Ron Gilbert Taps the '80s to Make an Adventure Game for 2017

By Matt Wales on at

If you were playing PC games back in the late '80s and early '90s, you’ll almost certainly have heard the name Ron Gilbert. In that era the classic point-and-click adventure game was near-ubiquitous, and Gilbert and his colleagues at LucasArts were superstars. They created a to-this-day unmatched run of genre classics, from Gilbert’s own Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island to Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle .

Each one was idiosyncratic and brilliant, offering an irresistible mix of first-rate story telling, smart puzzle design, and genuinely funny writing - a formula that’s just as engaging now as it was 20 years ago. For a long time though, it appeared that adventure games had their day, with the mid-90s arrival of seminal first-person shooter Doom changing the gaming landscape forever. “Doom was a very, very different type of game”, recalls Gilbert, “and it attracted this massive new audience into gaming.” Few of whom, we can see with hindsight, were interested in the quieter charms of adventuring gaming.

Thimbleweed Park

As audience tastes changed, publishers inevitably changed tack too, switching out cerebral point-and-click adventures for titles that offered more visceral thrills. That wasn’t the end for the adventure game, despite numerous assertions from the gaming press over the years that the genre was dead and buried. As Gilbert sees it, first-person shooters were unarguably hogging the limelight but “adventure games kept their normal, slow pace - it seemed like they were dying, but only in comparison to this gigantic rise of all these other games out there.”

If anything, he sees the adventure game genre as having gone from strength to strength over the years, albeit in a slightly different guise. Gilbert believes the point-and-click spirit - that winning blend of of blend of narrative and exploration - lives on in games like Campo Santo’s Firewatch .

“I play what I call modern adventure games - things like Firewatch and Kentucky Route Zero - and they’re very good, I love those games. One of our goals with Maniac Mansion was to build this world that really felt like it worked, like this actual functioning world you could explore. It’s why you can go into the bathroom and turn on the water, why there’s food in the refrigerator, and games like Firewatch really do that well. That narrative and the sense of a place you want to explore is the DNA carried on from those classic LucasArts games”

Thimbleweed Park

Despite his love for modern first-person adventures though, Gilbert believes there’s something missing, that maybe “they kind of lack that weird charm that those old games had”. Which leads to Thimbleweed Park , Gilbert’s newest point-and-click adventure, and his first return to the classic LucasArts template in almost 25 years.

“Garry Winnick (the co-creator of Maniac Mansion ) and I were having lunch,” says Gilbert, “and we were talking about how there was this kind of charm and whimsy to the games that LucasArts did. We started to wonder what it was, and why we don't see that in adventure games today”. When neither could pinpoint the source of that elusive charm “we decided, you know what, let’s just make one. Let’s make a game the same way we used to make them back then, and see if we can figure out in that process what it was.”

Despite the decades that have passed since Gilbert designed Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge , his final game with LucasArts, getting back into the right mindset for Thimbleweed Park was no trouble at all.

Thimbleweed Park

“It was alarmingly easy to get back into it,” reflects Gilbert, “once I started doing it again, it just felt so natural. For me, it always starts with the nugget of the story; for Monkey Island it was like ‘Oh there’s this pirate,’ and from there it’s about building up a little bit of the story and then adding all the other stuff. Thimbleweed Park started in the same way, with almost a one-page treatment of the story: here’s where it starts, here are three or four important story beats, and here’s where it ends. And then at that point, I simultaneously start building up story, and the puzzles and the world, because I think those three things have to be completely interconnected, they have to be intertwined, so it’s a very symbiotic relationship as I build them up.”

More than anything though, it’s the storytelling potential of point-and-click games that first sold Gilbert on the genre, and the thing that still holds his interest today, “To me, narrative is what I really enjoy about these games, and I think that when narrative and puzzles are interwoven really well, it’s kind of like the perfect storm”. What’s more, he believes that story is the reason why adventure games continue to resonate, decades after they first made their mark on the industry, “I think that narrative is very natural thing for people; we read books, we watch television, we see movies and there’s all kinds of narrative art forms, and the narrative part of adventure games has a lot of appeal.”

In Thimbleweed Park’s case, the narrative takes the form of small town murder mystery. Gilbert happily cites Twin Peaks , Stephen King, and even True Detective as having influenced the game ("some people think that it’s the X-Files, that it’s Mulder and Scully, but it's not") but it’s all shot-through with a familiar absurdist whimsy and sardonic wit. The LucasArts spirit doesn’t end there, though, because Thimbleweed Park consciously employs the specific language of adventure games from the late 80s and early 90s (the pixelated 8-bit visuals, the verb-driven interface, and meandering dialogue trees) in order to properly test Gilbert and Winnock’s hypothesis of charm. The point is not to make a game that could’ve been made in the 80s or early 90s, but to make a game that evokes that time.

Thimbleweed Park

“I don’t know if you watch Stranger Things ”, says Gilbert. ”But I look at it and I think ‘Wow, that show just captured all of the wonderful things about the 80s, and just totally ignored all the shitty things about the 80s’. I wanted Thimbleweed Park to be like that: all the wonderful things about point-and-click without all the stupid things.”

