THIMBLEWEED PARK Game Review: LucasArts Returns, Sorta
Thimbleweed Park’s Kickstarter promise was simple: it’s an old-school adventure game, made by old-school adventure game developers, for old-school adventure game fans. Its development team at Terrible Toybox was led by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, creators of seminal LucasArts titles Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. It sported a fetching pixel-art aesthetic reminiscent of those classics, with gameplay to match, and a few modern enhancements here and there - though nothing that would spoil the nostalgic return to the SCUMM days. It also promised jokes and puzzles aplenty, as one would expect from this particular genre.
Judging it purely on its feature list, Thimbleweed Park is an unabashed success. Fulfilling every promise it made to its backers and fanbase, it’s the very model of a modern adventure-game revival. The operative word being “revival”: while Thimbleweed Park is a handsome throwback to the heyday of 2D adventure games, it sits uncomfortably amongst the games of today. Video games have seen twenty-plus years of change and advancement since LucasArts’ golden age - something about which Thimbleweed Park takes pains to remind players, but does little substantial to actually address.
Something that will also please those pining for the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is Thimbleweed Park’s storyline. Set in 1987 in the titular American town, pop. 81, it follows special agents Ray and Reyes, a grizzled veteran and amiable newbie respectively, as they investigate the dead body slowly pixelating in a nearby river. The sleepy town is like a more openly comical Twin Peaks, Washington, with its folksy diner, amateurish local police force, boarded-up shops, and economy revolving around a single major employer. In this case, that employer is pillow and tube-based electronics titan PillowTronics, in an apparent nod to Portal’s shower curtain and experimental physics firm Aperture Science. PillowTronics’ founder, simply referred to by most citizens as “Chuck,” seems destined to have played a role in the murder - or does he?
The town of Thimbleweed Park, and the cast of characters who inhabit it, are far and away the game’s greatest asset. Its population is strange in a way that only adventure game characters really are, occupying planes of reality seriously skewed in relation to our own. A convenience-store slacker with a passion for BetaMax; a self-important small-town reporter; a charlatan voodoo priestess; an insult-comic clown; paranoid plumbers dressed as birds; a ghost - they’re all insane, in a really fun way, and yet all feel about right for the town. All are fully voiced, with generally solid voice acting, and rendered lovingly via pixel artwork. Multiple characters are even playable, meaning you can create your own narrative rhythm to a degree by cutting back and forth between them. Sadly, though, the two main playable characters - Ray and Reyes - barely ever interact, which becomes particularly annoying in situations where they would totally just talk to each other and figure things out together.
Naturally, “figuring things out” is a big part of Thimbleweed Park’s gameplay, given that it’s both a point-and-click adventure and a detective story. Deciphering who dunnit involves a great many adventure-game puzzles, so get ready to mash lots of objects together to see if they’ll make something happen. Playable in Casual and Hard modes, the former essentially cutting steps out of puzzles, the game handily gives you a detective’s notebook with a list of objectives, then turns you out onto the streets to figure things out for yourself. Detective work is a perfect application for this kind of gameplay, even if some of the puzzle solutions are eyebrow-raisingly obtuse; at times it stretches the bounds of believability that FBI agents would go to this level of trouble to snoop around, rather than simply force information out of people. It gets especially unbelievable in the many instances in which players are likely to simply get stuck, unsure of how to progress. At those moments, all the things that were irritating back in the ‘90s rear their heads: unskippable dialogue, backtracking, shot-in-the-dark guesswork.
That’s what you wanted, right? You came here for a trip down memory lane, didn't you? Because that’s what you’re getting - something about which Thimbleweed Park gleefully reminds you ad nauseam. LucasArts games always had a tendency to break the fourth wall, drawing attention to the medium’s quirks and limitations, but Thimbleweed Park pushes that tendency well past any reasonable tolerance level. Characters talk about the history of adventure games, comment on the mechanics and artwork of the game they’re in, and (in one case) even harbour dreams of working for a LucasArts surrogate as a designer.
But Thimbleweed Park isn’t just up its own ass; its constant allusions to its own genre’s issues only serve to remind players that those issues still exist in-game. Lampshading design problems doesn’t excuse the problems themselves, even though I did enjoy a running gag about picking up random specks of dust to stow in one’s inventory. Having characters joke about arcane puzzles and clunky verb-based mechanics - while the subjects of those jokes still exist, unfixed - is meant to feel like affectionate self-parody, but just makes Thimbleweed Park feel like it’s laughing at the player.
When I saw him speak at PAX Australia a couple years ago, Ron Gilbert made a strong case for adventure games as the strongest vehicle for jokes in games. Their conversational and response-to-stimuli structures, he argued, allowed writers to pile joke upon joke into their scripts - especially in the days before voiced dialogue, which put additional strain and deadlines on writers. He was right, inasmuch as joke-writing is concerned, but it’s hard to enjoy good comedy when you’re frustrated, and sadly that’s how much of Thimbleweed Park played out for me.
For players looking for something that feels ripped straight outta the olden days, this is your game - it's every bit as funny and clever as your old favourites. If, however, you’ve grown accustomed to more elegant gameplay mechanics, it’s a trip back in a time machine with uncomfortable seats, a broken AC, and doors you have to really shove to get open. Hope your inventory contains blood pressure medication.