Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone Review (Game, PC/Mac/PS3/Vita)

At this point, a lot of indie game developers try to make mind-bending puzzle games. Portal helped bring back the genre in a huge way with the taunting narrator and level manipulating mechanic. A lot of games fail to even offer a fair challenge, mistaking difficulty or narrow unmarked accuracy fields as compelling game design.

Thomas Was AloneNot Thomas Was Alone. Mike Bithell didn’t fall into the “harder is better” trap with his rectangular puzzle/platformer game. He creates a captivating environment with very minimalistic graphics that will draw you in with charm and humor.

Thomas is an anomaly in a computer system. He’s a randomly generated error shaped like red rectangle. He begins to explore the world that created him, reaching for teleportation outlines that bring him to the next area.

The computer system begins creating other errors with other abilities. John is a tall skinny rectangle that jumps exceptionally high. Claire is a large blue square that can float on the water–a deadly element to the other glitches. Together, the team of seven shapes begin to go further and further in the computer world that made them and wishes to destroy them.

For a game with rainbow-hued rectangles on muted backgrounds, Thomas Was Alone sure has an engaging story and great character development. The seven glitches fall in love, like each other, hate each other, and distrust each other in equal measure.

Thomas Was Alone
The flavor text/narration is worth the price of admission
Claire’s not sure about Chris (a squat but strong orange square), but Laura (a flat pink rectangle that act as a trampoline) falls in love with him pretty quickly. Chris hates John for being so upbeat, tall, and jumpy, but John wants nothing more than to earn the respect of Chris and Thomas. And Thomas, the title character, is routinely referenced as the glitch in the artificial intelligence that would be destroyed first if these other characters weren’t forced upon him.

Charm and character development are not a substitute for good gameplay and responsive controls in a puzzle/platformer. Thomas Was Alone proudly stands as a well-executed game. The controls are simple. You use up, left, and right (or WAD if you prefer) to move the characters and Q/E (PC/Mac) or shoulder buttons (PS3/Vita) to toggle between characters. A row of colored squares appear on the corner of the screen to let you see the order of the toggle. The game automatically centers on the active character, as well.

The level design is challenging but not so exacting that only one out of hundreds of possibilities of landing a jump is correct. Some levels are just simple platforming, moving the characters from the beginning to the end in a clear path. Others require cooperation between the characters–building staircases for smaller players to climb, floating on Claire’s back to pass through water unscathed.

Thomas Was Alone
Thomas Was Alone has excellent level design
The hardest levels split the characters into odd combinations that force you to rethink the relationships between them. Chris and John are a terrible pair because John can’t carry Chris and Chris can’t jump on John without at least two layers of platforms, yet they’re forced to work together to handle narrow passageways no one else can fit into. Claire and Laura can only jump high enough to get on top of Chris or a low platform, but the two are often paired up to create a high enough trampoline for other characters to use to hit switches. Thomas Was Alone refuses to let you fall into patterns of behavior that rely too heavily on one character combination over another.

While the opening text of each level derides the characters, the cast of Thomas Was Alone is best represented by Claire’s introduction to the game. Claire believes her ability to float makes her a superhero. She is proud of the fact that she can do a job no one else in the computer world can. The more she helps characters, the more satisfied she feels with the hand she was dealt.

Each of the seven characters in Thomas Was Alone is a superhero to the other characters. They just don’t all realize it. They have phenomenal abilities that allow the entire crew to pass through without detection by the menacing pixel cloud in the sky. The game is a crash course in teamwork and a very smart commentary on learning to believe in yourself. It has the biting wit of Portal which a much more life-affirming message.

Thomas Was Alone is available to download on PC, Mac, PS3, and PS Vita. You can score the PC version through next Sunday (9 June) as part of Humble Indie Bundle 8 with Little Inferno, Awesomenauts, Capsized, and Dear Esther (!!!) for as little as $1. Beat the average price and you also get Hotline Miami and Proteus.

Thoughts on Thomas Was Alone? Share them below.

