Thomas Was Alone is an interesting little platforming game that stands out because of the extreme minimalism in its design. The eponymous Thomas is just a tiny red rectangle that hops around. That’s it. He doesn’t even have a little mustache or a catch phrase. The world he inhabits and the other mute characters Thomas meets are similarly simple, yet we get a lot out of them thanks to a psychological phenomenon known as “the narrative bias.”
Here, if you don’t own the game (though I don’t know why not; it’s like 4 and a half cents or something on Steam) you can get an idea from this trailer:
Thomas and his co-stars are simple and their behaviors limited, but in the course of playing the game we start to associate personalities and motivations for them. The short orange rectangle, for example, seems grumpy and cynical. The tall yellow block seems proud and arrogant. The game does feature a narrator that makes some of these things explicit, but I think we probably don’t really need that much assistance with assigning character, motivation, and agency to simple shapes.
There are, in fact, psychological roots to this kind of inclination to assign character and internal thought processes where none exist. We are wired to perceive a narrative in the events that happen around us, and we’re more satisfied and think events are more truthful if they’re part of such a narrative. Politicians and marketing professionals use this all the time based on the knowledge that an audience will believe something more if it’s presented in the form of an easy to understand story with an appropriate structure, characters, and motivations. If a message or experience doesn’t have all those pieces, we’ll often supply them ourselves. In 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel explored this narrative bias by creating a short film to show and discuss with subjects.1 Watch it below before reading on. Don’t worry, it’s only about 90 seconds long and has no sound.
Now, you answer the simple question that Heider and Simmel asked their subjects after showing this clip: “What’s going on here?” Did you create a little story to explain the movements of Mr. Triangle, Mr. Other Triangle, and Mrs. Dot? Was one of them a jilted lover? An overprotective brother? A tricky cyborg bear of some kind? All of Heider and Simmel’s subjects came up with some kind of narrative like these, despite the simple nature of the shapes and the abstractness of the whole thing. Nobody just said “These shapes moved around for no reason.” Nobody.
For sure, if an explanation is offered to us in the face of ambiguity, we’re likely to take it. Like Heider and Simmel’s clip, Thomas Was Alone creates so much character out of similarly simple shapes because of the same principle –it’s just that we accept the game’s narrator’s account instead of making up our own.2 But when there’s ambiguity or the narrator leaves something out, we fill in the gaps with familiar, easy to recall materials from our own experiences. And once we create a narrative, we tend to do whatever mental gymnastics are needed to keep it going, chapter after chapter.
This is part of the reason why I think the Dark Souls games are so compelling.3 The games don’t give you a lot of information about what’s going on, and what you do get is either from item descriptions or by paying attention how things look in the environment. Why are these guys guarding this castle? Why are they carrying these particular items? What did that NPC mean when they said that they don’t recognize this place? The bias toward wanting to place what we see within a larger narrative context highlights the lack of information in the first place, but our interpretation of what is there and what we make up out of whole cloth is also driven by the narrative bias. Once we settle on a narrative, we tend to ignore, downplay, or reinterpret information that goes against it. Thus part of the appeal of Dark Souls for many people is giving the itch caused by this mental fallacy a good scratching. Constructing the narrative can be more fun than having it handed to us.
So there you have it. Thomas Was Alone and Dark Souls 2. Same game, basically. Because psychology.