One of the most joyful things about point and click adventures is that you can construct the most wonderfully ridiculous sentences around them. Like: ‘I can’t figure out how to turn off the radio. I know it has something to do with the homeless guy in jail, and fixing the old pocket watch.’ Or: ‘I’ve reprogrammed the robots and got the blast door open, but can’t work out how to get past the “Certin Death” arms.’ Out of context they sound like the fevered ramblings of a novelist trying to write an airport spy thriller. In context they make perfect sense.
Those aren’t examples that I’ve made up for comic effect, though. They’re things I myself had to say to another real human being. The context was playing Thimbleweed Park. And the thing is that they do make sense in context. A common complaint levelled at point and click adventures is that the solutions never really make sense until after you’ve done them: you must either accomplish Machiavellian twists of reasoning, or systematically use everything in your inventory on everything else, until something happens. In Thimbleweed Park you can always see the shape of the next thing you need to do. You probably already have a couple of pieces you need to do it, but you have to figure out how they fit together.
Thimbleweed Park (from a team lead by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, famously behind most of the iconic games produced by Lucasfilm) takes all the best parts of classic adventure games and leaves out the flaws The controls are streamlined to make it easier to play, you get an objective list of sorts to keep you on track, and if you find your inventory is getting full you can throw away things that turn out to be useless. Saying that, though, I’m not convinced a menu taking up the bottom screen adds anything other than a tug on nostalgic heartstrings, and there was, it must be said, one large and significant puzzle that whiffed of the old school. I don’t think the intra-game prods would ever have been enough to get me to the solution without an extra-game shove.
For the most part, though, when you get stuck on puzzles it’s the kind of stuck where you figure it out just after you ask for help. As grandmothers often say: a watched pot never boils, your food will come if someone goes to the toilet, and you’ll find the key to the Pillow Factory office immediately after sending someone a DM about it.
Not that you won’t also be deliberately fed red herrings, or have the piss flagrantly ripped out of you. Curiosity is both the key to finishing the game, and a joy. Freed from the shackles of 30 year old technology, the team on Thimbleweed Park has created an incredibly beautiful game, particularly if you like pixel art. The town is fabulously realised. Layers of colour and light make a public toilet feel grimy, the entrance of a mansion plush, and the main street… suspiciously quiet.
This is not an inaccurate feeling. The town and it’s environs are full of hidden secrets you might not uncover in your first playthrough, jokes you’ll miss if you don’t explore every dialogue tree, and others that are, very much, on you as a player. Thimbleweed Park follows the tradition of treating the fourth wall as an optional extra, so characters frequently make reference to adventure games — perhaps more than will be to everyone’s tastes.
Like Maniac Mansion before it — possibly Gilbert and Winnick’s best loved game from the 80s — Thimbleweed Park uses multiple protagonists. They’re supported by a marvellously weird cast of secondary characters (which includes, but is not limited to, a Spock cosplayer who does not speak, a ghost obsessed with a reality TV show about skiing, and a man called Doug who likes to dig) but the mileage you get from each of the central five will vary. Dolores, who left Thimbleweed Park to pursue a career as a game designer, is the most subtle and sympathetic; Ransome the Insult Clown is brazenly hilarious and entirely unsubtle; Agent Ray, a hardened FBI agent, lost all her fucks some time ago and replaced them with heavy sighing.
Any of these three would be perfectly capable of carrying a full game by themselves, but not so the other two. Playing as Franklin adds a fun layer of extra challenge — he’s a ghost, and so can’t physically touch things — but his his character, though well voice acted, is a doormat whose hail Mary moment of standing up for himself is disappointingly delivered via deus ex machina. Franklin’s role in the larger story is mostly confined to the hotel where he died, and can be burned through quickly compared to the other four. It makes the final act of the game feel off balance as a result.
Agent Reyes, meanwhile, is Ray’s de facto partner, and is at his most entertaining as an enthusiastic foil to her. Once they split up he becomes an also ran: he doesn’t have Ray’s personality to pull him through, and his motivation for being in town is comparatively normal. Unfortunately, in the context of Thimbleweed Park, that’s also boring. This is, of course, only a problem relative to how much you need to play as Reyes, and Ransome the Clown is a fiery palette cleanser in any case.
With you, or possibly in spite of you, the group is able to work together to solve the mystery at the heart of Thimbleweed Park. As it turns out, this isn’t the mystery you first arrive at, or even the mystery you stumble upon after the first mystery. Thimbleweed Park is a strange joy, as weird and compelling a town as Twin Peaks — even if you’re not labouring under the tyranny of nostalgia like I am. And the puzzles, satisfying enough on their own, come with a final twist in the tale that may drive you to your feet to applaud everyone involved.