Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
Release date: March 30-31, 2017
The graphic adventure game is roughly 30 years old. It was in the late '80s that Sierra On-Line started producing simple graphics to accompany the otherwise standard text adventure that ran under them.
About this time, Ron Gilbert was designing the first Monkey Island, and Sierra and LucasArts (with Gilbert) were about to dominate the gaming world in the coming decade. Then things got weird, and mostly (IMHO) less fun.
In their new game Thimbleweed Park, Gilbert and Gary Winnick have managed to incorporate most of that rollicking history — the glories as well as the bumps in the road. Thimbleweed Park is a modern adventure, financed (by 17,000 loyal fans) on Kickstarter. Very modern.
It employs a mock (or modified) SCUMM build-a-sentence engine for its game control. Very old. It starts off with mostly modern game puzzle design, which is to say you’re mostly told where you can’t and where you should go. Very modern. By the end game, however, the player is largely thrown back on his and her wits to make it through some of the gnarlier puzzles to come down the adventure pike in recent years. Very, very old.
In short, Thimbleweed Park is itself a sort of ersatz museum of the adventure game. It also spends a lot of time commenting on adventure games, and gets ultra meta by its conclusion. One wonders what an adventure newbie would make of it. But, of course, Thimbleweed Park was produced primarily to please its thousands of Kickstarter contributors, who undoubtedly are mostly old hands at adventuring.
The best thing I can say about Thimbleweed Park is that it’s the first new adventure game to provide me with an “Aha” moment in about ten years. Virtually every adventure now follows what I call the Telltale style, which is to limit the player’s motions and choices to reduce the chances of getting stuck.
Unfortunately, this also essentially eliminates most of the adventuring. If you can’t get stuck, it ain’t an adventure. It’s just an animated picture book. I’d gotten so rusty, in fact, that I almost couldn’t believe it when I came across a tricky puzzle in Thimbleweed Park, so accustomed had I become to having my hand held and to moving through games as though half asleep, just waiting for the game engine to pop up and tell me exactly where to go and what to do.
The story? You’re wondering about the story. Well, it gets complicated. It starts off with a couple of feds blowing into this podunk town to investigate the strange murder of a German national (nice inclusion for the many German AG fans!). But the story mutates several times before you arrive at the end, and I wouldn’t want to spoil too much of the wackiness here. The game’s story, while interesting, is really just another of the many things that come under the sardonic fire and twisted manipulation of the game’s authors.
You start out, however, playing as both (or alternately) Agent Reyes and Agent Ray, though they compete more than cooperate with each other. Later, you get to play as three more player-characters: Ransome the Insult Clown, Delores the game-programmer niece of the town’s poohbah Chuck, and Delores’ nebbish father Franklin. By the end of the game you can switch among all five of these characters.
In 1987, Gilbert and Winnick produced the first SCUMM game, Maniac Mansion. In it, you chose two of a bunch of available characters to play throughout the game. Each character has somewhat different skills and much of Maniac Mansion is mixing and matching until you find a pairing you can actually get through the game with. In Park, there is some cooperation between the many playable characters, but not much. However, each of the five characters has a distinct personality and his or her own agenda (some of them secret).
In my Preview, I stated that the game’s voice acting is superb, that the writing is clever and funny, and that the graphics, though paying homage to a game made at the time of Park’s action (1987), are really quite good and entertaining in their own right. I will mention now that the music and sounds of the game are pleasant and expert. The theme song will no doubt rattle pleasantly around your head for a week or so.
Ron Gilbert announced that he was going to make a game that hearkened back to the gameplay of the LucasArts heyday, and he mostly has. No doubt, there’s no going completely back. Some things have changed forever. But here is the obvious question: is Thimbleweed Park on a par with the classics of the Nineties? Sometimes. It is just about as funny as the Monkey Island games. It is just as well-written and just as imaginative. And some of the gameplay is as engaging and even as challenging.
But you probably couldn’t release a game like The Secret of Monkey Island now. Too many players would get too frustrated and just abandon it. Gilbert and Winnick wisely (no doubt) saved the toughest parts of Park for the last few sections where, of course, the more diehard players will be less likely to throw in the towel.
Of course, there’s a lot in Thimbleweed Park that is like modern adventures. Holding down the mouse to make the character run will likely be your favorite, as there’s a lot of real estate in the game, especially before the map turns up. As I explained in my preview of the game a few weeks ago, the graphic engine is only faux-SCUMM. It’s really a very sophisticated (so far as I’m able to tell) modern engine. One that allows for one of the few interesting “side-games.”
I was playing for hours and scratching my head about a certain picking-up-specks-of-dust thing. Is this part of the actual game, I’m thinking? Am I going to need these things? And then it dawned on me that this was one of those add-ons for, mostly, Steam players. You collect all specks of dust and then brag about it to your friends online. Luckily for me, I managed to play a version of Park, (I’m not going to abbreviate the game's title as TP for obvious reasons) uncoupled from any shell application, whether Steam’s or GOG’s. Hallelujah for that!
However, because Park employs different “planes” that shift against each other as you move about, it allows the designers to “hide” the specks behind the outer pane(s), so that you only see the speck during a short span as you travel across the screen. Clever. That said, I still don’t like cosmetic side quests. But perhaps you do, and this is one of the more challenging ones.
I should mention that Thimbleweed Park does have two modes of play, Story mode and Adventure (or “Hard”) mode. It’s an option I wish every modern adventure offered. One mode for those players who simply want a good story with no mental challenges, and another mode for those puzzle-fiends such as myself who really relish a good challenge. I didn’t play the “story” mode of Park. Frankly, I have no interest in or use for it, except to be glad that it’s there to appease the hordes of puzzle-phobic players.
Still, I do have a couple of gripes about Park. First, it starts out as a rather interesting X-Files-ish murder mystery. People are getting zapped and made to disappear by some mysterious dark presence. Also, some of the folks in town (mostly played by the same characters) seem to be in on the conspiracy. But the game eventually morphs into something completely different and we never do, satisfactorily, find out what happened early-on in the game. We can infer, but we never get the straight answer.
By the end of the game, when things have gotten really twisted, you may no longer care. But I’m an old mystery buff, too, so I notice stuff like that. Also, I think the game gets a bit too “meta” by the end. It may even "outclever" itself. As a result, I found the conclusion of the game less than satisfying. In fact, the end borders on the psychotic. Or, at least, the nihilistic.
Also, there are a lot of red herrings in the game. Many of them are boldly announced as red herrings. Many aren’t. A good adventure, of course, needs red herrings. If everything were crucial, there’d be no mystery. But too many red herrings spoils the broth and Park may have dumped one or two too many into the manic mix.
Mostly, however, I have praise for the game. Gilbert has largely done what he promised, to produce a classic-style adventure that makes the player think and even sweat a little. Veteran adventure gamers will probably enjoy Park a lot more than newbies, but I suspect the newer players will simply gloss over the many retro references.
The game ran smoothly on my laptop, which is almost old enough to play the last Monkey Island without an emulator. And I ended the game needing one more measly, goldarn speck of dust! Oh well. They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore, folks. Get ‘em while you can.
+ Great writing
+ Very funny
+ Often challenging
+ Terrific voice acting
- Kind of a downer ending
- Story elements left unresolved
- A few too many red herrings