Dead Island Riptide Ad

Dead Island: Riptide and the Case of Misunderstood Advertising

I know the Dead Island series, especially Riptide, is pretty polarizing with video game fans. The trailers suggested far more emotional gameplay than the open world survival horror/rpg title delivered. Those storylines are in the game, but they’re not the focus and you rarely deal with those scenarios while playing.

Riptide‘s advertising campaign has been fraught with controversy. The special edition statue of the ripped up female torso in a bikini was heavily criticized as soon as it was announced.

It is a, shall we say, jarring choice for a promotional figure. What does sexualizing a beheaded corpse have to do with the game? Not much. It was a misfire. Not all ad campaigns and promotional materials are good choices.

What I thought was very effective was the CGI trailer for Dead Island: Riptide. A man and a woman, clearly in love, are on a small yacht in the middle of the sea. An ominous music cue pushes the couple below deck. A romantic piano theme accompanies the couple’s embrace in the small quarters. The camera pans up and zombies are trying to smash their way onto the boat. The propane tanks are open, causing waves of gas to ripple against the zombie-obscured sunset. The woman mouths “I love you” to the man before joining his hand on the lighter they will use to blow up the ship and save themselves from becoming zombies.

It is a dark and brutal love story that is meant to shock the viewer. It is a reminder that the zombie apocalypse has landed on Dead Island and it’s an either/or proposition. Either your character survives or the zombies thrive. One character type must die to allow the other to take control.

The NSFW and triggery video is embedded here.

I think it’s a brilliant advertisement for a game that needed a boost to sell. The critics were kind to Dead Island but word of mouth gave it a disappointing reputation.

I enjoyed the open world gameplay and wide variety of missions to find and reconnect missing persons but others were let down by the constant assault of human zombies. Techland and Deep Silver aimed for naturalism in a zombie game and the lack of more diverse enemies–they’re all regular human zombies–played against the standard design for survival horror. If the enemies just increase in number rather than difficulty, it can become repetitive.

Australia’s Advertising Standards Board has banned this Dead Island: Riptide ad from appearing on TV in Australia. Why? Suicide.

The Board noted the fantasy content and the stylised nature of the advertisement and considered that the issue of suicide is a depiction of violence which is not justifiable even in the context of an advertisement for a computer game aimed at adults.

The issue of suicide is a very significant community concern and considered that the use of images which are strongly suggestive of suicide is not appropriate in the context of a television advertisement for a computer game.

AIE is distributing the game in Australia and attempted to fight the ASB’s decision. Their argument is perfectly valid. Dead Island: Riptide is a game for adults that covers mature subject matter. The advertisement does not sensationalize suicide, encourage it, or depict it in a way that diminishes its impact.

ASB’s response basically says they feel any depiction of suicide is inappropriate for any audience in an advertisement. That’s a huge restriction to set. Sure, most products would not benefit from an ad featuring this kind of imagery. But a survival horror game, a dark film, or a cerebral novel might have to address it in an advertising campaign.

Now, the ASB has established this standard that suicide cannot be depicted in ads. They’ve done it under the guise of protecting viewers from violent and upsetting imagery. They either believe an adult audience is not mature enough to ever handle the subject matter or that video games, as a medium, are not mature enough to address significant social issues like suicide. It’s a case of censorship by way of overly protective media guides.

I can’t tell if they’re insulting the intelligence of the target audience, insulting the artistic integrity of the video game industry, or slapping both groups in the face at the same time. Either option is equally depressing to me. The quality of the game is inconsequential to the discussion. The ASB said people and/or games can’t handle mature themes, therefore mature themes do not belong on TV advertisements. That’s a very limiting view of advertising and video games and it makes me sad for whoever handed down this decision.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below.

Watch: In Bed With Joan

I had a mind-numbing day of training for a substitute teaching firm. I’ve sat at the computer for five hours trying to write anything significant and failed. My brain left for an early dinner and is probably out having more fun than I am.

