Thimbleweed Park is very much a game built around nostalgia. Nostalgia for the ‘80s and ‘90s, nostalgia for period films and TV shows, nostalgia for vintage computers, nostalgia for 2D point and clickers. And it is no coincidence that it’s set in 1987. This was the year the seminal Maniac Mansion arrived on Commodore 64, putting LucasFilm Games (later to become LucasArts) firmly on the map and almost single-handedly starting the golden era of graphical adventures that lasted well into the 1990s.
When Ron Gilbert created Maniac Mansion he was looking to evolve and improve upon the finicky text adventures he grew up with. He also ended up devising the legendary SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion), a kind of game engine and parser that became synonymous with much of LucasArts’ output during that era, including Day of the Tentacle, Loom and the Monkey Island and Indiana Jones games.
Thirty years later with Thimbleweed Park, Gilbert has teamed up with former LucasArts colleagues Garry Winnick and David Fox (collectively known as Terrible Toybox) to return to the genre they spawned in the hope of creating a much-needed spiritual successor that “strips away all the cruft built up over the years” and “cuts to the core of what made classic point and click adventure games so special”. As a huge fan of Gilbert and the genre in general, this is definitely a game I’ve been looking forward to for some time now. Thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint.
The game is set in the eponymous Thimbleweed Park, a small rundown town that once prospered under the fortunates of Chuck Edmund, the eccentric cushion-obsessed inventor behind the strange vacuum tubes that power much of Thimbleweed’s technology. But when his fully automated pillow factory mysteriously burnt down some years ago, the businesses started closing and the people stopped coming. Now the secretive Edmund is recently deceased, his brother missing, and an unidentified dead body lies pixelating in the river beneath the Trestle Table Bridge.
Like Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, you take control of multiple characters who, for the most part, can be switched between at any time. Yet despite needing to work together to get to the bottom of the town’s mysteries, they all seem to have very different goals and reasons for doing so.
There’s the gruff, jaded and sarcastic Agent Ray, who sounds like a female Clint Eastwood, and her fresh-faced, overly–eager and by-the-book rookie partner Junior Agent Reyes. Why did they arrive separately and seem to have very different agendas, and why does the body appear to be the least of their concerns? Then there’s Ransome, a pathologically rude and *beeping* foul-mouthed clown (think Krusty from The Simpsons, only even more washed up and degenerate) living out in an abandoned circus. Will he lift the curse placed on him by Madame Morena and rescue his once highly-successful stand-up career?
And lastly there’s the mild-mannered and bumbling Franklin and his bright-eyed and geeky daughter Delores, brother and niece respectively to Chuck Edmund. Franklin is a ghost doomed to haunt Thimbleweed Park’s only hotel, whereas Dolores is an aspiring programmer who shunned the family business for a job making adventure games with MmucasFlem. Will they see each other again and get to the bottom of Franklin’s murder/disappearance?
Taking charge of five characters may seem like a daunting prospect, but this is where the experience of the veteran developers really shines through. They’re gradually introduced over a period of time, starting with our intrepid FBI agents, and each is controlled in a similar fashion via a classic SCUMM-style verb and point-and–click interface. They all have their own to-do checklist, which can be reviewed at any time. They can share most inventory items and fast travel via a map allows them to quickly and easily meet up in the same place (plus they can also be made to double time it). And for many of the puzzles, it doesn’t matter which one of our lovable losers attempts to solve it.
So why even bother having more than one playable character? Well, aside from personal storylines, there are crucial exceptions to the above and it’s the interplay between them that makes Thimbleweed Park such a joy to play. For instance, Delores is the only person who can enter Mansion Mansion and deal with sophisticated technology, only Agent Ray can take fingerprints (she won’t relinquish the kit) and she has her own mobile phone, and Ransome is the only one with a head for heights.
Most notably, Franklin can’t leave the hotel, pick anything up, or speak to (or even be seen by) the living. However, he can interact with the environment in his own spooky way via a unique verb interface. He can zap electronics, freeze things, wail and moan, pass through locked doors, and my personal favourite, despair – where he chastises himself for failures and regrets.
Moreover, they often have special dialogue and interaction options, and solving some puzzles requires the use of two or three people at different locations, usually in the form of creating distractions and tricking NPCs.
The puzzles themselves are elegantly designed, logical (albeit a slightly twisted, cartoonish one) and hugely satisfying. At times, they can be quite complex and multifaceted, there’s certainly a strong dependency between them, but the developers are always subtly pushing you in the right direction with numerous and skilfully placed hints and clues – it’s usually just a case of getting into the habit of examining everything, taking note of what people say, and carefully scrutinising environments and NPC behaviour.
Besides, there’s always several problems to be dealing with at any one time, so it’s usually not an issue if you get completely stumped on a particular one. And don’t fret, the only pixel hunting is in the form of a daft gag, where you collect specks of dust to gain an achievement. Oh, and as they jokingly spell out in one of the game’s many fourth-wall breaking moments, there are no deaths or dead ends (unlike in those pesky Sierra adventure games!).
That said, you do need to get into the Gilbert mentality and it helps to have played some of his previous games or similar-minded point-and-clickers. And I have to admit I did get stuck for a while on one or two of the puzzles simply because I didn’t use exactly the right verb on an object or because I became too fixated on some of the red herrings (thank you Emily from Terrible Toybox for the useful hints!!!). Luckily, there’s a causal mode for genre newcomers, but veterans will definitely want to opt for the hard mode in order to experience all of the puzzles.
Like the classic LucasArts games, Thimbleweed Park is just as much about the gags as it is the problems. Everything is pervaded by Gilbert’s inimitable silliness and surrealist humour. The story is deliciously absurd and features an entertainingly trippy finale. It’s full of characteristically daft wordplays and ludicrous B-movie technology like the PillowTron 3000TM. And it’s endlessly self-referential and cheekily toys with adventure game clichés, like when Ransome angrily rants: “all this climbing just to solve a *beeping* puzzle”.
There’s also a billion and one pop culture references and parodies. There’s Easter eggs and nerdy programming jokes galore. It pokes fun at Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Stephen King, Howard the Duck, and just about every screen portrayal of the FBI and small town cops. You’ve got to love how Ray and Reyes always make the same quips, observations and conclusions, yet still seem unable to get along. And of course, there’s no end of allusion to Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island (not to mention quite a few cameos).
You’d certainly be missing half the fun if you didn’t explore every facetious dialogue option or take the time to check out every single object. However, the humour can also be a little distracting. As I mentioned earlier, there are several jokey red herrings that serve only to pay tribute to previous games. Be warned though, some items and locations can be used both as part of gags and to solve bona fide puzzles.
With its absurd storyline, bonkers humour and challenging yet satisfying puzzles, Thimbleweed Park perfectly encapsulates the spirit, magic and mayhem of the LucasArts era. The 16-bit-style pixel art and character animation is simply superb, as is the deadpan voice acting and the Angelo Badalamenti-esque music. In fact, it looks and sounds exactly how you remember the classic games, only about 50 times better! However, despite being a great game in its own right, Thimbleweed Park does thrive heavily on nostalgia. So much of the comedy and references will be completely lost on people unfamiliar with the era. Still, if you’re looking for an introduction to the genre, this is a great place to start.