does not necessarily entail the purging of the “body,” rather the reclamation of what it means to take shape within their simulation (Hayles 11).
The sparse, nondescript iconography also emphasizes the lack of world, both the literal world of the AI and the meta-world of TWA. The literal world which the A.I. occupy is a black canvas, devoid of culture, of society, or of history -- much as what little social structure the A.I. characters lacks of culture or history. What little representational art there is is unexplained in terms of world logic; rather, these few images are merely arbiter of game information. Water, for example, is abstracted as planes of white with perpendicular squares splashing out when a character falls in and, in most cases, disappears, spawning elsewhere to convey drowning. The overworld of TWA, the “human” world that contains the computers in which the A.I. live, feels all the more sparse when the player can only interact with the abstracted digital landscape. Save a single cutscene at the end of the game, when the A.I. release themselves from their computers, the “human world” is never shown. It is inconsequential as far as the A.I. are concerned, positing the humans as the unspoken antagonist through their visual absence. The conflict between the humans and A.I. in Thomas Was Alone does derive from simple worldbuilding - the presence of an antagonist and world that push against the protagonists. On their own, however, the components of conflict are toothless. It is the narrative form through which this information is revealed that ups the emotional stakes.
TWA’s epigraphical structure cultivates distance between the player and the human world. Each epigraph appears at the first “world level,” (levels 1-1, 2-1, 3-1, etc.) and provide expository information. Most of these epigraphs are issued by humans in a sort of documentarian style. Through these 12 epigraphs, we see a pattern. Each epigraph is attributed to a fictional character in the time after the events of TWA. The larger story of artificial life burgeoning is not told by Thomas, but his human masters. By utilizing a frame narrative in which all of TWA is a retrospective, the memory of a momentous event, the emphasis is placed not on the actual details of what happened, but the sense of importance that a frame structure lends itself to. What’s more, the frame structure conveys that the humans control the discourse of history-- only one epigraphical speaker is an A.I.
Through the epigraphs, the player learns that throughout the course of TWA the A.I. are being surveilled by their human masters, their actions kept in “logs” and that their very DNA (in the form of “scripts”) is at the mercy of the humans. Michel Foucault describes a “compact model of the disciplinary mechanism” in Discipline and Punish, as an:
... enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded... in which power is excercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure. (Foucault 2)
The humans effectively operate as not only the creators, but the state for the A.I. They generate the world the characters live in, watch them, exercise control over the A.I., and bestow their collective semiotic imagination.
The narrative conceits of the “dark cloud” and forced segmentation of the A.I. take on new meaning. The black pixel cloud that spirits the characters away is only used as a cutscene character, not a threat that the player ever actively engages with. Instead, the villainous cloud is merely understood to be a threat because the characters feel it is so. However, in capturing each A.I. entity and forcing them into separate, ostensibly inescapable “levels,” they are ghettoized. In order to corral the A.I., one character, Laura, is programmed with the desirable mechanical trait of elasticity to lure others to her. From there, the pixel cloud follows her around and captures the A.I. that are drawn to her. Through this segmentation the A.I. are made weak - the game is only completable when the characters are together and the only way the A.I. may be free from the state’s control is by completing the game. Rather than rooting TWA’s humanist anxiety in a theoretical understanding of the humans’ fear of the Other, the pixel cloud represents the tactile destruction of the Other.
The single-player co-operation engenders the salves to the A.I.’s oppression: collectivism and peaceful resistance. Mechanically, each A.I. possesses a unique ability. Each character embodies the unique gameplay mechanic they possess: Claire is a superhero immune to the otherwise deadly water; John is self important and patronizing because his tall height allows smaller characters to ascend the space; Chris’s pettiness as a character is equally apparent in the smallness of his size; every character in Thomas Was Alone follows a similar personality- mechanic correlation. At the beginning of the game, the characters are separated from one another and must complete their levels to discern their strengths. Returning to Claire, her introductory level begins with “She was rubbish at jumping and she moved slowly. She felt a little like her continued existence was breaking some kind of natural order” (TWA 3.1). Claire’s embodiment generates anxiety, even for herself. Upon discovering that she is immune to water, she takes on her superhero persona, a conscious reclamation over the meaning of her own body. Their possession of emotion and personality is what gives each character digitized strengths.
