My slow crawl back to more active gaming has continued this week with modern retro. It was time to check out the only (physical) PC game in my collection, Thimbleweed Park, which after a lengthy development period finally saw daylight last fall. Courtesy of graphic adventure grand old man Ron Gilbert, it provides a really impressive time trip back to the late 80’s and early 90’s when wild adventures by LucasArts and Sierra pretty much defined the gaming childhood of us old farts. For some reason the genre, as popular as it was back then, slowly sank into oblivion. No wonder, then, that the stylishly retro Thimbleweed Park immediately felt like the second coming of adventuring Jesus.
The game promises highest quality old school entertainment from its very beginning. The year is 1987 when two federal agents, Ray and Reyes, end up in the tiny hamlet of Thimbleweed Park (population 80) to investigate a local murder. Thematically it’s something along the lines of Twin Peaks or X-Files while visually it’s back to the early Lucasfilm days, although with a much more vibrant color scheme and pretty decent voice acting. Fans of the genre should feel right at home. Action verbs on the bottom left, inventory on the bottom right, and plenty of locations to explore with characters, items, discussions, and events each stranger than the previous ones. The cast of two playable characters soon grows to five, one of them having already passed on no less. Their fates are mysteriously interconnected and for a single night, the town of Thimbleweed Park acts as a grand stage for an adventure experience most abundant.
Although the challenge of any adventure game always depends on the player’s own noggin, the balance between sensible logic and sheer absurdity initially seems pretty good. As a delightful innovation in a game that is otherwise so (deliberately) old-fashioned, each character always carries a personal notebook that keeps a broad but consistent track of their personal goals. As for the town itself, it’s pleasantly compact at first, and when the exploration area eventually expands, a handy guide map allows quick travel to any location. Those familiar with the old adventure classics are showered with generous fan service at every possible turn, and both verbal and situational comedy work remarkably well.
This time the elephant-sized hole lies in Thimbleweed Park being an uncompromising journey to both the good but also the bad of old times. When the game mocks its former rival studio about how their games featured cheap sudden deaths to artificially lengthen the overall experience, that is fun. When I lost almost an hour of my own progress in a similar fashion, that was not. When the game laughs at pointless items that were used to confuse the player, that’s fun. It’s still mildly amusing that this game, too, features such items (and a LOT of them) but that you can simply toss them in the nearest trash bin. What is no longer fun is that it is also possible to accidentally bin something of actual importance. Thimbleweed Park makes a lot of fun about the cheapness of old graphic adventures only to troll its player in similar but often even more unpredictable ways.
Towards the end, puzzles become increasingly more abstract. When all characters are available and the entire play area open for exploration, there’s just too much to cover. Sure, the automatic notes are always there to tell what should be achieved but it’s still easy to hit a roadblock with all five characters. When eventually being able to make at least a little bit of progress, the joy sometimes lasts for about five seconds before getting stumped again. Granted, some dialogue probably hints vaguely on what might be worth trying but such hints easily drown into excessive noise. You can never be quite sure if the game is trying to pass on a hint or if it’s simply entertaining you with (genuinely funny) dialogue as it does 95% of the time.
As a polite gesture, Thimbleweed Park does feature an in-game hintline. It can be called at any point in the game to receive progressively clearer hints on how to solve any given puzzle but it goes without saying that resorting to something like that pretty much equals virtual seppuku for most self-respecting adventure gamers. Despite that, I eventually got so fed up with aimless wandering around that during the last three hours of the game, I abused it on an almost constant basis. Some of the solutions were simple enough to nearly make me hit myself but there were also many that would’ve probably taken me days to figure out and even then the revelation would have been along the lines of “Oooookay… So that’s what it was all about… Yeah, suuuure…”
On whole, Thimbleweed Park left me feeling slightly conflicted. It definitely does an absolutely brilliant job of resurrecting all that was so magical about past graphic adventures but it fails to fix many of the things that might have been part of the reason why they went out of style to begin with. Despite that, the approach itself is so commendable that if there’s ever going to be more in a similar vein, we’ll meet at the checkout line once more!