Ron Gilbert's Making an Adventure Game Without All the Rubbish Bits

By Matt Wales on at

The way Ron Gilbert tells it, Thimbleweed Park is something of an experiment. A belated attempt, by he and co-creator Gary Winnick (who previously worked with Gilbert on Maniac Mansion), to pinpoint what it was exactly that made those classic LucasArts point-and-clickers so singularly charming. To see if it's possible to recreate the whimsical joys of the genre in its heyday, and to capture some spirit of The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, 20 years on.

Given that it's 2017, of course, you might never have played a point-and-click game. The genre - known for a blend of narrative-driven exploration and puzzle solving - reached its zenith in the mid-90s, around the same time as id’s Doom changed the mainstream gaming landscape forever. To a certain generation, though, Ron Gilbert is a game design legend. He’s the guy that, along with the likes of Double Fine’s Tim Schafer, practically invented the point-and-click genre. Then popularised and perfected it, giving the world a run of adventure game classics that combined pitch-perfect puzzle design with a particular brand of cinematic whimsy.

You only need to take one look at Thimbleweed Park (due out on PC and Xbox soon) to spot this pedigree. Its nostalgic trappings - the big, chunky pixels, the bobble-headed sprites, the simple-but-expressive animations and classic verb-driven UI - are all iconic staples of LucasArts’ legendary output. While Thimbleweed Park is unquestionably mindful of its heritage, however, it’s not beholden to it.

Look a bit harder and you’ll see that Thimbleweed Park happily embraces modern technology in a bid to build, as Gilbert puts it, an adventure that’s “how you remember those games, as opposed to how they actually were”. The bold, expansive colour pallet, for instance, allows for the kind of sumptuous backdrops that would have been impossible back in the day, while the layers of parallax scrolling add previously-unseen richness to the environments. There’s even dynamic lighting to give the wonderfully bold character sprites a greater sense of presence in the world.

Thimbleweed Park

Beyond the aesthetic updates, there are some welcome quality-of-life additions to the classic point-and-click template. Every character carries a handy to-do list, for instance, meaning that you won’t lose track of objectives, no matter how long you’re away from the game. Then there are interface upgrades, such as the way your character will follow the cursor around the screen if you hold down your mouse button, saving you a few frantic clicks along the way. There’s even a ‘casual’ play mode that omits some of the tougher puzzles, keeping the story ticking along regardless of your experience with the genre.

None of these additions overshadow the nostalgia at the heart of the game however, and structurally Thimbleweed Park doesn’t stray too far from its predecessors. Just like in the good old days, progress through the game’s spiralling, absurdist story requires you to thoroughly explore the titular town. Obsessively hoovering up items, chatting with the sizeable cast of peculiar characters, and solving a host of devious puzzles. All by listening out for clues and combining the items you find with i) each other, ii) suspicious bits of scenery, or, if all else fails, iii) absolutely everything you can lay your eyes on.

Thimbleweed Park

It’s not an especially complex set-up (although the classic verb-based UI, featuring nine selectable commands like “push”, “pull”, “talk to”, and “use” does add a few wrinkles, particularly if you’ve cut your teeth on the ultra-streamlined point-and-click games of recent times), but then it doesn’t need to be. Thimbleweed Park employs a tried-and-tested formula that’s no less engaging 20 years on, and the sophisticated interplay of puzzles and narrative, where every outlandish encounter and absurd plot development opens up ever-more tantalising possibilities, perfectly captures the indefinable magic of those classic LucasArts games.

It also helps that Thimbleweed Park’s story looks to be a bit of a cracker. It builds on the kind of genre-busting small-town murder mysteries that proved so popular on TV back in the 90s: there’s more than a touch of Mulder and Scully to FBI agents Ray and Reyes, the game’s two main protagonists (although Gilbert cites True Detective as the game’s real inspiration), and a hint of Twin Peaks and Stephen King in the atmosphere. Thimbleweed Park doesn’t play it straight though, and it’s packed with Gilbert’s sardonic humour and whimsical silliness.

Thimbleweed Park

Within minutes of starting you’ll have scoured a crime scene, fraternised with two conspiracy-theory-touting plumbers (dressed as pigeons, naturally), discussed the minutiae of classic adventure game design (very LucasArts), met the local sheriff and his suspiciously similar-looking coroner pal, had a frightening encounter behind the town’s diner, and even flashed back in time to witness the origins of Ransome the insult clown, one of Thimbleweed Park’s five playable characters.

At first, you’ll just have access to agents Ray and Reyes, but soon Ransome the clown, Delores the computer programmer and Franklin the ghost are brought into the fold. Once you’ve worked your way through each additional character’s introductory flashback sequence (complete with wibbly-wobbly screen effect), you’re free to switch between them at will. In classic point-and-click tradition, certain puzzles require the use of a specific character’s skill set - Delores’s computing know-how, for instance, or the agents’ law enforcement expertise - but, beyond that, you can play through the game with any character that you choose.

Thimbleweed Park

Thimbleweed Park’s character system is just one example of the mind-boggling amount of stuff (some of which is core to the experience, and some of which most definitely is not) that Gilbert and his team have managed to cram into the game. Every playable character, for instance, has their own perspective on proceedings, offering up unique observations, reactions and dialogue options as events unfold. That makes for a tonne of dialogue, and every line is voiced by top-tier character actors that easily match the quality of LucasArts’ beloved CD-ROM “talkies”.

And then there’s the wealth of incidental content that’s been created by Thimbleweed Park’s enthusiastic community of fans, and incorporated in simple but ingenious ways. You can dial a number in the town’s hefty phonebook, for instance, and listen to one of numerous fan-recorded voice messages, or read through the hundreds of fan-created books stashed away in the library of Delores’s family home. It all helps to create a world with a wonderful sense of character and place, and one that’s far more rich and layered than Thimbleweed Park’s simplistic pixels might suggest.

Thimbleweed Park

Based on early impressions, the world's scope is pretty expansive too. You can explore the rundown town of Thimbleweed Park itself, poking around its shops and amenities (including the police station, diner, bus stop, occult bookstore, and cake shop that inexplicably specialises in vacuum tubes); and, once the story permits, you can investigate the surrounding countryside, taking in (among other locations) the dilapidated circus, seedy hotel, gloomy hilltop mansion, and the local radio station, which, rumour suggests, has been playing the same song over and over for years…

It feels like Thimbleweed Park nails the story and setting, with the kind of off-kilter whimsy that's actually funny and puzzles that are teasing but not infuriating. Without straying into spoiler territory, Thimbleweed Parks conundrums are logical (no monkey wrench madness here), integrated into the narrative, and sophisticated in their (usually daft) design - whether you’re attempting to coerce a dot matrix printer into action or apply for a job with legendary adventure game company MucusPhlegm.

The opening hours of Thimbleweed Park are a real pleasure to play, anyway, suggesting that Gilbert’s quest to rediscover the essence of adventure gaming has been a success. It’s a beautifully-realised experience, and a warm, witty, and surprisingly gripping yarn to boot - both a heartfelt homage to the genre’s heyday and a smart, subtle update to that ageing formula. For all its nostalgic framing Thimbleweed Park feels remarkably fresh and, whatever indefinable magic did fuel those old LucasArts classics, it looks like Gilbert and co. may channel it.