“The nostalgia is starting to pixelate.” – Review of Thimbleweed Park

Well, of course I played Thimbleweed Park. It’s probably the most anticipated adventure game to come out since Double Fine’s Broken Age. It made a lot of promises, none of which seemed unreasonable, while managing to keep the actual story and mystery a secret right up until its launch.

With a name like Ron Gilbert at the helm — even most gamers who don’t give a shit about adventure games know what Monkey Island is — expectations were, unsurprisingly, high. Here are my thoughts on whether these expectations were warranted, and if the game lives up to them.

Whether or not I liked the game, though, is only a small part of this review. There is a deeper discussion about the game’s design (particularly the multi-protagonist design) and the story itself that I think warrants some exploration.

Therefore, a stern warning: The following review contains spoilers. It is a review written for people who have already played the game. If you have not played Thimbleweed Park and just want to know whether you should or should not, then my answer is: Yes. If you like classic adventure games, and I do mean classic, then absolutely. Go play it.

My first experience playing Thimbleweed Park was for my “first impressions” video, where I chose to start on “easy mode.” After finishing that up, I decided I wasn’t going to play the entire game on my YouTube channel, because I wanted to dick around and really immerse myself in the game — reloading save games to try different dialogue options, finding every “look”-message, trying everything twice just to see what would change. All the tedious stuff that doesn’t make for good Let’s Playing.

I also decided to restart and do the entire game on “hard mode,” after reading this article on the differences between playing easy and hard mode in Monkey Island 2. Recalling that some of my favorite moments in that game were missing entirely from easy mode, I decided I wasn’t going to get shortchanged with Thimbleweed Park.

I finished the game in a single 15 hour sitting with my wife occasionally offering suggestions for how to solve puzzles. It was quite the romantic evening, which ended at about 6.30 in the morning. And I enjoyed it.

Nothing says romance like, “Honey, any ideas on how to get this fucking door open?”

The best thing I can say about this game is that it absolutely delivers what it promised: a rich, full-length adventure game that harkens back to the feeling of playing a forgotten LucasArts adventure game circa 1987, back when the company was still called Lucasfilm Games.

I stress the feeling part, because the game has all-digital sound, voice acting, widescreen graphics, and visual effects that were, of course, impossible to achieve in 1987. But the game accurately captures the look and feel of the first point-and-click adventure games.

The demographic for this game is, therefore, squarely in the nostalgics’ camp. Ron and his team at Terrible Toybox are not in this to win over any new fans. While the new generation of adventure game developers are trying to prove that the adventure game genre is as alive and relevant in the modern day gaming climate as it ever was, Thimbleweed Park is wholeheartedly a throwback.

“Contemporary” is not in its vocabulary. It’s not even a month old, and it’s already a relic. It belongs in a museum.

Everything from the art style (a pixel-perfect homage to the graphic design of Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders) to the gameplay (the 9-verb SCUMM interface is lifted straight from Monkey Island 2) — even the story, which is fuckin’ set in 1987! — has nostalgia written all over it.

Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on your mileage. I, personally, like it.

Even some of its jokes would be lost on anyone who wasn’t playing adventure games in the late 80s.

The puzzles, likewise, are of the old-school mold. They never venture into moon logic territory where a block of cheese will somehow reactivate a magic wand recharger — something that LucasArts always tried to distance themselves from (at least, until Tim Schafer fucked that pooch to furry shreds with Grim Fandango, but I digress). They also have no real-world application whatsoever.

This is not a real-world simulation, as the game will make abundantly clear by the time you finish it. This is an adventure game, and it follows adventure game rules. In Thimbleweed Park, you’re expected to accept that the best way to start a fire is not to go look for a simple lighter or matchbook, but to take a swig of hot sauce that makes you vomit flames. It’s ridiculous cartoon logic, but it somehow make sense within the context of the game.

The main draw of this game is the multi-protagonist angle, where characters can work in concert with each other to solve puzzles. You can switch between characters on the fly, and they are often expected to work together to overcome the obstacles of the story. This is where things start to fall apart a bit.

With a game like Maniac Mansion or its sequel, Day of the Tentacle, the multiple protagonists were all “in this together.” For the most part, this is not true for Thimbleweed Park.

By and large, you could excuse the apparent clairvoyant abilities of the main characters in Day of the Tentacle by the simple virtue that they were all working towards the same goal. Bernard sending a wad of spaghetti into the future for Laverne to use it as a soggy wig for a dead mummy in a beauty contest seemed plausible. You could imagine the three characters having some pow-wows around the Chron-o-John about “what to do next” that were simply cut from the game because yawn.

This one makes sense because these characters share a common goal for solving this puzzle. Later “co-op puzzles” seem to forget the “common goal” part.

In Thimbleweed Park, you end up with a total of five playable characters, and only two of them — barely! — are working towards the same goal. Ray and Reyes are ostensibly working on solving the murder at the start of the game, but Delores, Ransome, and Franklin have no horse in that race.

