Games have tried to play with fourth wall breaking ever since their inception, and for better or for worse, designers have continuously attempted to inject interactivity between characters and players with varies degrees of success over the years. While it would be a disservice to creators Ron Gilbert and Gary Winick to say that their game is yet another one of those examples, it’s clear that their intentions were to mess around with adventure game conventions in Thimbleweed Park.
It isn’t necessarily a revolutionary game by any stretch at first glance; least of which its gameplay, which sticks to the traditional adventure gaming blueprint of collecting items and solving puzzles with them, along with the occasional dialog puzzle. No, the big deal about Thimbleweed Park is the build up from all the experience accrued by Gilbert and his team over the three decades of experience they’ve had designing this sort of game, and of course their play with our expectations as to how an adventure game should be played, or most importantly, how it should play out. Surely enough, you’ll reach an end roughly eight to nine hours playing Thimbleweed Park, and for completionists, there are reasons to go back and replay it – mostly tied to tongue-in-cheek jabs on the pixel hunting convention of old, as well as the option to play in both hard and easy mode separately – but the real pay off you’ll get is how it all eventually leads into a much crazier build up than one could expect from the simple murder mystery it starts out as.
On the other hand, anyone with a little bit of experience playing any of Gilbert’s games should know that nothing is quite as it seems at the outset in any of his works, but Thimbleweed Park goes beyond that somewhat. It isn’t perfect, though. There are plenty of loose ends that never quite get tied up by the end of the story, but in my experience playing, I found that those so-called loose ends amounted to red herrings, details that never really mattered in the grand scheme of things going on within the game, or at least the build up that it gets to. Instead, I found myself imagining how it all came together, and in many ways came to understand the reason why this Kickstarter project took so long to come to fruition.
At first, Thimbleweed Park seems like your run-of-the-mill adventure game trying to ape the style of early 1990s CD-ROM SVGA titles. From its look down to the humor, it’s frank in its intent early on, poking fun at that particular moment in games history, both in dialog and in gameplay, going so far as having one of the characters asking himself if in that point in time he’d be saving his game if he were playing an adventure game, or a gag with characters going in-depth on how there’s no way of dying in the game.
Starting out with the duo of government agents, Ray and Reyes, you’ll eventually have control over a handful of different characters throughout Thimbleweed Park. With one exception that should go unspoiled, all of them have the same abilities, while some have access to particular spots and rooms. Trading items among these characters is paramount to getting through puzzles, even though there’s very little interaction among them story wise, aside from the two starting ones, who from the very get-go have a very entertaining relationship, much akin to X-Files’ Mulder and Scully. Weirdly enough, that lack of interaction between characters plays up the absurdity of the context of the game, sure, but on the other hand, there could have been more of a reason for these characters to be playable other than to serve as vessels for multi-step puzzle segments such as needing more than one hand operating different contraptions scattered around town.
In terms of difficulty, Thimbleweed Park feels like a modern mix of old school adventure gaming logic and the more straightforward style of play we’re used to seeing in the genre outside of the Telltale formula. Items can be combined and put to use in specific situations, but their use follows a function that makes sense. Unlike, say, Monkey Island, in which we had to famously combine a rubber chicken with a pulley in order to shimmy down a tightrope as Guybrush Threepwood, Thimbleweed’s puzzle solutions are clever in their simplicity; it’s more of a matter of finding the items than making use of them.
It goes without saying, just by looking at this game’s screenshots, that it obviously draws its presentation from old adventure games, most notably Gilbert’s old Maniac Mansion, which exaggerated character proportions and colorful backgrounds. Thanks to modern technology, though, we get to enjoy some gorgeous pixel art visuals and fairly detailed animations that are so well done that they don’t break the illusion that this game could very well be the natural sequel to Maniac Mansion. The inclusion of full voice acting is the cherry on top of it all, Albuquerque accent included.
If Thimbleweed Park is any indication, it’s clear that classic adventure gaming is more than welcome to make a comeback. It’s smartly designed in a way that it clears the excess fat of having giant inventories or illogical puzzles, and at the same time, it doesn’t dumb down any of the elements that make an adventure game great: it’s funny, smart and at the same time, completely crazy. It’s exciting to think of where Gilbert and Winnick’s Terrible Toybox could go from here. My hope is that Thimbleweed Park is only the start of a resurgence of the old school side of adventure gaming without the frustrations that made the genre disappear in the first place.