We can't talk about Thimbleweed Park without taking a step back. It's been exactly 30 years since the release of Maniac Mansion, an adventure game by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. What stood out with that game is that, unlike its contemporaries in the genre that relied on a command line interface, Maniac Mansion revolutionized a verb-based, point-and-click interface. This approach was a massive innovation and influenced numerous graphic adventure titles from that point on, becoming a standard feature in the years that followed.
Fast forward to today, and it's fascinating to see how far adventure games have come, from games like Myst to Portal to The Walking Dead. Yet I often still find myself longing for adventure games as they were – or at least, how I remember them – not what they have become. Some of the games nowadays are tremendously enjoyable, but so many are stripped-down and streamlined for much shorter, less engaging experiences. A modern-day adventure game that's true to Gilbert and Winnick’s original pioneering vision is something I've been fantasizing about.
In 2014, that fantasy became a possible reality when the two men reunited to conceive Thimbleweed Park, an adventure game that would be highly reminiscent of the older classics. Or as they describe it: "like opening a dusty old desk drawer and finding an undiscovered LucasArts adventure game you’ve never played before," and yet one that’s also modernized for today’s gamer. A successful Kickstarter campaign showed that there was still solid interest in the genre, and with an actual budget behind the game, Ron and Gary began their quest. Now, a little more than two years later, Thimbleweed Park has been released. And boy, was it ever worth the wait.
The game starts off in the outskirts of the eponymous small town of 81 – make that, 80 inhabitants because of a recent murder. It’s 1987, and Special Agents Angela Ray and Antonio Reyes arrive at the crime scene separately, only to encounter the very dark, satirical and mysterious world that is Thimbleweed Park. Set along a dusty stretch of highway, the town once housed a vibrant business district and a magnificent hotel, held shows on its circus grounds, and was known for having the state's largest pillow factory. Nowadays, it’s a shadow of its former self, the once-flourishing community now a largely desolate and eerie place worthy of The X-Files.
While investigating the murder as both the experienced Senior Agent Ray and the enthusiastic Junior Agent Reyes, we not only meet other fascinating characters like the street-roaming alcoholic and the oddly similar sheriff and coroner, we actually get to play as three of them. In doing so, we experience their unique personal stories and start unraveling what happened to make the town what it is today. This method of introducing new characters is extremely well done. Instead of simply talking to them, we get to know more about them first-hand through the aid of playable flashbacks. During each person’s sequence, I became increasingly submerged into the story, like a great book you're reading that you just can't seem to put down. I really wanted to – no, had to – try to piece together what Thimbleweed Park was all about, and just how these strange citizens fit in.
Speaking of The X-Files, the two detectives are somewhat like Mulder and Scully, but with Scully (Ray) being a grumpy, cynical and dismissive character towards the younger, naive and determined Mulder (Reyes). Okay, not too many differences there. But these two are not partners, or at least only reluctantly so. Actually they don't even know each other at first and seem to have their own ulterior motives for being there besides the murder itself. So why are they on the case?
Two other playable characters are members of the Edmund family, an influential clan within Thimbleweed Park who built the town before overseeing its demise. What is it about the Edmunds and their burned-down pillow factory and once-thriving hotel? What mysteries are they concealing? We get to probe their history, playing as both Franklin Edmund (how does he end up in his ghostly form?) as well as his daughter, the aspiring video game developer Delores.
Our fifth and final protagonist is one that will easily stand out in any crowd, even his own: the obsessively swearing and cynical clown Ransome. His career is based on insulting his audience members, show after show, until he offends the wrong person and is cursed for life. His clown makeup becomes permanent and he descends into an even deeper phase of grumpiness and abuse. His dialog is hilarious, with multiple *beeps* per sentence, leaving little to wonder what is in its place. As we explore the peak of his career as well as the aftermath, post-curse, we’ll find out if there's still a shred of human dignity left in this clown and whether he might ever make amends for his mistakes.
In giving us so many diverse characters to play, Gilbert and Winnick have outdone themselves, taking the original model of Maniac Mansion with multiple protagonists not just to the next level but to a whole other league. Their stories, dialogs, unique personalities and interactions will delight, surprise and engage you as they suck you into the madness that surrounds them. Although Ransome is a *beeping* riot, my personal favorite was Delores. You get to know someone who is torn between her own dreams and family expectations, a real 'geek' that has a passion for creating entertainment for others that I can't help but feel very connected to. The same goes for a lot of Thimbleweed Park, as once you begin your journey into this surreal world, it will be difficult to disengage. Upon starting my initial playthrough, I couldn't help but continue non-stop, only briefly sleeping before jumping right back into this increasingly curious world.
Before you begin to play, you're able to choose if you want the 'easy' difficulty or the more challenging mode with more complex puzzles. I dove into the hard mode, but the fact that players new to the genre can choose an easier option is a welcome feature, though even that version is far more substantial than many new adventures. Once you launch the game, you'll be met with a quick overlay tutorial explaining the basics of interacting with the different protagonists and the world around you, before quickly being swept into the game proper.
Thimbleweed Park is played from a third-person perspective, with the bottom portion of the screen taken up by the inventory and list of action verbs. The key innovation of Maniac Mansion three decades ago, this verb list features actions such as 'pick up', 'open/close', 'talk to' and so on. What's been improved over the original implementation is that the background is still visible behind the text. You don’t have to click a verb for every interaction, as the game defaults to the most logical first option for each hotspot (usually ‘look at’), accomplished with a simple right-click. More involved interactions, however, do require manually selecting a verb to use first. This is part of the charm and is the main mechanism for resolving puzzles.
Navigating the town can be done without constantly clicking to advance, with your character able to walk twice as fast if you hold the right mouse button. In a sprawling world like Thimbleweed Park, this is a feature you'll use frequently. Other small improvements can also be found, with your pointer changing to an arrow to denote that the screen will scroll in that direction (or can be exited entirely). The town map you'll acquire at one point is a nice addition to the inventory as well, letting you travel between locations promptly.Continued on the next page...