by Arthur B

Thimbleweed Park represents a welcome return of a winning team in point-and-click adventure design.
Point-and-click adventures of the Monkey Island variety were largely responsible for the boom of videogame-related Kickstarters, ever since Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure campaign opened the floodgates. It wasn’t long before other big names from that era like Jane Jensen used Kickstarter to finance new adventures, and inevitably sooner or later it was the turn of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, creators of the original Maniac Mansion. The game they chose to Kickstart was Thimbleweed Park.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you've read, there's a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else's. In particular, I'm only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can't review rewards I didn't actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I've received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the "Name, DNA and Fingerprints" section notes whether I'm embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I'll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I'd bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I'd never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I'd back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

Utilising early mock-ups of game locations and characters, the original Kickstarter campaign gave a pretty decent idea of what Ron and Gary were going for; combining a pixelicious aesthetic style with a point-and-click verb menu reminiscent of early point-and-clicks, the intention was to make Thimbleweed Park feel like a long-lost LucasArts adventure game that you get all the joy of playing for the first time.

Ron and Gary are uniquely placed to provide that experience, having been responsible for Maniac Mansion, Ron having directed, Winnick having managed the artwork, and both of them designing the puzzles. Whilst Sierra had produced graphical adventure games prior to Maniac Mansion, you could argue that Maniac Mansion was the first true point-and-click adventure. King’s Quest and other early Sierra adventures were, at least in their original versions, played pretty much without any mouse input at all. You moved your character about with the arrow keys (using a completely absurd system where you pressed once to start your character moving in a direction and pressed again to make them stop, which allowed for little precision and feels entirely unintuitive, especially if you are used to “hold down the button to move, release the button to stop” systems), and when you wanted to interact with the environment you typed in a command.

In essence, then, the early Sierra graphical adventures were effectively text adventures with a graphical interface - the actual process of gameplay was still driven by the text input, with all the verb-guessing frustrations that are so often intrinsic to that format. Gilbert’s big innovation, and the reason Maniac Mansion is the first true point-and-click adventure, is that he came up with a purely mouse-driven interface requiring no typing. Instead, characters are directed around the screen with the mouse, and all the verbs used by the game are provided at the bottom of the screen, along with a graphical representation of the items your character has picked up. Interaction is done simply by clicking on verbs and items to construct sentences (like “OPEN MICROWAVE” or “GIVE HAMSTER to ED”).

In one fell swoop this made the game much more accessible than prior text adventures and text-input graphical adventures, since verb-guessing was eliminated entirely. In addition, Winnick’s knack for wrangling every drop of character out of the rudimentary graphics available at the time was a great asset, and this combined with the extensive dialogue available in the game delivered an experience just as rich as any text adventure of the era. Whilst future point-and-click adventures by other hands would make various refinements to the interface, the fundamentals of point-and-click adventures haven’t really changed since.

On top of that, the offbeat comedic style of Maniac Mansion was hugely influential; the same sense of humour informs most of LucasArts’ later point-and-click adventures, and since those adventures are revered by fans of the genre, that means that many subsequent point-and-clicks have had at least some comedy in there too. On top of that, Ron Gilbert’s philosophy of adventure design would become increasingly adopted by later designers; in particular, as he was designing The Secret of Monkey Island he wrote Why Adventure Games Suck, a stern rebuke of many tendencies in adventure game design at the time.

Gilbert’s most important insight, alluded to in the article and made an explicitly stated principle of LucasArts adventure design from Monkey Island onwards, is that arbitrary death without warning and allowing the player to put the game into an unwinnable state without realising it are both deeply frustrating and utterly needless habits of adventure games. Sierra games at the time were infamous for doing both, and it took a remarkably long time for Sierra to get over themselves and realise that this design style was simply making their games less enjoyable.

Arbitrary death without warning is a serious flaw in adventure games because it punishes exploration - if you can be abruptly killed simply by walking into a room or standing on the wrong part of the screen, it’s going to prompt you to interact with the game world more cautiously and make you reluctant to try things out, and thus discourage you from doing the very things you need to do in order to complete the game in the first place. Locking yourself out of a winnable game state s even more frustrating - it means that you can end up playing for hours on end without realising that you can’t progress any more. Even if there’s clearly a problem with the way the situation has progressed - like a key’s ended up on the wrong side of a door - that isn’t an unambiguous sign that the game’s now unwinnable, because that could just look like a puzzle instead.

It’s not always the case that the originators of a genre have also produced some of the best works in it, but it is the case with point-and-clicks - even if Maniac Mansion is a little rudimentary for some people’s tastes these days, the original Secret of Monkey Island is still revered. It’s no surprise, then, that Thimbleweed Park funded easily.

What Level I Backed At

Get your name in the exclusive Thimbleweed Park in-game phone book (subject to our approval). Your name could be the solution to a puzzle. Plus game + soundtrack.

Delivering the Goods

Although the game was delivered about 9 months after the estimated delivery date, to be honest that really isn’t that bad by the standards of computer game Kickstarters. Gilbert also provided extensive development updates on the Thimbleweed Park official blog, which ensured that the delays never became concerning - his posts went into sufficient technical detail to make it clear that substantive progress was being made, which was very reassuring.

