Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick - Thimbleweed Park interview
It’s been 25 years since the release of the classic Maniac Mansion, the game that introduced many of the modern point-and-click conventions we take for granted today. Now its creators are back with a brand new game inspired by the early era of the graphic adventure genre, though with a few modern twists.
Ron Gilbert, the man behind Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island and The Cave is teaming up again with Gary Winnick, the original co-creator and art director of Maniac Mansion. Together they are launching a Kickstarter for Thimbleweed Park, a game intended to look and feel very much like it could have been created in the late 1980s. While Thimbleweed Park stays retro even to the point of bringing back the original nine-verb interface, as Gilbert and Winnick will explain below, they also very much intend to apply over two decades of lessons learned to the underlying game design.
As it’s a pitch that no traditional publisher will back, the pair is looking to Kickstarter to fund the project. Working with a small team in which Winnick and Gilbert will take on most of the coding and art duties themselves, they hope to dedicate the next 18 months to creating the game. (Thimbleweed Park is accepting backers right now.)
Keep reading for more about the game’s concept, how the two ended up working together again, and a few walks down memory lane back to the early LucasArts days, including several rarely-sceen concept artworks from Maniac Mansion.
Marek Bronstring: The most obvious place to start is: What is Thimbleweed Park?
Ron Gilbert: Thimbleweed Park is a point-and-click adventure game that harkens back to Maniac Mansion and the golden era of adventure games. It’s the story of two washed up detectives and a body found floating in the river just outside the rundown town of Thimbleweed Park. The game has five playable characters – including a cursed clown and a dead guy – and like in Maniac Mansion, you can switch between them at any time to solve interrelated puzzles. Each character has their own story that intertwines the others, and there are five different endings depending on how you work through the game and the choices you make. We like to think of it as a satire of Twin Peaks meets True Detective meets The X-Files.
Marek: The one immediately striking aspect of Thimbleweed Park is that it looks as though it could have been created in the late 1980s. It’s a bold creative choice. Younger generations of designers have emulated that sort of old-school style before, but it’s more unusual for designers originally from that era to go back to it. What attracts you to this particular style?
Ron: I think Maniac Mansion was really the adventure game that started the whole point and click thing, with the verb interface and everything. Gary and I have talked over the years about how special that game was. There’s a certain amount of charm and innocence to it, and we kept talking about why that is. The conversation always went back to the graphics on some level.
The graphics were simple, but they were interesting and colourful. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do again. What if we made a game and took all of the design lessons we’ve learned – because Maniac Mansion has some screwed up design things in it – but really got back to that very simple, more iconic art? That would just be a really fun game to do.
Gary Winnick: There’s another thing just conceptually – people play Monopoly, and they play with a cannon and a Scottie dog or whatever, and I think there’s really something stylistically to playing with colourful, animated icons, where the imagination of the player fills in a whole lot of detail about the character and their world, as opposed to seeing every rivet on a 3D spaceship or something like that.
Marek: The other key element of Thimbleweed Park seems to be the five playable characters. Multiple characters were also a feature of Maniac Mansion, and Ron you came back to it with The Cave as well. Can you explain how the multiple characters are going to work in Thimbleweed Park?
Ron: Well there’s several different stories going on. There’s the story of the two detectives that show up, then there’s the story of Franklin, and the story of the clown. These are three separate stories, but they’re all very intertwined.
The stories start out a little separate, but they’re all going to converge and you can switch characters at any time. So you can play either one of the detectives, then you can switch to Ransome the clown, and then you can switch to Franklin, and then you can switch back to one of the detectives. Like Maniac Mansion, there will be a point where puzzles need to be solved using multiple characters. I think that was something that was interesting about Maniac Mansion.
Ransome the Clown, a playable character, has been cursed and can never remove his make-up
Certainly, Gary and I had a lot of fun designing that part of Maniac Mansion: how all those different characters worked together. We want to go back to that. Maniac Mansion also had these different endings depending on not only what your characters would choose, but which ones you focus on. The same will be true here. You can get these very different endings depending on how you tackle the underlying mystery that’s going on in Thimbleweed Park.
