“I was trying to make an Oh Brother Where Art Thou game, failed, and made Thomas Was Alone instead,” says Mike Bithell.
Oh Brother Where Art Thou, for those unaware, is a Coen Brothers comedy from the year 2000 starring George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson. After escaping from prison, this maladroit trio go off in search of main character Everett’s (played by Clooney) hidden treasure, but wind up sidetracked and instead form a bluegrass folk group named The Soggy Bottom Boys. It’s as fun and bizarre and offbeat as it sounds, yet hardly orthodox videogame inspiration. As Bithell says, though, somewhere in the midst of this seemingly incongruous mix of ideas, Thomas Was Alone was born.
“Me and my mate Daz used to have this tradition where we’d meet up once a week, sit on the sofa at one of our places and watch movies,” explains Bithell. “My movie one night was Oh Brother Where Art Thou - I loved it and I wanted to introduce it to him. We got to chatting while watching it and specifically there’s a bit where the characters are in a chain gang where they’re all tied together.
“We were like: there should be a videogame where you’ve got two buddies and they’re tied together by a rope and you can swing one around, there’s obstacles you can’t get through - we thought it was a really interesting puzzle mechanic. Back then, we were both working on puzzle-platformers and we were both in that kind of mindset. After that, I just started making a prototype.”
Bithell set about crafting two simple characters with the aim of eventually tying them together as planned - the overarching idea being that this would make one reliant on the other and vice versa. When it came to adding the tether, though, Bithell realised that if he instead made one of the characters jump higher than the other, he could better convey the concept of dependence he was reaching for. The latter method, he felt, had more potential, and thus became the foundation upon which the rest of the game was built.
Whereas it’s hard to imagine Thomas Was Alone any other way than how it appears today, this wasn’t the only major decision that influenced its final guise. In fact, in the earliest days of his career, Bithell had his heart set on an animation-oriented path, and not games design at all.
As a child he wasn’t allowed a console, thus cut his teeth on friends’ machines while jointly dedicating much of his impressionable years to Apogee Software classics Commander Keen, World Rescue and Hocus Pocus. Further down the line he picked up a Dreamcast - “I was a big Shemnue fan, not as big as some Shemnue fans, but a respectable amount of a Shemnue fan” - and later fell in love with Metal Gear Solid, albeit the belated PC port.
Bithell’s passion for animation was ultimately misguided as it stemmed from a blind desire to work in the videogames industry in any shape, form or capacity. Animation, he reckoned, was his way in. “I didn’t really understand how computer games were made and I think that’s something that people understand a lot better now,” he admits. “I figured that animation was something I’d seen people do and I thought: that’s a human job in games. Back then, [design] was just this weird thing to me and I just assumed computers made games. This seems really naive nowadays, but I was a dumb kid!”
A conversation at a university open day channelled Bithell’s passion accordingly, and after graduating with a degree in game design he joined the now-defunct Blitz Games Studios. A two-year stint at Bossa Studios - who were a social games company at the time - followed, however his spare time was occupied by then flash game and pet project Thomas Was Alone. By 2011, the Thomas prototype that Bithell had thrown together in just 24 hours had accrued distinct levels of interest from players and press alike, yet pragmatism ruled any thoughts Bithell might’ve had about going solo.
“I didn’t quit my job until I had a year’s salary in the bank,” says Bithell rather sheepishly. “I was kind of a chicken about it, I didn’t rush off and think, ‘I’m going to make my game’ and see how it went. It was very much, ‘Ok, let’s make something, and if it works then I’ll leave.’ And it did, so I did.”
Upon release in 2012, Thomas Was Alone was met with praise across the board, directed not least at its surprisingly deep and endearing characters, level structure, and engaging narrative. This was the first script Bithell had ever written, thus commendations on the latter marked a personal achievement, besides the obvious accomplishment of developing and releasing a game on his lonesome. Furthermore, Danny Wallace’s show-stealing narration brought Bithell’s words to life - a performance he’d later be acknowledged for with a BAFTA Games Performer Award.