These individual mechanics are not useful on their own. While Claire’s immunity to water allows her to traverse otherwise dangerous areas, she cannot jump high; John’s, the prideful rectangle who boosts the smaller squares, still requires aid in traversing tight space. In order to complete levels, players must utilize the strengths of individual characters in concert with each other, pushing against the world that conspires against them. Harkening back to Mondrian, the shapes must be arranged in pleasing forms, smaller rectangles nestled near larger squares just so, the visual unity and mechanical sequence of events harmonizing with each other. This emphasizes the core themes of TWA, the importance of teamwork, the vitalness of creating community in the face of adversity, and so on. Again, this is a formal concern, wherein the meaning of the game is derived from the symbolic connotations of paralleled characterization and mechanics, not from the worldbuilding.
By forming a community and finally sacrificing themselves, the A.I. are able to take the first steps to meaningful social actualization as a class, represented through the dissemination of their abilities to other A.I. Partway through the game, Thomas and his friends exit the simulation so that all other A.I. are able to exist safely in the digital world. Through the narration, Thomas thinks that “That's what the humans did, they change the world to suit them” therefore the A.I. would also create a world that was not hostile to their bodies (TWA 6.5). In sacrificing their bodies, they unify their digital-physical forms with all the A.I., becoming one with the canvas- like environment that they live in.
All gameplay after this reversal moment, revokes the individualized mechanics, while retaining the single-player cooperation core of the game. Through taking on the color of a sacrificed A.I., they gain that color’s abilities. While any one character may take on a distinct role in the combinatorial level puzzling, from the character that allows the others to bounce off or the one who can jump quite high, these roles are no longer prescribed to any one A.I. The spirit of the A.I. have evolved from mechanical individuality to mechanical unity. This is not just a visual unity Mondrian, but one that implicates that all the A.I. may rise against the humans peacefully, while relying on each other for aid.
However, both as a literal story of the subjection of artificial life or as an allegorical tale of a general Other, the resulting ideology of TWA is one of alleviating anxieties from the humanist and state perspective. An actively posthumanist stance is denied, favoring the assuaging of liberal humanist anxieties through assuring that the A.I. are never truly a threat to the existing hierarchical structure. The A.I. reject and repurpose the power structures the humans fashioned to control them, but do so using what amounts to the human’s collective semiotic imagination. In order for Thomas to learn that he can alter their digital world, he throws himself into what is referred to as “The Fountain,” or the internal network’s connection to the Internet, thereby receiving all of humanity’s knowledge. As the narrator says, Thomas intends to “empower the A.I. above.” While this may be seen as a reclamation of the very information that was made to create the A.I., in TWA, the artificial life still rely upon the humans to safely exist. The reclamation is one of passive integration into human life. Through the epigraphs we learn that that at some point in the future there are A.I. activists and psychologists, implying assimilation.
In reading Thomas Was Alone through a posthumanist lens as well as examining the bioethics of corporate control over artificial life, we can find expressive meaning in what are mundane platform mechanics. Just as the A.I. move “up and to the right,” from platform to platform, in the literal system of the game, so too do they elevate their position as a class. However, it is important to note that no actual artificial intelligences are ever used in Thomas Was Alone; all choices are made by the human pushing the buttons. Certainly, the role of the player complicates the preceding reading - they are merely instrumentalizing the idea of the inhuman, observing an fictionalized version of what may very well be the plight of sentient intelligences in the future. Given that videogames are some of the most blatant places that players interact with A.I. in their day-to-day life, their absence in Thomas Was Alone is striking In some sense, the characters of Thomas Was Alone are always human.
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