Gary: And depending on who you play, time will not necessarily be linear. Somebody might be doing something a week before, or ten minutes from now that will affect what other people are doing, depending on where they are on the clock.
Marek: So am I correct in understanding that rather than selecting characters from a roster for your ‘team’ who are all on the same side, in Thimbleweed Park it’s more like several storylines that eventually come together?
Ron: That’s correct, yeah.
Marek: I imagine the complexity of puzzle design goes up dramatically when introducing multiple characters, and I remember Maniac Mansion did have some specific dead ends. How do you keep the design under control when you’re dealing with multiple characters?
Ron: It’s really about not thinking about them as separate stories, but thinking about them as one, big, giant story with things going on in parallel. We designed everything with these things called “puzzle dependency charts” – with which you’re really just mapping out the entire thing and how the puzzles all interact.
At certain points in the game, there might be some isolation to a chunk of puzzles – for instance because it’s about Dolores and her family, and the will. And then there’s another chunk of puzzles that might be a little bit isolated, but they’ll converge at some point, and then they’ll move apart at some point. It’s not easy to do that, but to me, that’s the fun of all this: figuring all that out.
Gary: This is going to be a pretty elaborate and involved world from a design standpoint. As I’ve said, the graphics are the surface icing to all of the design candy underneath that.
Marek: Adventure games in recent years have trended towards lighter puzzles, which not everyone has liked. On the other hand, old school adventures are often accused of having had needlessly difficult puzzles at times, or requiring a level of patience that is hard to muster nowadays. How do you strike the right balance?
Ron: It’s always a tricky balance, especially with adventure games. For some people, adventure game puzzles are just mind-numbingly hard, but those exact same puzzles are just amazingly easy for another person.
Ron is the Grumpy Gamer
We want to design a game that was more like those classic adventures, more like Maniac Mansion or Monkey Island just in terms of their scope and complexity. One of the things I did with Monkey Island 2 that I really liked is that it had that easy and hard mode to it. We want to add that to Thimbleweed Park, so if you are somebody that doesn’t really want to dedicate a whole lot of time to the game, you can play it in easy mode. You still get the full story, but some of the puzzles have been simplified. Then you could even go back and play it again in hard mode, and there’s this whole other layer of puzzles that you might have to solve.
I totally agree with you that that is an issue with people today. They just don’t have the time. There’s also a heck of a lot more games to play out right now. I’m hoping that the hard and easy modes will address that on some level.
Marek: I suppose one of the issues today as well is that if a puzzle is too difficult people can so easily alt-tab to a walkthrough, taking them out of the experience.
Ron: Yeah, they are definitely why they have trended to that easier stuff, but I think there are a lot of people who like that challenge. We want to be able to give them that real, old-school challenge with the hard mode.
Marek: How do you go about designing puzzles that are challenging without being too obscure? I remember the “monkey wrench” puzzle in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, which made very little sense to me at the time.
Ron: (laughs) Oh god, yeah. No, that’s – yeah, thanks for bringing that puzzle up.
Marek: I’m so sorry. Is that puzzle going to haunt you forever?
The infamous monkey wrench puzzle
Ron: Yeah, I will forever be haunted by that puzzle. I don’t know if there’s a scientific answer to that question. It’s about… it’s a feeling, you feel that, “You know what? This might be too hard.” or “This might be too easy.” A lot of times, I’ll design a little puzzle chain and think “oh, this is way too easy” and add some steps to it to make it too hard.
The other thing you do is a lot of playtesting. You do a lot of just watching people play the game, very silently watching them, seeing where they get into trouble and then trying to ask them questions about their thought process. You realize, “Oh, I see they’re not getting this one little clue I’m putting over here”. You either remove the puzzle chain or a piece of the chain, or you bump up the clue. It’s a very iterative process. I don’t know if there’s a hard answer for how to figure that out.
Gary: I mean, there’s a certain amount of intuition, but I agree with Ron: the value of playtesting is really important. It’s interesting, because on Maniac Mansion, I think we had one full time playtester and Ron’s uncle, and that was it.
Ron: Yeah (laughs). That’s true. Which might explain some of the weirdness in that game as well.
Gary: Dead ends, possibly (laughs).
