Thimbleweed Park Preview
Thimbleweed Park is a throwback point-and-click adventure game created by the pioneers of the graphic adventure genre: Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island, The Cave) and Gary Winnick (Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders). Centering around a murder mystery in a quirky town, Thimbleweed Park features five playable characters and a sprawling play environment. I played the first 15% of the game and had a Skype chat with developer Ron Gilbert in anticipation of the game’s early 2017 release.
The game might look like it came from the 80s, but it’s built on the back of a brand new engine. According to Gilbert, “We wanted to build a game like you remember those old games, not necessarily how they actually were, but how you remember them.” He feels that players remember classic games through the filter of nostalgia. Thimbleweed Park gave the team tools like real-time lighting, multiple layers of parallax, and large locations— features that were impossible in the SCUMM engine that Gilbert used for his older games. I booted up my old copy of Maniac Mansion to compare, and the improvements are obvious. The retro design style of Thimbleweed Park is clearly a choice, not a limitation.
In the preview I played as FBI Agents Ray and Reyes, as well as a brief playable flashback sequences starring cursed clown named Ransome and and an aspiring video game designer called Dolores. The two agents explored the town of Thimbleweed park, while the flashbacks teased the circus and mansion locations.
Unlike Maniac Mansion or the Cave, neither of the agents appeared to have special abilities that allowed them to uniquely solve puzzles. According to Gilbert, this is intentional. Though you will need to use all five characters during the course of the game, he wants players to choose to primarily play with whichever of the five playable characters they choose. “You kind of decide ‘I want to play most of the game with Ransome,’ or "I want to play most of the game with Dolores,’ but there are definitely points where each of the characters are needed to solve puzzles, and a lot of times they're needed in groups.”
Gilbert assures us that multiple playthroughs are not required to experience the game’s multiple endings. There’s a main ending, and each character has a separate ending that can be resolved after the main plot concludes. Players can opt to resolve any, all, or none of the characters’ plotlines, but the endings are not mutually exclusive; you will be able to see all of the game’s content in a single playthrough.
The murder mystery is just the hook to kick off the story. “What the agents discover as they get into town is that the dead body is the tip of the iceberg of the oddity that's going on in this town,” said Gilbert. “No spoilers, they start to go down this proverbial rabbit hole of weirdness, and strange characters, and what is really going on in this town, and why does nobody seem to really care about this body that's out by the river.” This mystery extends to the playable characters as well: Ransome the Clown and Dolores are initially suspects in the case, and the two Agents appear to have an agenda independent of solving the murder.
Gilbert hopes the game will appeal to the new generation of adventure gamers— the people who enjoyed Firewatch or Gone Home. “Many people enjoy exploring a world, which I think is also the case with something like Gone Home. It's very much about exploring that house. Good adventure games are really about exploring the environment.” He’s put this idea to use in Thimbleweed Park by putting the town in in the spotlight. “The main character is the town and you need to explore and understand the whole town.”
As expected from a game designed by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, the game is pretty funny. From the fourth wall-breaking dialog about the pixilation around the murder victim’s face, to the running gag about the Sheriff and the Mortician being the same person, the jokes are both frequent and well-integrated. The humor rarely felt forced or out of place. Despite the joke density (The Thimbleweed Park website promises a joke every two minutes), the game maintains a real sense of menace. I felt genuine panic upon entering a dark bathroom and seeing what appeared to be the red eyes of the killer peering back at me. Even though there’s no threat of death in the game, I felt that the whole town was working against the characters and any one of its inhabitants could be the killer we were hunting.
Despite the fact that Ray and Reyes are pretty reminiscent of Scully and Mulder, the two main characters from the X-files, the 90’s sci-fi thriller actually wasn’t an inspiration to Gilbert. “It was one of those things that, after we did the Kickstarter, everybody started comparing the two detectives to Mulder and Scully. It was kind of like an ‘Oh shit’ moment for us, because we kind of went ‘Oh, that's right. They kind of DO look like Mulder and Scully.’ But that had just never crossed our minds.” What was his inspiration, then? “David Lynch, not just Twin Peaks but David Lynch in general, and also Stephen King. Just the way Stephen King does a really good job of being able to describe these very small towns and all those creepy, odd people that live in them.”
