Ron Gilbert has written and designed some of the most influential adventure games around, including 1987's Maniac Mansion, the spark for the golden age of Lucasfilm Games. And his next release, the crowdfunded Thimbleweed Park, looks a lot like the classics that defined his career. It has 8-bit-style pixel art graphics — created by Maniac Mansion artist Gary Winnick — and even an old text-heavy interface for using items and solving puzzles. But Thimbleweed also makes a number concessions that bring it in line with more modern games.
"I want this game to be how you remembered those games, not how they actually were," Gilbert says. "There was a beauty to them but they were really crude."
Thimbleweed Park tells the story of two detectives who head to the titular town in order to investigate a dead body. Very quickly they're pulled into the mysteries of the strange town and its bizarre inhabitants. There are five playable characters that you'll swap between throughout the game. The two detectives are joined by a trio of wacky residents, including a cursed clown who can't remove his make-up. It's quirky and charming in the way Gilbert's games typically are; from the brief demo I watched it felt a bit like Twin Peaks crossed with Monkey Island.
"A lot of modern adventures don't have that same charm to them."
The first thing you'll probably notice about the game, though, is its massive interface, which takes up nearly a third of the screen. While modern adventure games have streamlined things considerably, Thimbleweed looks like it's lifted its UI from Day of the Tentacle. At all times you can see the items in your inventory, as well as view the verbs that let you interact with the world around you. Click "open" and then click a door and you'll open the door; select "look at" if you want to investigate a dead body. "We chose to go back to this interface because I think there was a lot of charm to those old graphic adventures, and a lot of modern adventures don't have that same charm to them," says Gilbert. "We really wanted to understand, well, why is that? And I think the interface actually has a lot to do with that."
It's the same reason why the game has a distinctly retro visual style; it's all about tapping into a specific brand of charm found in old LucasFilm adventures. "I don't think people love the 8-bit stuff because they love 8-bit art and large pixels and limited colors," says Winnick. "I think it's because it reminds them of what it was like to play games when they were learning to love playing games."
That said, while people have fond memories of those games, they can be hard to play now. The puzzles were often needlessly complex and opaque, and the games were completely uninterested in guiding you in the right direction. It can be jarring playing a game like the original Monkey Island in 2016, and so Thimbleweed has made a number of changes to make it more palatable to modern players.
As an example, Gilbert explains how classic adventures games would often give the player an important piece of information once, and then never repeat it again. "We expected that people would grab their pencil and they would write that piece of information down," he says. In Thimbleweed Park, not only will characters repeat themselves, but if you ask the same question multiple times — suggesting that you're a bit lost — you might even get some extra information to help nudge you in the right direction. Thimbleweed doesn't have an explicit hint system, but Gilbert says that characters will provide more subtle clues through dialog.
"When you remember playing those games, you think it was like that."
And while it may look like an old game, Thimbleweed features more colors than true 8-bit games, and utilizes modern lighting techniques to add depth to the world. Winnick describes the art style as "8-bit-ish." Just like the gameplay changes, the updated art is meant to represent how players remember classic adventures, not how they actually looked. "When you remember playing those games, you think it was like that," Gilbert says.
Thimbleweed Park is slated to launch later this year on the Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux, with iOS and Android versions launching sometime after that. For Gilbert, it's an opportunity to make the kind of game he loves, but introduce it to a whole new generation. "As gamers change over time, I think you have to change with them," Gilbert says. And while his new game may look like the past, he's looking toward the future. "We have to evolve."