Please to enjoy Joan Rivers’ amazing new web series In Bed With Joan. Their playlist is backwards (new before old), so I’m embedding it at the Adam Pally (Happy Endings) episode and letting you decide who to watch next. RuPaul, Margaret Cho, and Sarah Silverman were great guests, as well.

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress (Part 2)

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress (Part 2)

Anita Sarkeesian’s new videoTropes vs. Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress (Part 2) premiered today on YouTube. Sarkeesian, the creator of Feminist Frequency, lays out her purpose in creating videos right at the start. This is the clearest I’ve ever seen her (or any media critic, for that matter) explain why we find it necessary to closely examine media we’re drawn to.

Over the course of this series I will be offering critical analysis of many popular games and characters, but please keep in mind that it’s both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.

This is not about instantly being against a subject because it features something objectionable under a certain school of theory. This is about examining something you enjoy to understand the quirks of how it works and why it chooses to characterize certain aspects with certain tropes and shorthand. It’s about the impact of the institutionalized choices of media on the greater world.

Tropes vs Women in Video Games LogoUnsurprisingly, before I even got a chance to watch Tropes vs. Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress (Part 2), the trolls that attempted to destroy Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter campaign already got it falsely flagged off of YouTube. It was an easy enough fix to get the video online again since there is no hate speech or TOS-violating content contained within.

Much like Part 1, I’m going to do another response to Sarkeesian’s video. I walked away very impressed with the construction of the argument and the research the last time. Will Part 2, dedicated to the “dark and edgy” Damsel in Distress style, be as strong?

Part 2 is grounded in Sarkeesian’s research into games that teetered on multiple tropes. It’s hard to argue against anything she says when she can reduce plot points for many games in a row to “his wife is murdered and he must save his daughter.” The exercise becomes so frustrating that, when exploring how game developers combine the Damsel in Distress (female character kidnapped and incapable of being freed without a male character’s help) with the Woman in the Refrigerator (female character brutally murdered to advance story/character arc of male character), Anita Sarkeesian actually facepalms. No, seriously. Look.

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress (Part 2) Face Palm
Bionic Commando is the game that broke Anita Sarkeesian

It only gets worse from there, people. Sarkeesian starts discussing the combination of the Damsel in Distress with the Mercy Killing (where a character is killed to save them from a worse fate). She’s defined a lot of terms in her Feminist Frequency series but none have hit me so strong as “The Euthanized Damsel.” We’re led to believe that the best thing for a female character who has already been trapped in a perilous situation she can’t get herself out of is death. Not freedom, not a chance to return to a normal life, but death.

When was the male hero who couldn’t even stop the bad guy the first time they met suddenly upgraded to the status of God? How is it that game developers think executing the victim is a compelling or thought-provoking ending? I share Sarkeesian’s disgust with this trope combo. Most cases are lazy, manipulative writing and their screenwriters deserve to be named and shamed. There is a world of difference between double tapping a zombie bite victim who played a big role in the story before they transform and double tapping a victim whose only role in the story was a treasure to be reclaimed by another character.

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Damsels in Distress 2 Mercy Beatings
All of these games feature violence against women to free loved ones
The next segment focuses on an even more absurd spin on the same trope. The only difference is that you beat a woman who you are dating or related to until the evil escapes or she dies peacefully. The only way to advance in the narrative is domestic violence and the women are literally asking for it. This is the part where I facepalmed. I don’t know how I managed to avoid so many of these games, but I’m kind of glad I did.

This is also the part in Part 2 where I disagree with Anita Sarkeesian’s analyis. She attempts to tie real life violence against women to in-game violence against women in the same way the NRA attempts to tie violence in video games to violence in real life. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that playing out these terrible scenarios in games actually has an impact on how the gamer behaves in real life. She backtracks in her conclusion, but the rhetoric is briefly identical to anti-video game advocates. The trivialization of the social narrative surrounding violence against women is all too real, but her attempt to tie-in real life violence is a stretch.

