You'd be forgiven for thinking from thinking from screenshots alone that PC/Mac puzzle-platformer Thomas Was Alone was either a scrappy prototype game or a ponderously minimalist art title. It's true that differently-sized blocks in a 2D world primarily made of right-angles is almost all it offers to look at, but it's precisely because its characters are such blank,faceless slates that they can end up with such personality. Their thoughts on what they're encountering and what they think of each other are spoken aloud (courtesy of a laconic voiceover from Danny 'Yes Man' Wallace), and with enough wit and verve to outdo even the highest-tech facial animations.
Each block is an artificial intelligence exploring the electronic world he or she lives in, and each has a distinctive personality of their own. The titular red oblong Thomas likes nothing more than to be in the company of others, while blue square Claire believes her ability to float on water makes her a superhero. Then there's tiny orange Chris, a grumpy miserabilist who'd rather be left alone and who's arguably the real star of the show.
Each of these (and there are a few others too) has strong feelings about their angular companions, but never expresses them to anyone but the player. Sharp, funny, often bittersweet writing makes their motivations compelling - within moments, the fact they don't have faces, voices, limbs or animations entirely ceases to matter.
What they do have is differing sizes and abilities. Lanky yellow John can leap huge distances, while surly Chris can't jump far but can slide into small spaces, for instance. The challenges and puzzles of the game come from using these abilities to get everyone to exits on the other side of obstacle and trap-filled levels.
The characters need to work in tandem to do this, usually by reaching switches in areas inaccessible to others and forming staircases or bridges to help their less mobile comrades along. Knowing that your flock of blocks secretly hate/love/envy/don't understand each other elevates these relatively simple logic challenges into characterful mini-adventures, a cubist take on buddy movies.
Generally, Thomas Was Alone finds a happy balance between mental stimulation and sense of progress, but its generally energetic pace can falter when it needlessly asks for repetition during a level. The staircase puzzle - using three characters of different heights to form steps to a higher place - turns up again and again, and having to do it five or six consecutive times within a single level just feels like padding things out.
Without such things perhaps the game would be too short, but that might be better than the sinking feeling that can come from looking at the level ahead and knowing you're going to tapping character switch/jump/character switch/jump/character switch/jump over and over. There are times when the game needs more variety of puzzles, not simply variations on the same obstacles.
Thomas Was Alone can also feel a little fiddly, with its requirement to rapidly and repeatedly change character often in the midst of danger, and that can conflict with the calming music and laidback voiceover.
Such things fade away in the face of the game's biggest draw though - seeing who/what you'll encounter next, how your faceless party's relationship with each other will evolve and what they make of the increasingly strange, dangerous situation they're in. As the game graphics arms race continues unabated, it's wonderful to have such definite proof that there's far more to truly compelling digital worlds than bleeding-edge tech.