There are indeed a plethora of creepy, odd people in the game. In just the few hours I played I encountered more than 20 characters, each with branching dialog, sinister secrets and voice acting. The voice acting posed one of the biggest challenges in the production of the game, actually. Gilbert told me that he wished his team had started recording the voice performances significantly earlier in the development process, due in part to the sheer amount of dialog they ended up needing to record. Because the playable characters can each interact with most of the NPCs and puzzles, the producers often had as many as five different voices recording the same dialog.
Gilbert ended up using some tricks to limit the repeating dialog. Franklin the ghost can only visit the hotel and the graveyard, while Ransome the Clown won’t visit the graveyard at all and both Agents are banned from Dolores’ mansion. While this decision was made for practical reasons, Gilbert was careful to make sure it was always supported by the story: “I think it actually made more sense to lock some people out of areas. I don't think the game suffers, because it all makes logical sense. It doesn't necessarily make a puzzle really obnoxious because only one person can go in there.”
The game’s puzzles, too, seem well-integrated with the story. “Usually I start with a very rough idea of the story, a story I can write in a single page. There's this body in a town, blah blah blah. I kind of work through it with this very rough arc. I know where we started and I know where we want to end. Then it's about the world. It's about starting to map out this town and at this same time I'm starting to lay in puzzles and everything intertwines from there. I don't think one necessarily always comes before the other. It's like sometimes I'll be designing the world and I'll create a really interesting location, like ‘oooh, there's this radio station, that would be really cool...and it's got this radio tower. Man, we've got to do something with having to get to the top of the radio tower.’ So that's kind of a location spawns a puzzle which then is like ‘well, why do we NEED to get to the top of the tower?’ Then from that we pull in the story.”
I grew up playing adventure games that were often characterized by pixel hunts and nonsensical solutions. I found Thimbleweed Park’s puzzles to be creative, and complicated and, most importantly, fair. Each solution is well telegraphed in the dialog or the item descriptions and I always felt that I had a clear motive for my actions. Each character carried a to-do list that provided a clear next step for the game. This concession to the objective lists of modern games kept me on track without spoiling the game. I knew what I needed to do to get an arrest for the murder and each time a new obstacle blocked my efforts. Winnick’s clear graphics also reduce frustration; it’s always clear what elements in a scene are of interest based on their prominence and coloring. I never found myself hunting for pixels; even the pixel sized specks of dust were obvious. Adventure game novices shouldn’t worry: there’s also a casual mode that features an extensive tutorial and pre-solves some of the puzzles.
If you’ve played a LucasArts adventure game made between 1987-1998, you’ll be right at home with the interface: Select a verb (such as “Look at” or “Use” or “Open”) from the verb bar and apply it to an inventory item, NPC or location. For example, you might “Use key on door” or “Talk to Fingertron3000TM.” Thimbleweed Park has improved on the interface of old; now you can right click on an object to trigger the most common verb. This method of interacting with the world, while not as simple as the catch-all “interact” button common in newer games, is intuitive and unobtrusive. I never felt burdened by having to determine if a light switch needed to be pushed or used.
Gilbert also told me that the game comes with a casual difficulty mode. “I'll use a contrived example: In hard mode there's a locked door, and in easy mode the door is just unlocked. In hard mode you have to find the key and then maybe you find the key but then you have to solve some other puzzles to get the key. In easy mode you open the door and walk through it, in easy mode the key is right there to unlock the door. It just sort of pre-solves a bunch of puzzles.” He hopes that will entice novices to play the game a second time once they feel more confident. “If you play in easy mode, if this is your first time playing adventure games or whatever, you then go back and start over in hard mode and you'll see a whole bunch of brand new puzzles you've never seen before.”
The game is expected to release in early 2017, but Gilbert doesn’t want to get pinned down on a specific release date. “I know a date, I have a date that the game is going to release, but the problem is that I don't want to tell anybody that date. If you tell the date and anything small happens, because there's 50 things that could happen that could move that date out even by a day or two, people really kind of start to get angry, and so I'm not going to say a date until I'm 100% sure I can hit that date.” When Thimbleweed Park releases, look for it on Windows, Mac OS, Linux and Xbox One, with a mobile release following some months later.