Her conclusion, however, is very strong. The discussion of mechanics as an accidental function of sexism is brilliant. If the most popular video games rely on violence to tell their story, the only way to conclude the story is with more violence. If the story hinges on abducting a female character, violence must be used to resolve the abduction of the female character. Until game developers find a new way of telling these stories, the darker spins on the Damsel in Distress trope will all too easily rely on violence against women to create a grander story.

Keep reading.


GameFanShop Round Up: 27 May 2013

You like games. I have discounts available for PC games. Shop at my GameFanShop partner store, get great deals on games, and support Sketchy Details. Easy as that.

Here are this week’s deals. They expire on Sunday, 2 June 2013.

Metro: Last Light is available in two editions. The standard edition is on sale for $39.99 (20% off).

The Limited Edition, with an extra game mode, an extra weapon, and better ammo, is on sale for $43.99 (20% off). This FPS is sitting pretty with an 82/100 on Metacritic right now.

Not to be left out, Metro 2033 is on sale for $8.99 (40% off). Play the post-apocalyptic FPS that led to the development of the critically acclaimed sequel for cheaper than ever.

Defiance continues to drop in price. The regular edition is on sale for $35.99 (40% off).

The Deluxe Edition, with all sorts of exp and gameplay boosts to start you off right, is on sale for $48.99 (50% off).

The Season Pass, giving you all the DLC as it’s released, is on sale for $27.99 (30% off).

For fans of The Sims 3, you can pick up three of the better expansion packs for real cheap this week. Seasons adds all sorts of new clothes and events to correspond with the calendar year for $22.99 (43% off).

University Life adds on the college experience for your young adult Sims for $22.99 (43% off).

Ambitions adds on all new careers and even workplace control for $22.99 (43% off).

The last deal is a brand new one for GameFanShop. Resident Evil Revelations is on sale for $41.99 (16% off) for the first time. This is a new adaptation of the 3DS Resident Evil game that allows you to play without paying for a $30 accessory that only works on a handful of games. PC is the way to go with this game if you don’t have it already.

With over 1000 PC games to download, GameFanShop is bound to have something for everyone to enjoy. They have a wide array of point and click adventure games, murder mystery titles, and even kids games. You register an account, pay for your games, and receive an e-mail with the Steam code or the link to download the game. Simple as that.

Have a look around the Sketchy Details GameFanShop and see if there’s anything you like. I get a small commission on each sale through the referral link and you get a great game for a great price. We both win.

Cursed Mountain

Game Mechanics as Storytelling: Cursed Mountain

When I wrote about Alan Wake last month, I spent a lot of time on mechanics as a function of storytelling. If the controls don’t match the story being told, they don’t really serve the video game experience.

Cursed MountainCold Mountain, a forgotten survival horror gem for the Nintendo Wii, gets controls as a storytelling device just right. Eric Simmons travels to the Himalayas to try to find his younger brother Frank. Frank was hired to hunt for artifacts in the mountain range and never returned. Eric arrives at the small mountain town to find it totally abandoned. It’s like the locals had no choice but to leave immediately.

The big conceit of Cold Mountain is that the ghosts who have taken over the town are attracted to noise and movement. You can run to save some time, but you leave yourself vulnerable to attack. You can break every clay vase you find to get healing incense and records from the town, but the noise might get you some unwanted attention.

The ghosts pass through you all the time in the town and on the mountain. The world turns black and white when you’re trapped in their past. They’ve so heavily imprinted their terrible memories on the environment that you’re forced to experience every shocking moment. The ghosts are waiting for the opportunity to destroy you with the same violence and rage that destroyed them.

Cursed Mountain is frustrating to the benefit of the story. The mechanic that best tells the story of this universe means that you have to walk everywhere even when you can run. You have to stop and plan your next move even though the path to the next objective is clear. Actions that are automatic in other games–climbing ladders, opening doors, jumping off a rooftop–are fully controlled by you so you are forced to think about the danger of the ghosts at ever step.

