Saturday, May 26, 2018

Thimbleweed Park

While I didn’t grow up playing old LucasArts adventure games like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle or Indiana Jones, I have at least been aware of them and I am familiar with games related to some of their titles, particularly Telltale’s takes on Monkey Island and Sam & Max: Freelance Police. One creator that I recognize from this era is Ron Gilbert, himself responsible for Monkey Island, who had announced a new game in 2014 called Thimbleweed Park in an effort to recapture the feeling of LucasArts adventure games of old. After a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, development went underway and the game later released in 2017 to critical acclaim. Out of recognition, and to see what Ron Gilbert had been up to since The Cave (2013), I bought Thimbleweed Park on PS4 through Limited Run and ended up playing it pretty much as soon as I got it. Since completing the game, I walked away with a sour taste in my mouth and an unwillingness to support Ron Gilbert in the future.

FBI agents Ray and Reyes have arrived in Thimbleweed Park to investigate a murder. Their investigation quickly leads them to several persons of interest, most prominently Chuck Edmund, the town’s hero and recently deceased owner of the PillowTronics robotics company. Other important characters who get involved in the investigation in some form or another are Ransome the Clown, cursed to permanently wear his clown makeup after one of his insult performances goes too far; Delores Edmund, Chuck’s niece and a game designer for MMucusFlem; and Franklin Edmund, Delores’ father and Chuck’s business partner.

Key art of the five playable characters (L-R): Ransome the Clown,
Frank Edmund, Agent Ray, Agent Reyes, Delores Edmund

At first, the story is actually pretty intriguing. The nature of the murder and the events surrounding it do a good job of building an atmosphere appropriate for a murder mystery, especially when different layers of complexity are introduced and create the impression that the very town itself doesn’t want you to solve the case. Thimbleweed Park is a town where vacuum tubes are the dominant technology, which gives it a certain old-timey vibe. The introductions of each of the five playable characters also give the sense that the player will be able to solve the murder by learning about Chuck Edmund and the events surrounding PillowTronics from multiple perspectives. In this sense, the game is excellent at drawing the player into its unique and interesting world. Additionally, three of the main characters are introduced through playable flashbacks. This is a rather interesting concept, although the main game can’t continue until the flashback is completed.

One thing to note here is the game’s sense of humor. I’m unfamiliar with the style of humor of older LucasArts titles, so I don’t know if this held true back then, but Thimbleweed Park is filled to the brim with meta jokes and references to other Ron Gilbert games, as well as the difference in styles and philosophies between LucasArts and its competitors, most prominently Sierra. I’m normally a fan of meta humor, but the amount of references bordered on excessive and the resulting lack of a fourth wall can make it harder to take the game seriously. If this isn’t something you’d want, there’s an “Annoying In-Jokes” option in the menus that can be toggled on and off (off by default).

The actual gameplay seems to capture the old-school vibe rather well. Thimbleweed Park plays out like a traditional point-and-click adventure game, with various objects throughout the visually distinct environments that the player is able to interact with. Items can also be picked up and placed in an inventory for future use, as well as combining different objects with each other to create or obtain new ones (ex. using a fingerprint kit on an object and then using tape on the same object to lift a print).

The game's UI includes a list of Verbs on the left and
the current character's inventory on the right.

To fall in line with older games from this genre, the game has a Verb system where, apart from moving or otherwise automatic reactions, the player selects a Verb and then applies that to whatever they want to interact with. For instance, by selecting the Open verb and then a door, the player gets Open Door. A Verb can also allow a slightly more complex action, such as Use Balloon Animal with Corpse. This system is also made somewhat deeper with the introduction of different Verbs for certain characters, but unfortunately, this is only explored through Franklin and no one else.