After the first half, where the game is still by and large a murder mystery, the game shifts gears and starts focusing more on the Edmund family plight. Everyone keeps talking about how Ray and Reyes should go ask “that creepy clown,” but they never do that. The murder gets “solved” about halfway through, and then it turns out the two agents didn’t really give a shit about the murder in the first place, anyway.

Ransome is really the character that gets the shortest end of the stick here, as he is only interesting to the murder mystery plot as a potential suspect (which is quickly thrown out and never mentioned again), and not interesting at all in the main plot. This leads to some very weird co-op puzzle situations. In one instance, Delores has to assist Ransome in a trampoline puzzle despite the fact that her story is not connected to his in the slightest. Delores doesn’t give a fuck about Ransome — to the point where she will even throw him out of her house if he shows up at her doorstep. So why would she help him with this puzzle?

There is a peculiar disconnect between the story and the puzzle design that takes you out of the immersion. On one hand, the characters are involved in a story that really seems quite interesting and engrossing at first. On the other, they’re simply puppets being led around by some unseen force, directed to work together for no real sound reason. The characters never have any dialogue between them that gives them any motivation for why they should work together.

After the halfway point, Delores and Franklin really become the main protagonists, with Reyes and Ray taking a back seat, and Ransome being stuck as the outsider who never really has a clearly defined role to play in the story. To make matters worse, Franklin is perennially confined to a single location which he, spoiler, never escapes (save for a few unimportant seconds), and he has no means of communicating with the other characters. By this point, it’s really up to Delores to carry the rest of the game.

From a storytelling perspective, it makes no goddamn sense why she would tolerate the interference of either the two agents or the foulmouthed clown. Especially when the time comes to finally break into the PillowTronic factory and finish the game, a puzzle chain that requires the cooperation of all the protagonists — yes, even the dead guy. The dead guy who has no way of communicating with the other characters.

Bottom line, the multiple protagonist angle in this game — the thing that, apart from its nostalgic pedigree, was its main selling point — falls apart on a subatomic level. Not even the mightiest of strains can explain why these characters are working together. They just do, because fuck you.

“Uh, the spirits are telling me that they called this phone number, and now the giant fan is turned off.”

Sprinting towards the finish line, the game ends on a very meta note. And I do mean very meta. I’m torn about it.

On the one hand, I’m on board with it, because I had a similar idea for a game once — that the character finds out that he/she is a character in an adventure game and then has to deal with that situation. So I’m on board with it as a concept. It only annoys me on the sort of level of, “Well, fuck, now I can’t do that, because I’ll get accused of ripping off Ron Gilbert.”

Walking around the prototype version of the game at the very end tickles the amateur gamedev in me, the same way as seeing the fake movie sets at the end of Leisure Suit Larry 3 did. The way it handles the endgame, where you are literally expected to go back and look at the original Kickstarter video to suss out the solution to the final puzzle, was, I feel, a stroke of genius.

Fuckin’ genius.

Less ingenious, I felt, was the actual reveal itself. At this point, the game has all but forgotten about the murder mystery that started this whole thing, and the callback to the Kickstarter video does not bring the whole thing full circle in the way I suspect Gilbert & Co. intended it to.

The revelation itself also robs the whole story of any meaningful impact, as the protagonists are each given a completely whimsical “happy ending” despite them knowing full well that they are just characters in a computer game and none of this is real. While the individual elements of the ending — the prototype world and the callback to the Kickstarter video — are enjoyable, the ending as a whole feels like a cop-out.

Frankly, there are a bunch of odd loose ends in this game that are never satisfactorily explained. The murder suspect — Willie the drunk — is proclaimed as innocent by Agent Reyes, even though all the evidence gathered point to him as the killer, suggesting a kind of cover-up or frame-job going on. By the end of the game we’ve completely forgotten about him and left him to rot in the sheriff’s cell. It doesn’t make sense for Willie to be the actual killer, anyway, because whoever is going around bopping people over the head has ominous glowing eyes and towers above the other characters. None of this is ever explored.

At one point in the latter half of the game, Agent Reyes disappears for a while. A short while later, you get a cutscene of him lying on the slab in the coroner’s office being probed at by some of the other characters in the game. Then he comes back. No explanation given. It’s never even mentioned, save for a throwaway line from Reyes about how he must’ve blacked out or something.

Similarly, throughout the game, we get these short cutscenes of someone watching previous scenes of the game unfold through a CRT monitor. The image flickers and distorts like an old VHS tape, and the music is very ominous. Again, no explanation is given. If we are to assume that these scenes depict the player watching the story unfold, as the endgame reveal suggests, then isn’t it a bit ironic that these scenes are completely non-interactive?

¿Que?

All of this aside, I had a great time playing Thimbleweed Park as an adventure game. It utterly fails to provide any meaningful relationship between the characters, save for a couple of somewhat hackneyed moments between Franklin and his daughter Delores (Franklin gets a bit of a short stick in this game, too), and the plot completely gives up trying to make any sense towards the end and just sprints for the exit.