Cursed Mountain Ghost
These aren’t friendly ghosts (click for full)
But within the narrative, you know that every moment you waste decreases the chance of you ever finding your brother. If you rush, you’re punished. If you wait, you’re punished.

Is the rolling fog a weather phenomenon from the mountain peak or the physical manifestation of the ghosts? Is the voice talking to you through the Wiimote (the first moment that made me jump in the game) alive or dead? Has anyone ever survived this journey to the peak or have the ghosts always plotted against success?

Cursed Mountain takes a lot of risks in its storytelling. The controls–simple as they are–force you to engage with the story. The conclusion is hinted at throughout the game but is far different from any other horror game I’ve ever played. Developer Deep Silver went wild when creating this story but never underestimated the importance of mechanics as a storytelling device.

Deep Silver Vienna, the sub-studio in charge of Cursed Mountain, shuttered two months after the North American release. Deep Silver continues to distribute new games, releasing such varied horror titles as Catherine and Dead Island. The company continues to promote games that reinvent genre with novel mechanics that define and enhance storytelling. That’s a good thing. We need more risky big budget games to shake up how we play and control games.

Thoughts on game mechanics and/or Cursed Mountain? Share them below.


Second Annual Cinefessions Summer Screams Challenge – Sketchy Details’ List

Cinefessions is running their Summer Screams Challenge for a second year. Basically, you try to watch as many sci-fi and horror films/TV shows as you can in June. There are categories that you earn points for, theme weeks that give you extra points, and even bonus projects like series completion and reading books that earn bonus points. To participate, you have to create a list to check off you progress on a blog (like mine below) and contact Psymin/Branden by e-mail (psymin1[at]yahoo[dot]com), on Twitter, or with a link in the comments at the Cinefessions announcement page.

Last year, I managed to take 3rd place by cramming a mind-numbing amount of horror into the last week. Can I actually win the contest if I watch eligible films and TV shows every day? I plan to find out.

Feature films are 1 point. Half hour TV shows are 0.5 points. Short films totaling one hour are 1 point. Double points for matching the theme week. 1 point per line. Year in color designates theme week.


Week 1: Sci-Fi/Horror (1-9 June)
Week 2: Disasters (10-16 June)
Week 3: 1970s and 1980s (17-23 June)
Week 4: Found Footage (24-30 June)

  1. Trinity Blood Ep. 1 & 2 (TV, 2005) IMDB
  2. Trinity Blood Ep. 3 & 4 (TV, 2005) IMDB
  3. Cube (Film, 1997) IMDB
  4. Trinity Blood Ep. 5 & 6 (TV, 2005) IMDB
  5. Trinity Blood Ep. 7 & 8 (TV, 2005) IMDB
  6. Re-Animator (Film, 1985) IMDB
  7. The Purge (Film, 2013) IMDB
  8. Trinity Blood Ep. 9 & 10 (TV, 2005) IMDB
  9. Trinity Blood Ep. 11 & 12 (TV, 2005) IMDB
  10. Trinity Blood Ep. 13 & 14 (TV, 2005) IMDB
  11. Trinity Blood Ep. 15 & 16 (TV, 2005) IMDB
  12. This Is the End (Film, 2013) IMDB
  13. Frailty (Film, 2002) IMDB
  14. Is This a Zombie? Ep. 1 & 2 (TV, 2011) IMDB
  15. Friday the 13th (Film, 1980) IMDB
  16. Friday the 13th Part 2 (Film, 1981) IMDB
  17. Friday the 13th Part III (Film, 1982) IMDB
  18. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Film, 1984) IMDB
  19. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Film, 1985) IMDB
  20. Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (Film, 1986) IMDB
  21. Equilibrium (2002) IMDB
  22. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) IMDB
  23. Titan A.E. (2000) IMDB
  24. Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997) IMDB
  25. Halloween (1978) IMDB
  26. Santa Sangre (1989) IMDB
  27. The Fly (1986) IMDB
  28. Escape from L.A. (1996) IMDB
  29. The Blob (1958) IMDB
  30. The Theatre Bizarre (2011) IMDB
  31. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) IMDB
  32. The City of the Dead (1961) IMDB
  33. Jigoku (1960) IMDB
  34. An American Haunting (2005) IMDB
  35. American Grindhouse (2009) IMDB
  36. The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1935) IMDB
  37. The Howling: Reborn (2011) IMDB
  38. May (2002) IMDB
  39. The Initiaion (1984) IMDB
  40. The Moth Diaries (2011) IMDB
  41. Far Cry (2008) IMDB
  42. Frogs (1972) IMDB
  43. Paranorman (2012) IMDB
  44. Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait (2007) IMDB
  45. Origin: Spirits of the Past (2006) IMDB
  46. The ABCs of Death (2012) IMDB
  47. Elfen Lied Ep. 1 & 2 (2004) IMDB
  48. Elfen Lied Ep. 3 & 4 (2004) IMDB