Marek: Did you do much playtesting back at LucasArts then? If I’m not mistaken, in the Broken Age documentaries your former colleague Tim Schafer describes how that was kind of a rare process for adventure games.
Ron: I don’t know what they did with Broken Age, but Maniac Mansion didn’t have… I mean, there’s two different things: there’s testing, and there’s playtesting. Testing is where you find all the bugs. These are really “professional” testers who are just pounding on something to find the bugs. Then there’s playtesting where you bring in people who have never played the game before, and you just watch them play. You’re not looking for bugs, just looking for their comprehension of the game.
Gilbert did much more playtesting on The Cave than his early LucasArts adventures
We didn’t do a lot of that on Maniac Mansion. We did more of that on Monkey Island. We had some playtesting sessions, where we got people who basically sent in registration cards, back in the day when we had those, and got them in for a whole Saturday. We did a lot of that on The Cave: I think probably twice a week for the last six months of that project. People came into the office and they played the game for a couple of hours, and we just sat there and watched them and took notes. It’s invaluable and I would certainly do a lot more of that today than happened back on Maniac or even Monkey Island.
Gary: It’s interesting comparing the tools we have today versus then – I remember when we were first trying to figure out whether or not Maniac Mansion was even playable, we actually built a paper version of it, with a game board and cards. Whereas now, Ron can rapid prototype. It’s certainly changed, but I don’t think we’re going to make this one on paper first.
Ron: (laughs) No.
Marek: Speaking of tools, how are you achieving this 1980s look? Presumably it’s not using the same tools you used back then.
Ron: Yeah, the tools – it’s got that classic look to it, but the technology underneath it, I’m hoping, is modern in a way. Parallax scrolling is something we never could’ve done back then, but we can do now. We can do interesting things with depth of field. There’s a lot of little, fun visual effects we can do. On some level it’s like a classic point-and-click adventure game, but then there’s just something modern and technologically cool about it. It’s not the same technology we would’ve used back then at all.
Thimbleweed Park uses a SCUMM-style interface, much like Gilbert and Winnick first introduced in Maniac Mansion
Marek: So I suppose you’re trying not to be dogmatic in terms of “this could not have happened around the time of Maniac Mansion, so it can’t be in this game either”…
Ron: Yeah, things like colour palette – we had sixteen colours in the EGA palette, or the Commodore 64 palette. Certainly, Thimbleweed Park is using more than sixteen colours. There are some things that we’re more than willing to push. It should really invoke that feeling you had playing those [classic] games, or more importantly, it should be how you remember those games looking, not how they actually looked.
Gary: I realise we’re getting old right now, but there’s this whole visceral feeling of looking at these games. I remember how I felt at that time in my life, and this brings back a lot of those memories and feelings on a retro level, at least for me. When I'm working on it, I really enjoy connecting back to what it felt like to work on Maniac, and I’m hoping people can connect back to how it felt to play those games.
Marek: What about the sound and music? Are those aspects you are looking to modernize or will you be sticking to the retro style?
Ron: Yeah, music is one of those areas that I do want to completely modernize. Music was one of those very frustrating and limiting things. There’s a lot of really cool 8-bit chip music out there, but I think we do want to do something that is a lot more digital and modern, more like the music you hear in the trailer that’s up on the website. And we can even start to do some good interactive stuff, like you heard with iMUSE in Monkey Island 2.
Marek: So how did you end up joining forces on this project again? Since Maniac Mansion you both did a lot of different things, but did you still keep in touch over the years?
Ron: Yeah, Gary and I have always kept in touch over the years. Whenever we would get together, we would talk a lot about Maniac Mansion and, like I said, talk about what made that game so special, not only to us as the people who made it, but to a lot of people that played games. We were just talking recently about how we should make another one of those games, that would just be fun to do. Kickstarter gives us the ability to actually do that. Certainly going through any publishing or money-raising situation with this is just not going to be feasible. We just started talking about it a few months ago, and spent more time and then decided that yeah, we should do this.
