1987, what a great year it was! U2 paid homage to American roots music with their album The Joshua Tree, Arnold Schwarzenegger fought an alien hunter in Predator, the next generation of Star Trek crew embarked on their mission to explore strange new worlds, and a group of teenagers got lost in Maniac Mansion. Oh, and a dead body showed up in the river leading to the small town of Thimbleweed Park.
Maniac Mansion from Lucasfilm Games (later known as LucasArts) revolutionized graphic adventures by replacing tedious typing of commands with an innovative point-and-click interface. The genre was flourishing in the late 80's and early 90's, with every publisher releasing graphic adventures. During the following years, though, this once mainstream genre has withered down to only some scattered appearances. The prime suspects behind Maniac Mansion, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, decided to return to the scene of the crime and show us with Thimbleweed Park, why graphic adventures were so in demand back in the good old days.
The mouse-driven user interface of Thimbleweed Park is lifted almost intact from such LucasArts classics as The Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel, both incidentally by Ron Gilbert. The bottom half of the screen is divided into verbs and character inventory. Verbs are combined with an object or objects, either in the inventory or on the playing area, to make commands for the current character. For example, "use gloves on thimbleberry bush" and the character carries out the task. You're bound to try out all kinds of nonsensicalities when working out puzzle solutions but that's part of the charm. To explore, to innovate and to become inspired.
Thimbleweed Park mixes small-town mysteries, conspiracy theories, a computer menace, mad science and rich, dead relatives to spoof pretty much everything from Twin Peaks to X-Files and from WarGames to graphic adventures themselves. It's the year 1987 and two federal agents, Ray and Reyes, show up in Thimbleweed Park to solve a murder. She in the blue polyester suit is laconic and spiteful, he in the grey suit is eager and ingenuous. Soon we are presented to the eccentric small-town folk, among them the rest of the playable cast. Ransome the insult clown is cursed to wear his face paint for all of his eternity. Delores is an aspiring video games developer and a niece to the recently deceased town mogul. Her father Franklin finds himself dead and hovering around the local hotel as a ghost.
The game opens up more in chapter three when Ray and Reyes are ready to collect evidence to nail the unlucky suspect. The fast travel between locations is made available (here's a pro tip: collect the map from Quickie Pal for every character) and all of the fab five become freely playable. There's a nice sense of openness to Thimbleweed Park. You can work out most of the game at your own pace. Of course, certain things need to be done before something else but there are numerous puzzles and objectives open at the same time. The road to success is not a linear path and there are no such things as simple tasks because the puzzles are cleverly multi-layered. Often you may know what you need to do but how is another thing altogether. It's like an elaborate web where every thread is connected to each other.
The characters share the same objectives but for different reasons, as written in their individual notebooks. Of course, there are some character-specific tasks, like Ransome is the only one brave (or fool) enough to climb up the radio tower. He, like Delores, won't go down to the sewers though so it's up to the suits to get their feet wet. There are some ingenious interactive puzzles between the characters. The joke is, the one character wouldn't know why he or she needs to do something while the other is elsewhere. For example, poor Franklin has to make spooky voices in a hotel room over the phone to a bank manager. The player, however, knows it's needed for a distraction in the bank where Delores is waiting for an opportunity to nab the factory keys. That one was a free hint for you, dear reader! You are the God in the divine playpen of Thimbleweed Park.
To me, one of the hallmarks of a good point-and-click adventure is that it trusts players to figure out solutions themselves in each given situation and with available assets. Even if characters may occasionally hint about the possible approach, Thimbleweed Park doesn't spoil solutions by pointing a finger at them. The game requires a good general knowledge and a fair amount of logical thinking. There are no mindless puzzles, everything you do is reasonable, if often whimsical.
As I was playing the review build well before the official release, there was no help available online. It was an inspiring time warp back to the era when easy solutions weren't just a google search away. I had to think hard on many occasions and once I got severely stuck for an embarrassingly long time because I hadn't noticed something obvious right under my nose. Boy, did I feel stupid! Remember kids, if you see your uncle's check register on a table, open it! I strongly recommend playing the game without any help from the net to further enhance the experience. There's also a casual mode for the adventure game illiterates so they too can enjoy the story. I personally think the casual mode kills half of the fun by skipping so many puzzles it hurts the content.
Thimbleweed Park is cleverly, even deviously, planned and carried out. The rules are laid out in the beginning and the game mechanics themselves won't bring out any surprises. However, how Thimbleweed Park acts out and keeps things constantly interesting within its frame is remarkable. It's all so disciplined, the developers and the players alike never losing the track of the red thread. This tells about the die-cast professionals and entertainers that Ron Gilbert and his talented team truly are, under the pseudonym Terrible Toybox.
The writing and the dramaturgy toys with the player's assumptions but the game won't take you for a fool. Nor is it too clever for its own good. Everything will make weird sense, not necessarily in the way you imagined but more subtly and intelligently. The game may start as a story of two washed-up detectives, not unlike Mulder and Scully, but over the course of the game, the focus shifts discreetly to young and bright Delores. Nevertheless, everyone has their special role to play. It's amazing how much personality a few pixels can express on a character's face. Likewise, the brilliant voice actors bring the lovable cast so much life that I can't even imagine them without their voices.
I found myself playing with a stupid grin stuck on my face. Make no mistake, Thimbleweed Park is hilarious and amusing. It won't drop you off your seat but it gets under your skin and tickles your funny bones. The setting is also important to identify with. The amount of love and labor behind the pixel art makes Tri-Thimbleweed County so homey, a collective commonplace of small-town cliches and sights. Even though the graphics are rigorously built from sizeable chunks, there have been no restrictions of the past hardware generations. The graphics artists have been able to pour as many colors and animations in there as they have liked.
Thimbleweed Park is one of those extremely rare occasions when all the expectations are not only met but surpassed. I quote myself from my preview: Thimbleweed Park is not an homage, tribute or even a retro game. It's the real deal. It's everything I love about graphic adventures. As much as I was entertained by the time I spent in Thimbleweed County, at the end there was a bit of sadness in the air as I had to bid farewell to the wonderful cast of characters. The tagline for the game reads it's the best graphic adventure you didn't play in 1987. Thimbleweed Park is an ageless collective of notions and knowledge, a passion project which shines with its every pixel and word.
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.