Naturally, the Verb system aids the player in solving various puzzles throughout the game. I’ll admit that I played on Casual, so the puzzles I solved had fewer steps, but I’m aware that the puzzles in this game can get rather complicated, such as going through several steps to create ink to properly print out a document. The game does its best to keep the puzzle logical enough for the player to solve, though even on Casual I still needed a hint every now and then, especially when some later puzzles seemed to require either a leap in logic or a reliance on the player to constantly have the entire map in mind when finding an item. Fortunately, the game comes with a built-in hint system called the HintTron 3000, which is a very nice quality of life addition to the adventure formula.

In-game flyer for how to access the HintTron 3000.

The HintTron 3000, however, comes with a couple drawbacks. You must have access to a phone to use it, at which you dial 4468 (HINT), but not every area has a phone. This makes the Cell Phone an invaluable item to have, though only one character can have it at a time and it’s with Agent Ray by default. This meant that at times I would have to either switch to Agent Ray and dial HINT on her phone or, later, Franklin and dial HINT, since he’s bound to a hotel that has a phone in every single room. The other drawback is that you can only get a hint for one solvable puzzle at a time, which means that you have to redial HINT every single time. This is very time consuming and quickly becomes an annoyance when stuck on multiple puzzles, at which point you’re better off using an online walkthrough.

Although this game was obviously designed for use with a PC, the PS4 controls are actually mapped pretty well. The analog sticks are used to move the cursor (the right stick moving it slower than the left) while the d-pad allows the player to scroll through their Verbs and inventory. The DualShock 4 touch pad can emulate a mouse as well. L2 and R2 allow the player to instantly switch between playable characters while L1 and R1 can automatically plant the cursor on selectable targets; the latter is more effective when the cursor is already near the object(s) you want to work with, which feels a bit limiting at times.

For a game that’s meant to emulate old-school adventure games, the graphics and artwork are pretty good. It captures the feeling of 1980s adventure titles while also modernizing it enough to look good on modern hardware. The animations are also good enough for the intended style, though some of the more comedic, and rather cheesy, animations are somewhat limited by the style.

The art of Thimbleweed Park fits well with the intended style.

The music by Steve Kirk, while not completely memorable afterwards, pairs well with the atmosphere. There isn’t really a central style to the entire soundtrack, but it’s lively and pretty much every area gets its own theme. I will note that I did have an issue where if I swapped between characters fast enough, the music would stop playing and I’d have to swap once more to get it to play again.

Voice acting is kind of a mixed bag here. On one hand, the voice actors are competent enough to portray what each character’s personality is supposed to be, which also helped the characterization remain consistent. On the other hand, the quality can fluctuate greatly and mostly comes off rather flat. It’s not quite wooden and stilted, but it can come dangerously close at times.

While Thimbleweed Park starts off strong, the narrative and the puzzles gradually deteriorate, with barely any development for each of the playable character’s arcs until the game reaches a rushed and highly unsatisfying conclusion, while each character’s individual endings feel mostly shallow or hollow. Towards the end of the game, it becomes increasingly apparent that the story has absolutely no will to resolve its initial driving force, that being the murder by the bridge and all of the mysterious events which concern both it and the strange town in which it took place. We never learn who the killer was, their motivation for killing someone, or its relation to anything else that happened in the story. What initially seemed like a complex web of intrigue is really more of an elaborate red herring for the game’s final twist.

What’s rather infuriating about this twist is that it actively punishes the player for daring to have willing suspension of disbelief. If that weren’t enough, the hint for the final puzzle to reach the true ending hinges entirely on a hint so meta that it shatters any and all sense of immersion the player had remaining by that point in the game. Without giving away what exactly the twist is, I’ll simply say that certain games with meta elements have pulled it off in a better and more meaningful way.

Thimbleweed Park is a strange game. It hits the ground running by quickly setting up an intriguing murder mystery and placing it within a genuinely enjoyable throwback to old-school adventure games from the 1980s. However, the rest of the journey gradually chips away at the player’s willingness to follow the central mystery until the ending completely pulls the rug out from wherever the story had stood. If you’re looking for something to take you back in time, this game might do it, but only if you can stomach the divisive twist ending. If you’re like me, however, it may instead make you wary about supporting Ron Gilbert in the future. Play at your own risk.

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