I love point and click adventure games. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s meant I was able to experience the genre at its height, and in my opinion, at the perfect age. I had grown bored of the simplistic action-oriented games of my childhood, and had moved on to other non-videogame distractions. But then I was introduced to Zork, and later the King’s Quest series, and suddenly games became interesting again.
As my adoration of the genre grew, it allowed teenage me to play the oddball P.I. duo Sam and Max, the perpetually unlucky in love Larry Laffer, the bumbling space janitor-cum-savior of the universe Roger Wilco, and even an insult-wielding incompetent pirate-in-training Guybrush Threepwood when these characters were first introduced to the game playing public. Their games had many limitations and are renowned for being frustratingly difficult, and in the decades preceding the internet, that frustration could last for days or even weeks. But I am grateful for those days; they taught patience and problem solving, as well as an appreciation for how narrative design and game design can work together to create a unique experience not available in any other medium. In many ways these games and the genre they occupy defined for me what interactive media was capable of, and created a life-long gamer.
In no small part, that creation can be attributed to Ron Gilbert. As the designer of Maniac Mansion, he helped to push the genre not only forward, but also out of the well-worn track Sierra had kept it in. His humour, twisted logic, and storytelling helped to forge one of the greatest legacies in gaming – LucasArts. He also helped usher in the golden age of adventure games. So, when Ron announced he was returning to the genre with a brand-new game with his Maniac Mansion design partner, I threw my money at him. Perhaps not as much as I would have if another LucasArts alum hadn’t already left a somewhat sour taste in my mouth with his re-entry into the genre earlier that year, but that’s a different story. Roll on 2017.
In March 2017, I got my sweaty hands on Thimbleweed Park for the first time, and I was instantly hooked, so perfectly is the game executed. It is so wonderfully retro, yet also refined and modern despite all of the old-school trappings. That Thimbleweed Park exists in the form that it does is a testament to the creative genius of Ron and Gary, and to the freedom they were allowed thanks to thousands of passionate fans who funded the game, allowing it to remain independent of publisher influence.
So, what is Thimbleweed Park? In short, it is an homage to Maniac Mansion. Set in 1987, at first glance it could be mistaken for a game of that era, but like the game it’s inspired by, there is far more going on under its pixelated surface. As a point and click adventure game of the classic design, it adheres to certain expected elements, but is also not constrained by them. You move your character around the screen and interact with NPCs, objects, and the environment to overcome various puzzles – either environmental or narrative. Most of this is done using a throwback verb-based interface, with options including Talk to, Look At, Pick Up, Pull, Push, and Use. To newcomers this may feel very restrictive, but it does allow for some smart puzzle design, and a lot of unexpectedly hilarious interactions as you struggle to unlock the solution to your current roadblock. It provides a platform for experimentation that sadly does not exist in the genre any more, and while it may seem archaic to many, it’s a welcome addition in my opinion.
What really drew me into the game was the story. In what starts off as an X-Files-like murder mystery very quickly merges into some wonderfully quirky Twin Peaks-esque ‘town with a secret’ insanity. Over the course of the game you control various denizens of Thimbleweed County, as well as a couple of dedicated FBI agents (or are they?) on the hunt for a murderer. There’s a clown cursed to wear his makeup forever, and the ghost of a pillow salesman. Each of the five playable characters not only has their own fascinating stories and motivations, but their interconnected relationships slowly open up a deep and involving story that goes places you really don’t expect. You will need all five to uncover the ever-deepening mystery of the town, and along the way, resolve their own story arcs. You will also often be required to combine the unique talents of more than one character to overcome obstacles or create a situation to allow solve some of the games more involving puzzles.
Many people who have accumulated a certain number of years complain about how casual or easy games have become. And while they may lament the “good old days”, they also perhaps forget just how frustrating those days could be. Adventure games in particular were guilty of building this emotion. They made up for their relative brevity by including some ridiculously obtuse and needlessly complex puzzles. This was a defining feature of many of the early Sierra games, but they were not the only guilty ones. Thankfully, those head/desk bashing infuriation generators do not infect Thimbleweed Park, but don’t think that makes the game easy – there is no shortage of complex puzzles that will require a lot of thought to solve. However, they all follow the game’s internal logic, and many clues about how to solve them can be found by looking or listening. You will seldom find yourself trying to mash items together in random combinations in order to find the key to your current roadblock, but if you do get stuck, there are options.
One of the new game mechanics I found endearing is the hint system, which can be accessed by using any of the in-game phones, which pay homage to the 800 (0900) hint lines frustrated gamers may have resorted to in those pre-internet days. The hints are elegant, and often provide a nudge in the right direction without giving the specific solution. Another new complimentary feature I discovered when I replayed the game on my Switch is the post-release addition of the NPC conversation system. While the game was always fully voiced, this new system allows NPCs to talk to each other and give context to their interactions and motivations, but also to provide hints about how to proceed if you’re stuck.
Both of these systems are optional, but new players, casual gamers, or those looking for a more relaxed experience should find just enough help to keep them moving forward. Perhaps even old school fans whose aging brains may occasionally lack the required dexterity to open a particularly tricky locked door will also appreciate them.
Thimbleweed Park does something rather special: it manages to provide a compelling and challenging “old-school” point and click experience without putting up barriers for new players. This is a modern game in many ways, without ever losing what made this genre great 30 years ago. It’s funny, surprisingly moving, challenging, and polished to a high sheen. The voice acting is exceptional across the board, and while the graphics are a deliberate throwback to the ‘80s, they are beautiful and never detract from the game. If you love the genre, I cannot recommend this game enough. If you’ve never tried a point and click adventure game, I would say this is the perfect entry point. It embodies everything I adore about the genre, while elegantly avoiding its more infamous pitfalls. It is also available on basically every single gaming platform, so there really is no reason not to try it.