Gary: Obviously, it engaged us because we actually spent a bunch of time and work in what we’ve done to this point. There’s a lot more design time involved, but we’ve done some pretty involved sessions, in terms of figuring out how we would do this, and what the core story is, and who the core characters are. All things being equal, we would rather do this together than most other opportunities that we have right now. That’s one of the reasons we’re pursuing this. It really speaks to us in terms of “let’s get back to this and make a really cool thing together again.”
Ron: I guess we haven't worked together really, since Maniac Mansion, and that would just be a lot of fun to do.
Marek: Gary, you led all the art on Maniac Mansion, right?
Gary: Yeah, I was actually the co-designer and I did all the art on Maniac Mansion, and Ron was co-designer and he did all the programming. He wrote the SCUMM system and worked with David Fox to write some of the scripts, but for the most part Ron created all the technology, he and I created the story together. Actually, at the time, we were roommates. It was weird to work together and live together, but that was one of the genesis points of Maniac Mansion – we both liked the same things. We both liked old, crummy B horror movies, we both enjoyed the same television shows and movies and the same sensibility in terms of humour.
Gary's graphic novel Bad Dreams
Marek: More recently, it seems you have been working a lot on comic books.
Gary: Actually, right now, if you go to my site, garyart.net, I have a book that’s coming out right now called Bad Dreams, which is being published by a company called Red Five. It’s a five-issue limited series; the fifth issue just came out this month, and then it’s going to be coming out as a graphic novel in January.
Marek: So coming from this very illustrative and detailed comic book work, what’s it like switching mindset entirely and working on this very low-resolution pixel art?
Gary: Doing pixel art is sort of a different way of thinking. These flat, almost like layers of cardboard that you paint and slide around... the limiting factor is really challenging, but it’s also really engaging, because if you’re working on a screen that’s 320 pixels wide, or whatever, and you’re trying to make something look like a road sign, or something look like a car, there’s only so much you can do. But there’s still a lot of stylistic approaches you can apply to that, whether it’s dithering or whatever else, to get a real unique look. You can make them very iconic, because people need to be able to look at a ray gun, or look at a skull, and realise what it is instantaneously. You can do that in high res or low res, whereas the other stuff I’m doing right now is very graphically designed, and that all ties back together in terms of the whole graphic design approach.
Marek: The traditional verb set in adventure games has really been simplified over the years. It started with about ten of them, then went down to three verbs, and now it’s usually just one use-verb. Why are you going back to that original set of nine verbs, even when some of those verbs are infrequently used?
Ron: One of the geneses of this idea was those true classic adventures. The interface in adventure games, as you stated, has been reduced from this set of verbs down to essentially the use verb. I found it interesting to design with more verbs. If you look at something like Monkey Island, use is still a verb that’s used eighty percent of the time, but with just being able to have those others I do think you can construct some interesting puzzles.
While Thimbleweed Park will have a graphic inventory, Maniac Mansion did not
Gary: We’re actually going to have a graphic interface to show the inventory objects, so you can actually see them. In Maniac Mansion, you didn’t have a can of tuna that was represented as an icon, it just said “a can of tuna”. We’re evolving it a little bit, because that was one of the things in Monkey Island or Monkey Island 2 that made sense.
Marek: In terms of the game’s tone, I imagine it won’t be on the True Detective end of the scale, but probably not on the full comedy end of the scale either. What tone are you trying to strike with the overall story?
Ron: Well, we look at this a little bit like we look at Maniac Mansion. That was a satire, or a parody of those horror movies that Gary and I liked. We look at Thimbleweed Park really as a satire and a parody of Twin Peaks meets The X-Files. It’s definitely going to be poking fun at a lot of those genres, even poking fun at things like True Detective. Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island at their core had a serious story going on. Then you wrap that in a lot of humour. That’s the way we look at this.
Gary: You have somebody who walks around and talks to a rubber chicken instead of to a log, those kinds of things.
Thimbleweed Park once boasted the state’s largest pillow factory, but now teeters on the edge of oblivion
Marek: Do you think humour is a necessary element to adventure games, or is it just a tone that you personally enjoy?
Ron: I think there’s a little of both. It’s definitely something that we enjoy, being funny and doing humorous things, but I also think adventure games as a whole work better in comedy, because you are just asking the player to do ridiculous things at some point. If the game is completely serious about it, it does seem a little weird.