Watch a sci-fi or horror film from each specific sub-genre:
X Cyberpunk Film (Equilibrium, 2002)
X Dystopian Film (This Is the End, 2013)
X Italian Giallo Film (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970)
X Psychological Horror (Cube, 1997)
X Slasher Film (The Initiation, 1984)
X Space Opera (Titan A.E., 2000)
X Splatter Film/Gore Film/Torture Porn (Jigoku, 1960)
X Supernatural Horror/Ghost Film (Frailty, 2002)
X Vampire Film (The Moth Diaries, 2011)
X Zombie Film (Re-Animator, 1985)

Watch a sci-fi or horror film that stars one of the following actors:
X Bruce Campbell (Escape from L.A., 1996)
X Christopher Lee (The City of the Dead, 1961)
X Sigourney Weaver (Snow White: A Tale of Terror, 1997)
X Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, 1978)
X Michelle Rodriguez or Donald Sutherland (An American Haunting, 2005)

Watch a sci-fi or horror film that fits into the following categories:
X Watch a Documentary (American Grindhouse, 2009)
X Watch a Hammer Horror Film (The Mystery of the Marie Celeste, 1935)
X Watch/Listen to a Film’s Commentary Track (May, 2002)
X Watch a Film that is on Scott Weinberg’s Top 100 Sci-Fi Films List (The Fly, 1986)
X Watch a Film Directed by Uwe Boll, Ed Wood or Herschell Gordon Lewis (Far Cry, 2008)
X Watch a Film that Contains a Killer Animal (Frogs, 1972)
X Watch a Film that Contains an Evil Doll/Puppet (The Theatre Bizarre, 2011)
X Watch a Film that is Currently in the Criterion Collection (The Blob, 1958)
X Watch a Film that is on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies List (Santa Sangre, 1989)
X Watch a Film in 3D, or One Originally Released in 3D (Paranorman, 2012)
X Watch a Film on the BFI 100 European Horror Films List (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, 1970)
X Watch a Foreign Film with Subtitles (Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait, 2007)
X Watch an Animated Film (Origin: Spirit of the Past, 2006)
X Watch an Anthology Film (The ABCs of Death, 2012)
X Watch a Remake or a Reboot (The Howling: Reborn, 2011)

Optional (for an additional 15 bonus points):
X Complete a Horror or Sci-Fi Film Series with at Least Six (6) Entries

  1. Film One (Friday the 13th, 1980)
  2. Film Two (Friday the 13th Part 2, 1981)
  3. Film Three (Friday the 13th Part III, 1982)
  4. Film Four (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, 1984)
  5. Film Five (Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, 1985)
  6. Film Six (Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, 1986)

X Watch a Movie in Theatres (The Purge, 2013)
X Read a Book Based On, or Inspired By a Horror or Sci-Fi Film, or a Book About the Horror or Sci-Fi Genres (Fear Without Frontiers, Steven Jay Schneider)

Viewing Points: 65

The Checklist: 30/30

Optional: 3/3

Total Points: 110