When you first start playing Thimbleweed Park, the upcoming adventure game from Maniac Mansion co-creator Ron Gilbert and artist Gary Winnick, it’s hard not to be struck by just how old-school it looks. And it’s not just the big, wonderfully chunky pixels that render the characters and world. The bottom third of the screen is dominated by a giant menu, just like in classic LucasArts adventures. There’s a big list of verbs that represent all of the actions you can take, and an inventory with all of the weird, assorted objects you have on hand.
It’s a pleasingly familiar site if you grew up on point-and-click games, but after playing for five hours, it’s clear that Thimbleweed Park is more than just a classic-style adventure game that happens to be released in 2017. Instead, it updates the age-old formula in smart, subtle ways. It’s the idealized version of a point-and-click game that exists in your memories.
Thimbleweed Park stars a pair of FBI agents — agents Ray and Reyes — investigating a murder in a small town in 1987. It has all of the hallmarks of a Ron Gilbert adventure. (In addition to Maniac Mansion, he also worked on Day of the Tentacle and the first two Monkey Island games.) Which is to say that it’s really weird. Thimbleweed is a town run by a pillow magnate, and — despite it being the ‘80s — is largely automated, with machines aiding everything from criminal investigations to movie rentals.
When you come across potential suspects, which include a budding game developer and a cursed clown, you’ll jump to a flashback that delves into their backstory and possible motives. The story and world feel sort of like an X-Files or Twin Peaks-style adventure viewed through Gilbert’s unique lens. Of course, this also means that there are a lot of jokes, many of which point fun at the game’s old-school nature. Early on agent Ray notes that they need to hurry up because the body “is starting to pixelate.”
Like the games it emulates, Thimbleweed Park plays out through a combination of dialogue, exploration, and puzzle solving. As you venture into the town, you’ll be able to talk with residents to uncover clues and collect items to help solve puzzles and open up new areas. The core of the game revolves around the list of verbs at your disposal, which determine just about everything you can do. If you want to talk to someone, you click the “talk” button and then the character you’re chatting with. To put film in a camera you click the “use” button and then both of the items. (These games are called point-and-click adventures for a reason.) Solving puzzles usually boils down to finding the right way to use the myriad items at your disposal.
Of course, the problem with adventure games historically is that the puzzles are often obtuse and overly complicated. Items need to be combined in ways that make no logical sense, or require you to spot very tiny clues that are easy to miss. Thimbleweed still has a bit of this; there were moments where I had to do some pixel hunting to find what I needed to proceed. But the game also does a number of smart things to alleviate the problems inherent to the genre.
For one, there are no dead ends, which means you can neither die nor put yourself in a position where you can’t move forward. This made me feel much more free to experiment. The game also does a good job at subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) giving you clues. Characters will drop hints as to what to do next, and those hints become stronger if you ask lots of times. (The hints are even more explicit if you play the “casual” difficulty level.) One of the most useful features is that every character you play as carries a notebook, which includes not only information you need to remember, but also a list of all the things you need to do. It’s a lifesaver if you take a break for a while and then come back.
The puzzles in Thimbleweed Park also feel much logical and organic compared to its spiritual predecessors. They’re still pretty weird — at one point my inventory included some cheese, a broken ketchup bottle, and some kind of futuristic whip — but they generally make sense within the context of the game. The times I found myself stuck were when I missed an item I needed, or when I didn’t think through all of the verbs at my disposal. I spent close to an hour trying to figure out how to get up a particular flight of stairs; it turned out I just needed to remove the “out of order” sign. (If reading that sentence frustrates you, let me tell you about this time I had a rubber chicken and a pully…)
Last year, Gilbert told me that he wanted Thimbleweed Park “to be how you remembered [classic adventure] games, not how they actually were.” And, at least early on, he’s managed to do just that. Thimbleweed has exactly the things I love about the genre — quirky humor, clever puzzles, a great story — while getting rid of most of the frustrating aspects. Old games can be hard to go back to, with rigid structures and archaic mechanics that belie our memories of them. Thimbleweed Park, on the other hand, feels like the very first time you played a LucasArts adventure.
Thimbleweed Park is launching later this year on Mac, Windows, Linux, and Xbox One.