Gary: It’s also a bunch of… when people see how a puzzle works, other than maybe a monkey-wrench, it’s like this “A-ha” moment. Or maybe you’re thinking about this puzzle, and you’re walking around the grocery store, and suddenly you see a container of salt next to the snail killer, and you suddenly realize: “Oh that’s what they want you to do”. That kind of thing.
Marek: It seems a lot more difficult for projects to get funded on Kickstarter now compared to the previous years. Perhaps Kickstarter has been a bit of an education for game players as well in terms of what it takes to design and produce a game. Some backers seem to be sitting on the fence a lot more now – to those who are sitting on the fence, what would you say to them?
Gilbert and Winnick's 1987 creation that largely ushered in the whole point-and-click era
Ron: Yeah, that’s a big issue with Kickstarter, and one of the reasons that we’re asking for the amount we are, which might seem high to some people. We really do take this project very seriously. It will probably take around eighteen months to do, and this is Gary’s and my full job. We’re not working on other jobs and doing this part time. And there’s a few other people we’re going to need to hire.
I think it’s just about taking it very seriously. We do have a fair amount of experience, not just designing adventure games, but also producing games. We’ve made a lot of games over the years, and hopefully, there’s a realism that comes with this that people will appreciate. We’re not looking to double or triple the amount of money: if we get one dollar more than we want, we can still make an amazing game, and that’s how we structured this whole thing.
Gary: And we’re very clear on the scope of what we’re building. A lot of people, I think, when they get into making games on Kickstarter, have a general idea of what they want to build, and they’re not really sure of the scope of what they're getting themselves into. This year, we have a very clearly defined scope and we’re going to stick with that.
Marek: You’ve been in the game industry a long time. Projects used to be made by small teams, for example at LucasArts, then they went big with large AAA development teams. How have things changed again? Would making a game with a small team again have been possible five or ten years ago?
Ron and Gary (front row) early in their careers at Lucasfilm; behind them are Carl Mey and David Fox
Ron: One of the very interesting things about the game business right now is that we are coming full circle in a way. It’s about two or three or four people building amazing games, and that’s something that certainly interests me. I don’t have a big desire to work on a triple A game with a team of two hundred people. I like small teams. That's the other thing that’s very appealing to me about this project: that it is going to be four or five people working on this very, very closely. It brings back some very good times of my life, from making Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island with very small teams of people. I think the industry can support this type of game a lot better today than it could five or so years ago.
Marek: Do you feel that working in a smaller team lets you focus more, or try different things out?
Ron: Yeah, that’s true. It was good for us, back at LucasArts. We had this unprecedented amount of freedom. It was more than just: “we were a small team of people”. It was: “we were a small team of people and we could pretty much do whatever we wanted”. We didn’t have a marketing department that was looking at what was going on or what the most popular trends were. We were just doing what was passionate for us. We were making these games because these were fun things and we wanted to make them, not because we’d thought we had to make them.
I do think that’s why you saw that creative burst that came from LucasArts at that time. It’s that we just had no adult supervision, in a way. That, to me, is exciting about this project. We’re going to be able to passionately build what we want. There isn’t a larger entity or body looking over us, telling us what we should be doing. That’s exciting.
Gary: We don’t want any more adult supervision. (laughs) We’ve been dealing with that for the last twenty years. We really would rather go back to just doing it the way we used to do it. Ron can go: “Oh, it doesn’t make sense to do this in an assembly language, I can just write a scripting language” or whatever.
Marek: Well, it’s been great talking with you about this new project. Best of luck with the funding drive.
Ron: Thanks. Gary and I are really excited about getting started with this. We continue to work through the design and figure that stuff out, and we’re just really excited about doing this.
Concept Art for Maniac Mansion
(Click on any image for larger version)
An outdoor scene transitions from black and white to color
The early moments of Maniac Mansion were to start out harmlessly enough...
... but danger would be lurking everywhere, some of them leading to (unintentional) dead ends
Both the playable characters and the Edisons underwent significant design changes
Ron and Gary originally envisioned the protagonists as younger children, but they evolved into teens for the final game
Early box art concept by Gary