But when it works, it works brilliantly. The puzzles are fair, the art style is delightful, the dialogue is witty, the voice-acting — while not superb — is decent (Agent Ray doesn’t sound so much sarcastic as like she’s about to fall asleep at any time), and, if you don’t think about the why’s too hard, the co-op puzzles themselves are clever and well done.

If you’re a fan of old school adventure games, I still think it’s worth it, even at the price of $19.99 USD. It’s old school to a fault, and I suspect the only reason it can get away with that is because Ron fuckin’ Gilbert designed it. This is not so much an adventure game by Ron Gilbert as it is Ron Gilbert’s commentary about what happened to adventure games. With Thimbleweed Park, he’s giving us a history lesson on where we came from. And, despite its flaws, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather want as a history teacher.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on ““The nostalgia is starting to pixelate.” – Review of Thimbleweed Park

  1. I agree with your analysis of the inter-character relationships, but I think there’s an even bigger problem with the characters and the story:

    There doesn’t seem to BE a story. There are events that happen, but the characters don’t seem to react to them at all. Most of their motivations are revealed through their TODO lists, which are helpful for keeping track of puzzles, but not to give character motivations. Perhaps if the “notes” each character keeps were expanded, but I kept checking the notebook and I don’t think it ever expanded beyond the first act.

    Even when you give characters items that reveal important clues about their hidden agendas (especially Chuck’s diary), they don’t care.

    And once the game is done, the game tries to resolve the characters’ (non-existing) arcs by giving each an important item, which reminded me a bit of The Cave’s ending (or The Wizard of Oz). Ransome gets to evolve by the end, but nothing up until then suggested he’s changing his behavior. He didn’t have a journey to lead him there naturally, so it falls flat.

    The multi-character design itself creates some oddities (that of course can be waved away by “this is just a game”) – there are many “LOOK AT” responses that are identical between all of the characters, as if they’re all psychic, or worse: have no identity of their own. Other prominent games (DOTT, Broken Age) got around this by not having the same characters walking around the same rooms at the same time.

    All of this is perhaps another throwback to the old-school Maniac Mansion design, that had characters with very little distinguishing traits walking around solving puzzles. Things happened, progressing the story, but it was mostly for the player’s sake rather than the characters’. (I didn’t play it very long, perhaps I’m wrong)

    P.S. I may be imagining it, but after Reyes’ mysterious kidnapping, if you visit the morgue looking for him, I think you can see the coroner peeking around the door. It happens very quickly.

    1. Last thing first: I saw the coroner peeking around the door very early in the game, before Reyes got kidnapped. It seems to happen at random, but only once. I also went into the coroner’s office to see him taking a nap on the slab one time. It makes me wonder what other “extraneous” scenes are in the game that I just missed.

      I agree with everything else you said, that there isn’t really much of a plot — there’s a great set up to a plot, but it doesn’t evolve to a satisfying conclusion. Investigating the murder is fun, but you’re told from the start that that’s not why the agents are even there, and by the end you’re wondering why you’re actually bothering solving the murder at all. Which, apparently, the game wonders, too, because it sort of goes, “Uh, right, well, that’s enough of that. Whew! Glad we got that murder out of the way. NOW let’s go poke around the hotel some more!”

      I think you’re right about the Maniac Mansion comparison, with some caveats. The kids did have sort of interchangeable personalities (with the exception of a few lines), but they each had different skill sets that, when combined, offered a multitude of ways to solve puzzles. The characters in Thimbleweed Park, with the exception of Franklin, do not have different skill sets — they just have arbitrary reasons why they can’t go in certain places. (Ransome won’t go in the radio station because REASONS; the agents won’t go into the circus because REASONS.)

      I don’t want this to sound like I didn’t have a good time playing the game, though, because I did! These are just things that, as an amateur storyteller and wannabe game designer, I wonder about. A skilled veteran like Ron Gilbert probably knows all of this already, and he must have a good reason why he did this the way he did — he just didn’t seem to put those reasons in the game for me to find.

  2. Funnily enough – Agent Ray went missing in my game. I didn’t realise she vanished until I went to change as her and clicked that it was because of that scene. Plus there was no real follow-on from it despite the fact I initially thought it was because she was there to look into the mysterious AI – that it was there to fight back.

    As much as I liked it – your analysis hit the nail on the head. I did feel a tinge of disappointment that I couldn’t talk to any of the playable characters as I think there were a lot of character dynamics that were completely missing from the game. I had to consult a walkthrough to figure out a couple of things – like opening the factory doors. There’s no real definitive reason that the game has to get these four into the factory and there’s a massive hole in the world that isn’t really filled.

    For no reason other than the shift in plot focus, Delores became the main character I found myself controlling and only used the others when I needed to. There was a lack of chemistry and sense of team-building within the core four. I could only imagine the type of dialogue that Agent Ray and Ransome could have with each other. It’s a shame as I really liked the UI and how everything looked.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, I completely agree — just having the option to talk to the other protagonists would have gone a long way to create some dynamics. Of course, it would also have been a nightmare to script, considering how many variables are in the game, and how you can solve things out of order. Not impossible, though, and it would have added so much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s