Reviewing the Swag

Thimbleweed Park is, appropriately enough to the aesthetic, set in 1987 - the same year that Maniac Mansion came out. Outside the small town of Thimbleweed Park, a dead body is found in the river. Two federal agents, Senior Special Agent Ray and Junior Special Agent Reyes, arrive to investigate; ostensibly, they’re just there to solve the murder, but each of them also has an ulterior motive to deal with here once that’s done - Ray’s plans being in keeping with her cynical nature, Reyes’ being more idealistic. Both of these plans revolve ultimately around the abandoned PillowTronics factory outside of town, which burned down in a mysterious fire some years ago.

Meanwhile, other characters in the local area become embroiled in the investigation. Delores was the niece of Chuck, the head of PillowTronics, but broke his heart when she ran away to design adventure games at MMucasFlem; returning to the family mansion for the reading of Chuck’s will following his death prior to the game’s start (he isn’t the body in the river, mind), she starts poking into his secrets. Ransome the Clown, a foul-mouthed insult comic who was cursed to never be able to remove his clown makeup after he went too far at one of his performances, lives on the spooky abandoned circus grounds outside town; he had a grudge against Chuck as a result of PillowTronics turning down his idea for manufacturing Ransome the Clown dolls, and he’s only too keen to dig up dirt on Chuck. Franklin, Chuck’s brother, died at the local hotel in a murder intended to stop him pitching his PillowBear idea (a teddy bear that can be turned inside out to become a pillow) to potential investors, and is now haunting the place.

Just as Maniac Mansion had you controlling several different player characters with different capabilities, so too does Thimbleweed Park have you controlling Ray, Reyes, Delores, Ransome and Franklin as they try to accomplish the various tasks on their to-do lists. Each character has their own particular capabilities; the two characters who are the most similar are Ray and Reyes, as the FBI agents, but there’s mild differences even between them, and the most unusual character is probably Franklin, who as a ghost has a whole different verb list to reflect the limited ways in which he can interact with the world.

At points the story doesn’t seem to offer a rationale for them collaborating to the extent you need to make them to in order to solve particular puzzles - for instance, at one point you need to get Franklin to dial a phone number he hasn’t seen - but in a comedy game like this 100% rigorous story logic isn’t altogether necessary. Furthermore, the ending contextualises this and the other jokes directed to the 4th wall that crop up over the course of the game; it’s rather self-referential, but in an interesting way which digs into how point-and-click adventures are limiting due to the fact that they typically only allow for a sufficiently small range of actions that free will is not a thing in their worlds. If you’ve played the end of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge - another Ron Gilbert design - you’ll recall how he plays with different levels of reality in that, and the same is true of this game.

Thimbleweed Park, in fact, embraces its nature as a nostalgia project enough that there’ll be a lot of jokes which just go over the heads of people who haven’t played the LucasArts classic adventure games; there’s an option to turn in-jokes off, but this feels sufficiently out of step with the spirit of the thing that I let it slide. The use of Groucho Marx glasses as a disguise comes from Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, and one of the aliens from that can be seen in the audience at Ransome’s show. “Chuck” as a villain name and the presence of a pirate hat in Chuck’s office at the PillowTronics factory is a pretty clear callback to LeChuck from Monkey Island. And, of course, there are ample references to Maniac Mansion - right down to Sandy and Dave from that game operating the local diner here. The writing, I’d say, more or less justifies this nostalgia by actually engaging with it rather than simply indulging in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.

In terms of the actual gameplay, the puzzles presented are quirky enough to be funny but logical enough to not be completely daft and arbitrary; it feels like a genuine accomplishment when you figure out a tricky one, rather than simple luck or the outcome of brute force trying of all the options. (In fact, so far as I can make out there are some puzzles which can’t be solved through brute forcing them - not without spending an unbearable amount of time on them, anyway.)

There are a few nicely modern additions here and there. Voice acting is there if you want it, though I turned it off for a nicely retro reading experience; more useful is the autosave feature. There are a very, very few ways you can actually die in this, but not only are these announced by one of the characters saying they should probably save the game before doing something, but the game actually autosaves to just before you did it, ensuring that absolutely no time is wasted. Other autosave points are reasonably common (I haven’t experimented with it much, but I think it autosaves whenever you enter a different room or solve a puzzle).

With warm writing that makes you care about all the characters - even that raging arsehole Ransome the Clown - this is one of the most cozily pleasant gaming experiences I’ve had in a very long time.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

The backer credit option this time was quite clever - rather than having boringly long end credits with all the backers names, instead a subset of the backers (backing at my level of higher) got to have their names listed in the Thimbleweed Park local phone book - and to record an answerphone message to be played when you dial their number. (I’m on there giving a little plug for Ferretbrain.) The actual process of recording one’s answerphone message was pretty painless; it was subject to a little moderation, naturally, but that’s only fair. In short, this is a really fun way to be credited on a project, and the fact that I’ll always now be a part of the game makes it worth the extra money in my opinion.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong

I have to go with Just Right; I mean, the main extra thing I got was the answerphone message, which is just a little bitty thing, but it’s such a fun little feature I can’t help but feel like if I hadn’t gone for it, I’d have felt bad about it.

Would Back Again?

Ron and Gary haven’t said anything to my knowledge about their future plans, so I have no idea whether I’ll even have a chance to back another Kickstarter from them - but if they did, they could count on me showing up with my wallet to back it.

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at 02:20 on 2019-02-16
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