I've been following the progress of Thimbleweed Park, heralded as the return of a good adventure game, through the development blog ever since its successfully funded Kickstarter run back in December 2014. To say I was excited when I got my hands on the preview would be a gross understatement. I was exhilarated! Finally I get to experience a glimpse of the game and see if it's on its way to be what I said back in January in the most anticipated games of 2017 feature.
Though presented in a beautiful pixel art, Thimbleweed Park is not a homage, tribute or even a retro game. It's the real thing. That's what you really should expect from Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick and their talented team. The guys who practically invented point-and-click adventure games some 30 years ago with Maniac Mansion would never swoop so low as to just reap their past successes. No. They're too clever for that, too true to their craft and too honest to the audiences who they have entertained through the years.
The trick was not to make an adventure game exactly like they were back in the late 80's and early 90's, coincidentally the years LucasArts was at top of their game. The trick is to fool your memory. When we think of the past, we tend to glorify it. We don't like to remember the dreary parts, in the case of adventure games frustrating dead ends because you missed a nonsensical item hours ago, eye-bleeding pixel hunting from CRT screens (that hole in the map really is a one pixel-size) or illogical, out of this world puzzles you never understood until you consulted a walkthrough in a magazine. We remember them as perfect, golden and shiny, something you'll regrettably never get to experience again. Thimbleweed Park is like that perfect memory you remember having.
See that big bulk at the bottom of the screen, divided into verbs and items? That's the user-interface, exactly like it was in SCUMM-driven LucasArts adventures until the genre dumbed down with the invention of a so-called smart cursor, reducing your need to think by yourself nearly to a naught. You make sentences to command your character by combining verbs with items either on the screen or in the inventory. The interface allows for great diversity and logical thinking. The preview covers roughly 15% of the game and even if that sounds relatively short, there already were some great puzzles abound.
I got a bit stuck at what to do on a couple of occasions. This experience was enhanced by the fact there was absolutely no help available online, this being a preview for the select eyes only. I was taken back in time to my teens, pondering over my options, pre-internet. I just had to think what I would do in the real-life and accommodate it to the given locations and items at hand. Like how I would remove a stamp from an envelope without damaging either. And hey presto, it all worked out! Back then all you had was your little gray cells - or hint section in a gaming magazine where you could send a question via snail mail and wait for months for a printed answer. There's a casual mode for the adventure game newbies but I strongly advise against using it and sticking with the normal mode on all circumstances. The casual mode kills half of the fun, skipping so many puzzles it literally gnaws away chunks of the content.
It seems Gilbert & co. expect a lot from the player, a solid general knowledge and ability to bend it to your will. Same goes for the humor. It's not exactly your garden-variety side-splitting gags but more of a wry and witty kind, most notably characterized in agent Ray who spits deadpan sarcasm. Much to her annoyance, a junior agent Reyes joins her in solving the murder mystery at the strange little town of Thimbleweed. There are co-operative puzzles between the two agents and in addition to them there are three more characters to play as. In the preview it was possible to enjoy glimpses of a perpetually cursed Ransom the insult clown and Delores, a wannabe video games developer and the niece of a recently deceased town mogul.
In addition to its distinctive humor, Thimbleweed Park pokes fun at things which had relevance 30 years ago, like the feud between LucasArts and Sierra-On-Line born from their differences in the adventure game philosophy. Then again, the game is set in 1987 so things seemingly ancient nowadays has all the relevance in the world here. The characters are also self-aware of starring in a game. As agent Ray remarks, you can tell a lot from the pixelation of a dead body. Some might argue this is overly smug design and perhaps it is, but at the same time you couldn't imagine the game without it. It's part of its cleverly constructed charm.
My time in Thimbleweed Park ended when I had cracked the final puzzle in chapter 2 which would have let me explore more of the Thimbleweed county. There was a nice sense of open-endedness to the game which I gladly verified by playing the preview through many times. It felt like the game didn't lead met through a pre-determined path. I can imagine the whole Thimbleweed county as your playground only gives more of that freedom, letting me explore and find solutions at my own pace. It's hard to think that anything could wrong contentwise before the game is released this spring for PC, Mac, Linux and Xbox One.
Indeed Thimbleweed Park is on the track of holding onto its promise of being the best adventure game you never played in 1987. Doing so the developers have invented the time machine. When I was playing Thimbleweed Park, it was like there never were these last 30 years. The game already has its audience in my generation but I hope it can generate interest beyond that, showing the younger people exactly why we old farts have these fond memories of the adventure games of the past.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.