Many of the structural and quality-of-life changes that Thimbleweed Park employs have their basis in the lessons that Gilbert learned post-LucasArts, at his own company Humongous Entertainment. Humongous specialised in adventure games for children and, as Gilbert explains, “The time I spent building those was probably the most influential time for me in terms of game design. The kid audience is very interesting because have this low attention span and you need to hook them very fast; you need to keep them interested step-by-step in the process, you need to be very clear about what you expect from them, you need to be clear about whether they’re on the right track, and you needed to provide constant reinforcement to keep them engaged.”

“Oddly enough,” says Gilbert, “I feel like all of those lessons are totally appropriate to gamers and games today. I think they inform everything in Thimbleweed Park , actually. You know, our goal with Thimbleweed Park was to build a real adventure game: there are hard puzzles in the game, as hard as anything you’d find in Monkey Island 2 , but we recognise that there are a lot of very different gamers out there. Even the hardcore gamers who played Monkey Island when they were kids and who’ve grown up with this stuff, they have families and kids of their own now, and I think you have to be a little appreciative of what they want, and their time constraints too.”

Thimbleweed Park

This mindfulness is evident throughout Thimbleweed Park. Every character has their own to-do list, for instance, a minor in-game touch that makes narrative sense (what good investigator doesn’t have a notepad?) and makes it easy to keep track of in-game objectives and other crucial information. “There are characters in Monkey Island ,” Gilbert recalls, “that tell you they want something and never tell that to you again, players are expected to write all that stuff down. I think [the Thimbleweed Park approach] is about being more respectful of their time.”

Perhaps the most profound difference between Thimbleweed Park and Gilbert’s past work, however, is the transparency around the development process. “Back in the LucasArts days,” says Gilbert, “there was this weird time delay; we’d work on the game in a virtual vacuum and we’d finish the game and send off the disc to be manufactured and then two months later it would be in stores. And then a month or so after that it would start to appear in magazines. That would be the first time we’d get any feedback, and then the only feedback we’d ever get from consumers was when people would send in letters.”

Thimbleweed Park wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for the generosity of backers on Kickstarter, of course, and so it was vital that the conversation with fans started from day one. To Gilbert, this communication has played a key part in Thimbleweed Park ’s success, “I think that there’s this point in a lot of Kickstarter projects where the backers turn on the developers, but if you communicate well with your backers, so that they understand well what’s happening, then I think it can be really great.”

Thimbleweed Park

To that end, Gilbert has maintained constant contact with fans throughout the development of Thimbleweed Park , charting the creative process through weekly blog updates, despite his natural reticence, ”I’m not used to it. I’m a very private person, and so exposing myself to that level is something that’s very new to me and at the beginning of the project that was something that was very difficult to do”.

The hard work has paid off though, and Gilbert believes that the development team’s openness has really resonated with fans, “They’ve been incredibly supportive,” he notes, “and I think that’s because we’ve been so communicative about the project. We’ve not only tried to tell them where we are, but how we got there. Someone at one of our fan events said that they loved it because it felt like this masterclass in adventure game design, because he’s learning all these things about it as we post stuff. I don’t necessarily enjoy it while I’m doing it, but in hindsight I think it’s been a really wonderful process.”

Of course, this kind of openness does have its downsides. First there’s the time it takes to keep fans informed; as Gilbert explains, “In some ways, that’s time I’d rather spend working on the game.” Perhaps more serious though, is the constant need to manage backer expectations, particularly as the iterative, experimental nature of development unfolds, “Any creative process, whether you’re writing novels or making music, is a very messy one. Ideas don’t come out fully formed, and you spend a lot of time looping back on yourself. People who don’t really understand the creative process don’t really get that, and it’s been a little constraining at times.”

Thimbleweed Park

As Gilbert puts it, there are often times “when you’ll look at something and think ‘Oh, you know what, we should just throw all of this out, we should just junk this whole thing and start over’.” When fans are watching every step, however, that can be much trickier, “If I just throw something out, people will go, ‘Oh my god, you just threw something out that I thought would be my favourite part of the game!’, so we’ve had to spend a lot of time explaining any large changes that we’ve made. There’ve been cases too where we’ve had to say, ‘You know what, we just can’t make this change, it’s too large and we’ll spend too much time explaining to people what we’re doing.’”

For the most part, Gilbert describes the experience as overwhelmingly positive - and believes that Thimbleweed Park wouldn’t be half the game it is today if it wasn’t for the fans, “There’s a lot of content in there that came from backers - there’s the books in the library, the phone book stuff, the names - and a lot of very positive things have come from the community being so involved.”

And, judging by opening few hours at least, the Thimbleweed Park experiment has been a huge success. It feels like a warm, witty return to point-and-click gaming’s glory days, striking just the right balance between evocative nostalgia and the excitingly new. But did Gilbert and Garry Winnick ever find what they were looking for, that wellspring, the source of classic adventure gaming’s charm? “I think we did a really good job of recreating it”, Gilbert laughs. “I don’t know if I understand it any better though!”