Sofia and I finished Thomas Was Alone a few days ago - what a great game. I had thought that platforming as a game mechanic was exhausted, but Thomas Was Alone showed that there was still a lot more in the well. Maybe now it's exhausted...
Almost always in games there's a fairly large disconnect between the cosmetic looks and what actually matters for gameplay. Those normal-mapped detail-textured bumpy surfaces often don't match the underlying collision primitives. In Schizoid we had organic looking sea-creature things, but their collision was often just circles. I wondered - what would the game look like if we just made everything circles, and we had a 1:1 correspondence between the cosmetic and physical?
I had been reading Tufte at the time, and he's a big fan of minimalism - if the lines on your graphs don't add any information, remove them. Video games, for the most part, are rife with meaningless or redundant lines.
Well, now I don't have to wonder what such a game would look like, because it's pretty much Thomas Was Alone. Everything is color-coded rectangles, and while there is some cosmetic decoration in the backgrounds it's almost completely signal and very little noise. Which is minimalistic and beautiful.
The other thing that struck me is the story. A long time ago I read a post-mortem of Portal where they said they thought a pure puzzle game without story behind it would be dry. I thought to myself at the time, "No man! I'm all about the puzzles! The escalating challenges! Being forced to think! That's why I liked Portal."
I was such a liar. I lied to myself. And convinced myself - which is why there was no story to speak of in Schizoid or sixty second shooter. For someone who once fancied himself a novelist, who goes and plays 'story games' almost every week, you'd think I'd put more story in my games.
But I've played a bunch of puzzle games lately and never gotten very far. I never got stuck - rather I got bored. 'Okay, the next puzzle is going to take the same ingredients and take things to a new level. Why should I bother?'
Thomas Was Alone has been the first puzzley game I've played in a while that carried me through - and what was one of the missing ingredients it added back? Story. And just a dash of story. A little voice over, a quote between each chapter, ... It's good story, mind you - unique and funny and fitting the game, not a rehash of "aliens are invading, stop them." And that was enough to carry me through, because I wanted more funny bits, because I wanted to see how it would end, because the motifs of aloneness and friendship resonated.
So yeah. A little bit of story can go a long way. Who knew?