Time changes everything. Young men, so full of bravery and bravura, peak just after the onset of puberty, imagining themselves as romantic paragons; as captains of industry; as doers; then, they find themselves forever flipping burgers at dingy roadside diners that were only supposed to be temporary stops enroute to their true destinies. Art gives way to commerce, because while artisanal cupcakes put smiles on peoples’ faces, culture doesn’t keep the lights on. Point-and-click adventure games—once a mainstay of any PC gaming diet—fall out of vogue as players swap mind-expanding interactive stories for the immediate gratification and twitch violence of first-person shooters.
Time changes everything.
Adventure games have had an unlikely resurgence in the past decade, thanks largely in part to the first two seasons of Telltale’s streamlined Walking Dead series. Classics like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle have re-entered the cultural lexicon, too, in the form of digital distribution or remastered console ports. But none of these satisfy quite the same way as the adventure games of the ‘80s and early ‘90s: TellTale’s game are focused so tightly on storytelling that puzzle solving is an afterthought, while re-released classics are spoiled by players with instant access to decades-old walkthroughs. They float through them in pursuit of easy Achievements, stripping out the thought process entirely, and then wondering what the big deal is.
Thimbleweed Park, from Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick of LucasArts fame, is a welcome return to the halcyon days of adventure gaming. It’s a mouse-clicking, verb-driven, Twin Peaks-style murder mystery with more questions than answers, set in a small town populated by characters from Maniac Mansion (or their relatives). It’s not a LucasArts-branded product, but Gilbert and Winnick have managed to expand on the Maniac Mansion universe in a way that complements the game’s official sequel: where Day of the Tentacle looked back on an era when the original game’s ancestors were doing great things for the benefit of all, Thimbleweed Park looks to the present, where many of those familiar characters have stagnated, crushed by the weight of the American Dream. Taken together, the three games form a cohesive body of work, one for which the wide gulf of time between entries is irrelevant.
I feel lucky to have been able to play the game in its entirety before release, because the temptation to use a walkthrough during my 15-hour-playthrough was mighty high. That’s because the puzzles in this game demand a specific type of logic that, for most players (myself included), just isn’t in practice much these days. Nearly every solution you’ll need is in front of you, whether it’s a collectible item, a throwaway line of dialogue from a seemingly inconsequential NPC, or the combination of a particular player character with a specific verb with an easily overlooked background object. In most cases, you’ll eventually make a breakthrough simply through process of elimination; about a third of the way through my adventure, I actually emailed the game’s public relations representative for help after being stuck for an hour, only to find the solution myself minutes later.
There are a handful of moments where progress is dependent on a character repeating the same exact action several times in a row, and this is a frustrating design problem in a game where players often stumble upon solutions by trying everything. I was stuck late in the game because I attempted what ended up being the correct action two or three times in a row, only to give up in frustration, check a publisher-provided walkthrough due to personal time constraints, and find that I’d actually figured out the solution already, but needed to repeat it a few more times. I can only imagination how these puzzles passed the play-testing phase.
Aside from these isolated instances of flat-out bad design, there’s very little to fault with Thimbleweed Park. The game’s laugh-out-loud, fourth-wall breaking humor is as sharp as anything LucasArts ever created; things get almost overwhelmingly surreal by the end. The inclusion of characters and references to events from past adventures—in nods both subtle and quite obvious—are much appreciated, and I often found myself reflecting on my own life path while considering the predicaments of Thimbleweed Park’s various residents. This may or may not have been intentional on the part of the developers, but it speaks volumes about Gilbert’s and Winnick’s storytelling skills that they’ve crafted a universe and characters that I can relate with, in spite of the absurdity of the game’s plot.
Speaking of the plot: I’ve been purposely vague on that front. There are so many red herrings in Thimbleweed Park that it wouldn’t much matter what I said about the backgrounds and motivations of the game’s five playable characters, or the events that transpire from the moment Agents Ray and Reyes arrive to investigate the appearance of a corpse on the outskirts of town. I really feel this game is best experienced knowing as little as possible about it, other than to have a basic level of familiarity with Maniac Mansion. Suffice to say, Thimbleweed Park has frequently exceeded—and occasionally confounded—my expectations: as a lifelong fan of Gilbert’s and Winnick’s work, I can confidently say this is their best game yet. It’s also an exceedingly rare treat in 2017. Try not to spoil the experience with a walkthrough.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Thimbleweed Park is based on review code provided to us by Terrible Toybox. The game launched on Thursday, March 30th, 2017.