“Do you like adventure games?” Agent Reyes asks Agent Ray.
“Not really.” she replies. “They are too slow and often contain overly contrived stories that make no sense.”
Despite the candid, self-deprecating humor, “Thimbleweed Park” establishes itself as a memorable point-and-click experience even as it inherits the challenges of reviving the genre in a new era.
There is no home office in Albuquerque
“Thimbleweed Park” starts off at the river by Trestle Trail bridge in – you guessed it –
Thimbleweed Park. After playing through the events leading to the mysterious death of Boris Schultz, the story shifts focus to the investigation by federal agents Angela Ray and Antonio Reyes – pixelated doppelgängers of Scully and Mulder from “The X-Files.” As things progress, however, it becomes clear that an unsolved murder is the least of the town’s problems. With the integration of additional protagonists via interactions with non-playable characters and various flashbacks, the underlying plot unfolds as the puzzles get increasingly difficult.
Generally speaking, it’s hard to tell that this is a game that was developed in the 21st century let alone released in 2017. The Kickstarter campaign proclaims “It’s like opening a dusty old desk drawer and finding an undiscovered LucasArts adventure game you’ve never played before.” I would go a step further and say it’s as if Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, the creators of “Thimbleweed Park” and pioneers behind masterpieces such as “Maniac Mansion” and “Monkey Island,” challenged themselves to make something they could hypothetically take on a time machine back to the late 80s and introduce with minimal disruption to the future. Players with fond memories from that time period won’t miss a beat. The style and feel are certainly on point. But how do the puzzles and story hold up?
The puzzle dependency chart
One of the critical aspects of a point-and-click adventure is how well the puzzles are constructed. There’s a fine line between being thought-provoking and being intuitive. Gilbert know this. He credits his time crafting kids games at Humongous Entertainment as his favorite in his career and feels that the lessons learned from adapting to children (who “are not going to bang their head on a screen to figure something out”) have translated into ideas that were implemented in “Thimbleweed Park.”
A huge reason why this evolution is important has to do with a major technological breakthrough that’s become almost an afterthought – the Internet. Through the early 90s, most players were basically confined to family, friends, gaming magazines, and strategy guides when it came to soliciting help. Today, however, people can figure everything out simply by looking it up from their phones (typically in less than a minute).
When I was originally exposed secondhand to “The Secret of Monkey Island” through my older brother, I remember him taking days to work through some sections. By contrast, “Thimbleweed Park” flows much more naturally. Of course, there were a handful of times that I thought I was truly stuck and felt I had to resort to Google. But, to channel my inner Ransome the Clown, I usually wanted to *beeping* facepalm in disbelief that I couldn’t recognize the solution on my own after the fact. While a few hardcore veterans may consider “Thimbleweed Park” to be watered-down in this regard, I’d contend that it could never survive in our modern society as its predecessors did before it. The experience just wouldn’t be organic enough to thrive as intended.
One feature that I did have mixed feelings about, however, was the task list for each user-controlled character. While I understand that this is probably meant to alleviate the burden of having to remember where you left off, this also encourages players to stop thinking after they step away. Sometimes the greatest moments of clarity come to you offline and many of the most rewarding parts of the journey arrive in the form of virtual lightbulb-going-off-in-head periods between sessions. Unfortunately, I felt like that was missing here and that maybe this piece contributed to that.
Pull up a chair, Delores, this is going to get crazy
It’s about as hard to talk about the story in “Thimbleweed Park” without giving spoilers as it is to cite a quote from “Napolean Dynamite” that wasn’t notable to anybody in high school when that movie released. As I alluded to above, all is not as it seems from the onset. And just when you think you have the bulk of it sorted out, everything switches to a different perspective. That being said, there are some tidbits and themes worth detailing that don’t give too much away.
For starters, the bridge between the investigation of the murder and the rest of the plot is thinner than I’d expect it to be. This is not like Guybrush Threepwood attempting to become a pirate then pivoting to the pursuit of rescuing Governor Elaine. There are many ulterior motives and a couple in particular are only apparent through explicit dialog after advancing relatively far, a revelation that definitely caught me off guard. That disconnect bothered me and was pretty much the only really disappointing portion of the game.
Next is the concept of the fourth wall and how frequently it’s broken. At first, it seems somewhat tacky and almost a bit annoying. This is demonstrated, for example, when Agent Ray has an exchange with the Pigeon Brothers about 10-15 minutes into the game. “This is really odd. Should I save my game?” she inquires. “I wouldn’t worry about it.” Beth answers. “The game was expertly designed to have no dead-ends or death. Yet still be scary and have a sense of tension.” I was initially thrown off by this type of banter, but I think all is redeemed once it becomes evident what’s happening in the end.
Finally, the nostalgic references and tie-ins to prior works might have been slightly overkill, but were generally more tasteful than cheesy in my opinion. A comparison that comes to mind is “The Force Awakens” and how that movie paralleled “A New Hope.” Some people loved it, others hated it. I think they got it just right – both in that movie and in this instance. In the case of “Thimbleweed Park,” they’re not overbearing but pop up often enough to remind you that this is a spiritual successor to the amazing point-and-click adventures that paved the way previously.
The signals are strong
At the end of the credits, the scrolling text reads “Thanks for playing. We will miss you. Please tell your friends to buy the game so we don’t have to go get real jobs and can keep making games.” The lighthearted plea is a fitting conclusion for a game that aims to measure itself with the best in its class. The point-and-click adventure genre won’t appeal to everyone and it’s a bit lofty to expect that it can compete with the more technically sophistocated releases of today. But the execution was solid and I’d recommend “Thimbleweed Park” both to retro gamers looking for a blast from the past and newcomers that would fall for that classic Three-Headed Monkey joke.
And hopefully Ron and Gary don’t have to go get real jobs and can keep making games.