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.Continued on the next page...