As a long time fan of adventure games (mostly rooted in classic Lucasarts titles) I was more than a little excited to check out Thimbleweed Park from Lucasarts alumni Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick at PAX East. What made the experience even better was having a chance to chat about the game with Mr. Gilbert directly at the show. Thimbleweed Park is a refreshing throwback to an older generation of adventure games that feels modern while still retaining the look and feel of the classic titles.
At PAX East there was a relatively small slice of gameplay available to try but it introduced me to three of the main characters from the upcoming title. The first two are FBI agents Ray and Reyes who at first glance have a very Mulder and Scully from the X-Files vibe that I asked Ron about. He told me that when they initially developed the characters they wanted to have two agents who meet for the first time in game and have some conflicts that added narrative to the characters. He mentioned that similarities to the X-Files heroes was unintended but noticeable now, they may look like the characters from the Television series, but they act quite differently. The demo did not give me much room to get to know them but it did teach the first hints of character switching and transferring items to get the initial simple puzzle, taking a picture of a corpse, completed.
Following this short sequence we learn that in the town of Thimbleweed Park there are plenty of weird happenings, one of which is an odd mansion up the hill where strange things happen – Ron let me know this was of course a nod to his famous title Maniac Mansion. There was also a description of a cursed clown named Ransome living at an abandoned circus which triggered a flashback sequence where the majority of the demo took place. Ransome is in a word hilarious, he is a foul mouthed clown who specializes in insult humor, his schtick is to insult the people in the audience to get huge laughs. I asked Ron where the inspiration for Ransome came from and he described him as the darker edge of comedy they wanted in the game. When I asked about the comparison to the Simpsons Krusty the Clown Ron chuckled and said that there are definitely some similarities but Krusty loves being a clown and Ransome clearly doesn’t. Krusty is grumpy but he loves to make kids laugh and perform, for Ransome it is simply a path to fame and money.
Starting the section in Ransome’s wagon I discovered that it was almost time for a show to start and that Ransome was at the top of his game. He was about to sign a major licensing deal, he has a house and mistress in a tropical paradise and a sold out show about to start. All I had to do was get his makeup and nose on and locate his missing insult book, piece of cake right? Not quite, this is of course a point and click adventure game so getting these pieces is part of a multi-stage puzzle. The nose was easy enough to locate and that is when Ron let me know that the nose portion was adjusted based on player feedback as it initially was tough to find and became a ‘pixel humt’ which he wanted to avoid altogether in the game. Early in adventure game timelines pixel hunting was common, essentially you had to move your mouse over every inch of the screen to find what was clickable. Ron let me know that everything selectable in Thimbleweed Park will be distinctive, you will know what can be clicked because they will standout and not be buried in the backgrounds.
This was true of many of the items in Ransome’s wagon, including his clown nose and a number of notes on his cork board, one of which gave a clue to a puzzle I needed to solve. Wandering around the circus I met Ransome’s manager as well as a rival Carney in the amusement park while solving the puzzles. The dialogue at the time was text only but Ron assured me that every line in the game will be fully voiced and that recording went very well. He stayed away from big name actors, partly for monetary reasons but also so that the voices were unique and distinctive to his vision and not just a recognizable voice. I can say that I am excited to hear what Ransome will sound like; I pictured a deeper Rodney Dangerfield style voice while playing, something full of sarcasm and contempt, it will be interesting to see how that thought compares to the recorded reality.
After a short while I realized I missed something in Ransome’s home and went back to finish the puzzle, this led to a short sequence that showed how Ransome gets cursed (won’t spoil it because it is pretty funny) and how his life fell apart. The humor was spot on and reminded me of the subtle jokes from Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island in a very satisfying way. I asked Ron about his direct involvement in the game and learned that he is hands on in nearly every way. He is the lead programmer; making a new SCUMM like engine for the game, he wrote a majority of the dialogue and scenarios and is involved in each of the major voiceover sessions. This truly is a project of love for him and his partner Gary Winnick (who co-created Maniac Mansion with Ron) and you can tell his passion for the game when talking to him about it.
Thimbleweed Park looks like a very promising and retro take on the adventure game genre that is today dominated by the glossy looking Telltale Games releases which have deep storylines but simplistic gameplay choices. The look and feel of this title is grounded deeply in Pixel art and while it still retains the action bar filled with inventory and choices at the bottom, it is transparent, and the bar disappears when cutscenes occur, giving a fullscreen look at the action.
The project was successfully funded on Kickstarter in Dec 2014 and is scheduled to be completed late 2016 for Xbox One, Windows, Mac and Linux (with Android and iOS releases coming later). I was quite taken with the characters, humor and setting of the game and look forward to the full release later in the year.