Thimbleweed Park Review
You don’t really solve a murder by the end of Thimbleweed Park, the murder-mystery retro point and click by adventure pioneers Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. You discover the solution to a mystery, but that’s not really the same thing. If that’s going to be a problem for you, you’re now forewarned— but you really shouldn’t let it be a problem for you. The dead body on the outskirts of the quirky town of Thimbleweed Park is barely a McGuffin; not even the two agents assigned to investigate the death seem overly concerned with the case.
Rather, the investigation (and a will reading and a well-deserved curse) is just there to give you direction as you meet wacky townspeople and solve fiendishly clever puzzles. Thimbleweed Park starts with a murder, but the overriding mystery is the sinister machinations of town patriarch and pillow industrialist Chuck. Chuck passed away shortly before the start of the game, but not before automating most of the town with giant sci-fi vacuum tubes.
Initially, you play as Agent Reyes (a gritty veteran agent who is in town pursuing her shadowy agenda) and Agent Ray (a fresh-faced rookie agent who is also in town pursuing his shadowy agenda). As the game progresses, you’re able to play as Delores (a young woman with dreams of adventure game design stardom), Franklin (her dead father) and Ransom (the foul-mouthed clown who is cursed to forever wear his makeup). Like the interchangeable characters in Gilbert’s classic Maniac Mansion, some of these characters have unique abilities: Franklin can float through walls and zap electronics to life, Agent Ray can use a fingerprint kit, Delores does machines, Ransom is cool but rude, and Agent Reyes has a cellphone. Although you need to use two or three characters to work in concert to solve a puzzle, or solve a puzzle with a specific character, for the most part you can play the bulk of the game with a single character.
I tended to use Delores because she had the most interesting dialogue options with the townspeople; the townspeople are distrustful of feds and rightfully irritated with everything Ransom chooses to be. You find that all of the playable characters have some reason to resent Chuck and this hatred (or at least annoyance) gives them a reason to puzzle their way through town even after a culprit in the murder is found.
Players of classic Lucasarts adventures of yore will feel right at home in Thimbleweed Park’s verb-driven gameplay. Select a verb from the menu bar (such as Get or Talk to or in Franklin the ghost’s case Chill or Despair) and select a noun from somewhere in the game world, be it an NPC, a vacuum-tube powered video rental system or the tiny starship in a bottle in your inventory. I almost never missed a puzzle solution because I was unsure of where to click; Winnick’s clear art makes the interaction points obvious.
On the subject of the art: It’s gorgeous. It’s a throwback style, with big pixels and limited colors, but the modern game engine that runs Thimbleweed Park allows complex lighting effects and smooth-scrolling backgrounds.
But enough about the plot and the pictures! Adventure games live on their puzzles and Thimbleweed Park has some excellent puzzles. There are very few of the “hand this item to that person” ilk, and almost every puzzle is clearly communicated through dialog without being too obvious or patronizing. Each character had a “to-do” list that helped me keep track of my objectives. I almost always knew what I needed to do, I just had to spend some time thinking about how to make the game’s odd logic work for me.
The only time I was truly stuck was when I briefly believed in the fiction of the game too strongly. As a ghost, Franklin can’t speak to the living or leave his haunting location. However, there’s an widget he needs from deep within town. I knew where the doodad was, but I was struggling to figure out how to get Franklin there. He couldn’t tell anyone he needed the gizmo and my living characters didn’t know he needed it or even that it existed. The solution was to just switch to another character and have that character bring the object to a place where Franklin could use it. How did they know? It doesn’t matter! I was the one in control of all of the characters and ultimately I was the one who needed the object, not the ghost. I wasn’t restricted by the same rules the characters were, but the characters were so well written that when Franklin told me that he couldn’t communicate with his daughter, I believed it fully.
If there is any downside to this logical puzzle design, it is that I often knew what I needed to do to solve a puzzle before I knew why I needed to solve the puzzle. Early on I came across the town’s radio station. The DJ had locked herself inside the studio. In the studio was a switch that turned off the music from one turntable and played the music from another (empty) turntable. A switch rested at the top of the radio tower which turned off all broadcasts from the station. Obviously I needed to turn off the broadcast from the top of the radio tower, then when the DJ left to turn it back on, send in another character to flip the switch and...nothing. I was so caught up in following the design of the puzzle that I didn’t stop to think about why I’d want to change the radio station’s music or even if I had any other music to change it to. Later, when I had a new record and an NPC who wanted hear some new tunes, I knew exactly what to do.
I also had some problems with puzzles being introduced early in the game long before a solution was possible. The game is divided into acts, each act triggering after a specific event. After each act change, new locations open, time progresses and NPCs move about the world; it took a few acts before I realized that some dead-ends just needed an act change to clear a path.
I mentioned at the start of the article that the end of the game doesn’t really give the satisfaction of solving the murder. That’s true, but Thimbleweed Park isn’t really the kind of game where bringing a killer to justice is appropriate or even satisfying. Without spoiling, the ending was reminiscent of a few classic 70s comedies that ended by smashing down the fourth wall. It’s an ending that Thimbleweed Park earns, and while it may be controversial to gamers who forget what sort of game they’re playing, It’s the perfect note to end on.