Well, folks, here she comes! Legendary Lucas Arts adventure game designer Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island, etc.) has been promising (or threatening?) since at least 2013 (cf. “If I Made Another Monkey Island”) to bring back the glory days of '90s adventure gaming. SCUMM interface and all. SCUMM still sounds to me like one of those evil international crime organizations trying to flatten James Bond, but for those relatively new to AGing, it was, in the '90s, a revolutionary innovation where instead of typing out sentences the player “constructed” commands for the player character: “PICK UP the DOODAD with the WHATSIT.” Now, it’s 2017 and once again, through the magic of crowd source financing (i.e., Kickstarter), another game that modern publishers would have laughed out of the park is coming to your computer monitor. “What? You’re going to bring back the SCUMM onscreen interface? No one will buy it! What? You’re going to have challenging puzzles? No one will play it! What? It’s going to be a side-scroller with pixelated 2D sprites? No one will believe it! Get outta here!”
I’ve been playing it, or at least what they call a Press Demo version of it, and I can tell you that Thimbleweed Park is a wild one. I suspect there must be something truly liberating for game designers (especially '90s game designers) about crowd-sourcing. Not only do you get the cigar-chomping board members out of the equation, but you’re really encouraged (by your rabid fans on your Kickstarter page) to let ‘er rip. Thimbleweek Park is long, it’s big, it’s complex, it’s brazen, it’s wacky, and it’s fun! I don’t think Gilbert has ever “written” better, and that includes the hilarious Monkey Island entries.
Thimbleweed Park, the town, is some god-forsaken middle-American burg that time has forgotten. It has a sheriff who also pretends to be the coroner, and vice-versa. It’s a company town, the company being Chuck’s Pillowtronics, a firm that runs everything in sight and in town on large vacuum tubes, including the public toilets. The Pigeon Brothers plumbers are actually sisters (dressed up as giant pigeons) and they seem to get their marching orders from signals in the air that only they seem to hear. Some SLA-like anarchist group has commandeered the local radio station. Well, you get the idea. The Hollywood high-concept equation would be: Maniac Mansion meets Twin Peaks meets The X-Files.
The story? The story is a murder mystery. Or at least it starts out as one. You play as Agent Ray or Agent Reyes, investigating a grisly murder that has taken place in the swamp under the train trestle. Actually, you play, at least at first, as both agents. Or one. Or the other. Most adventures with multiple protagonists require you to coordinate their movements to solve certain puzzles. Not here. Both of these Feds take an instant dislike to each other and want to solve the crime entirely on his or her own. And they leave it up to you to decide who to squire about town. (If this sounds confusing, it’s partly because the game developers have asked us not to give away certain in-game developments that might ruin the surprise, plot-wise.) To add to the confusion, we get the distinct impression that one or the other of these federal agents is not what he or she claims to be, and has some mysterious agenda of his or her own.
Anyway, you set out as either Ray or Reyes (a woman and a Hispanic, respectively and PC-ishly) to investigate the murder and interview anyone you can grab hold of in town. Thimbleweed Park, the locality, is just about deserted, but the abandoned businesses do sometimes have a strange way of returning to life just when you’ve reached a certain game juncture. As you interview the screwy residents of Thimbleweed you will find yourself whisked away in time back to the metropolis’s earlier, more glory-filled days to relive some important event in the history of the town. So far in the demo, this has included Delores, the niece of the town’s Pillow kingpin, Chuck. She dreams of getting a job as a computer game designer at MMucus Arts (do I have the spelling of that right?), and Ransome the Insult Clown, a foul-mouthed circus performer. In the flashbacks, you play as these characters, and you won’t return to the main action in the present until you’ve solved what needs to be solved in the past.
And yes, the game really does run on the SCUMM game-control system. Not, I presume, technically, but in game play. There’s that big glorious panel of verbs and inventory slots spread out across the lower third of the screen. There are, however, a number of concessions to game advances made since the Monkey Island days. The backgrounds are multi-plane, and there are a few left- and right-click shortcuts and there’s a heck of a lot more full-screen animation than they were building into Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island out at Skywalker Ranch back when.
I’ve long been surprised that there haven’t been lots more attempts by game designers to mesh adventure gaming with the murder mystery. There are a few great ones, such as the Sherlock Holmes ones, (“Serrated Scalpel” and “Rose Tattoo”), from, naturally, the '90s. The two genres would appear to have so much in common, most obviously, the following of clues. In Thimbleweed Park, most of the action appears to be interrogating the locals, but there is a fair number of inventory items to be picked up and assessed. You do have to be a little sharper-eyed here than you have been the past ten years or so.
This, as I say, is a game where the writing really shines. Gilbert has honed his rapier wit and is obviously having a whale of a time making fun of LucasArts, of the '90s, of the 2010s, of anything he can lay his hands on. The writing is wacky, it’s caustic, it’s inventive, it’s startling and it’s smart. You really won’t have any idea of what’s waiting around the next bend, or in this case, shabby street corner.
I should mention that the voice-acting in the game is superb. The actors all catch the right tone to deliver the acidic wit. Agent Ray in particular, is the most world-weary, sour post-feminist federal agent you’ve ever heard. Good comic delivery is the most difficult kind of acting and these folks are impressive.
The art is also impressive. This sounds odd since it is composed mostly of overgrown pixels clumped together to represent the kind of Space-Invader 2D character endemic to the early graphic adventure game. But the artists have fun with it, and of course it’s all being powered by a modern game engine so it’s a lot richer and more fluid than those 10-megabyte games were back in the glory days. Also, the game-playing area is enormous. There’s a cemetery path that seems to go on for miles. (One of the mouse shortcuts speeds the player-character through these, if you’re feeling impatient.)
My only worry, thus far, is that the game seems a bit too reliant on the modern limited area and limited inventory. That is, the game flow is subtly managed for you. Areas you don’t need to see yet are blocked off, etc. Now, of course, this makes some sense. But Ron, if this were truly a blast from your glorious past, the inventory would be filling up like a rusty dumpster and you’d be allowed to roam the hell all over the place without a clue what to do next. And that, honestly, was the fun of the old '90s adventure. Sure, it often drove you crazy, but it also gave the player a wide-open sense of, well, adventure. It’s still too early to judge the puzzling in Thimbleweed Park, however. I’ve only played the first few hours of the game and it’s obvious there is a vast amount more to come. And the way things have been going so far, I wouldn’t want to predict what’s ahead.
So there you have it. The full game is set for release on the usual platforms on March 30th. Of course, it’s an online download. (Were you expecting floppies? About 200,000 of them to accommodate this baby.) So far so good. Thimbleweed Park is irreverent, it’s fun, it’s wild, it’s unpredictable, it’s retro, it’s modern, it’s you name it. In short, it’s the kind of game to give any modern, bottom-line game publisher the cold sweats. Welcome back, boys.