Thimbleweed Park Review
A tailor-made adventure for the dedicated fans of the genre
Before I say anything else, let it be known that I and many others consider Ron Gilbert to be one of the founding fathers of the adventure game genre. From The Secret of Monkey Island to Maniac Mansion II: Day of the Tentacle, he has contributed more to the video games, specifically adventure games, than most will their entire lives. I preface my review of Thimbleweed Park with this praise and context of Gilbert’s career because when you’ve done as much for the industry as he has, you kind of get a free pass to do whatever the hell you want.
And that seems to be exactly what Gilbert has done. Starting life as one of the titles funded by the Kickstarter movement, Thimbleweed Park feels like everything you would expect from a crowd funded project - a game that is lovingly made to appeal specifically to the fans who funded it, stuffing itself full of inside jokes, self-aware humor, and winks to the audience that it almost threatens to all implode in on itself as it rumbles towards a gaudy self-indulgent climax. Thimbleweed Park is likely going to cause many to roll their eyes, frustrate the uninitiated with some puzzles (even in Casual Mode), but for the special kind of fans who likely shelled out money to the Kickstarter, it’s likely to be exactly what was a promised and what was wanted.
When I say that Gilbert has done whatever the hell he wants in Thimbleweed Park, I didn’t just mean that he’s lovingly pandered to his audience. There is also a fragmented element to Thimbleweed’s story that makes it tonally disjointed. The game begins as an off-beat murder mystery with two Federal Agents stumbling upon a corpse just outside the titular town. They must solve the riddle of the murder because - well, I’m not entirely sure why. You might assume that’s what Federal Agents do, but they both make it pretty clear they weren’t sent by any actual government agency and came to Thimbleweed Park for personal reasons. They keep saying they need to solve the case so they can continue their ambiguous ulterior motives, but why this murder is impeding their progress wasn’t really clear to me. Cops show up to small towns everywhere on their own time and aren’t automatically escorted to the nearest body to provide their professional opinion.
Both agents quickly identify themselves to the local sheriff, who may or may not also be the town coroner and the manager at the local hotel - seriously, it’s a weird town - and start to ask questions of the locals. There’s definitely an element, if not full-on influence, from the cult-beloved TV show Twin Peaks, but the murder doesn’t really turn out to be important and the narrative focus take an abrupt shift. While investigating the murder, the agents learn of three other main characters who are persons of interest because the game needed to find a way to introduce them to the plot. These five people try and solve the riddle of what the hell the plot is and why we should care.
If this sounds like it all flimsily hangs together, that’s because it does. A lot of the scenarios and characters feel contrived, and while that might be the point, it doesn’t help that the writing isn’t good enough to make you forgive how random it all feels. The other three main characters are a game designer (yeah, and she’s most relatable hero too), a raunchy circus clown, and the game designer’s father. Is there a reason all of these characters must work together to solve a mystery? Yeah, kind of, but it’s all undercut because they almost never have a reason to talk to each other or be together, so they all just coincidentally end up in the same place at certain points when the game needs to progress the plot.
The supposed gameplay justification for having these five different characters is that you’ll need them to work together to solve the puzzles strewn throughout the game. But that is never really the case. You can spread them throughout the game world so if you want to revisit a certain area for clues or objects, instead of schlepping across the map, you can just change characters. It’s an appreciated mechanic, but it also directly pushes against the idea that all five of them know each other and would willingly work together since, again, they never are in the same place.
It doesn’t help that the voice acting isn’t doing the game any favors. There are some high points - Ransome the Clown got me with some of his deliveries - but for the most part the acting feels stiff. There’s no chemistry between any of the characters and not enough plot for you to inherently care about them as individuals. Even when the father and daughter are supposed to have a heartfelt moment, it feels pretty empty. The game seems far more eager to fill its time with offbeat dialogue than it does actually getting you invested in anything that is happening.
To solve the puzzles in Thimbleweed Park, you will have to create commands for characters by clicking on actions, items in your inventory, and items in the gameworld. For instance, when you want to go through a door, you can never just click the door. You first have to click the verb “open” and then click the door you want to open. There’s a danger of this falling into the adventure game trap of cycling through a bunch of verbs trying to figure out the right one that will get the character to do what you want, but the game largely avoids this. If there are two commands that would make sense (like using “push” for a door instead of “open”) the game will usually allow for both. There’s the occasional obtuse adventure game-logic at times, but nothing that is too egregious. Especially if you’re playing on Casual Mode.
Again, the other central game mechanic of changing characters isn’t really all that important for the puzzles. At least not in the Casual Mode - which tones down some of the crazy puzzles by gutting a few of the game’s locations, removing items, and eschewing some of some of more complex steps in solutions. But having so many characters doesn’t appear all that necessary in Hard Mode either, since it doesn't add puzzles requiring multiple characters or using special skills of the characters, but rather just adding more locations and steps to completing the puzzles. There is one character who has a different set of abilities from the others (which I can’t elaborate on for fear of spoilers) and when that character is forced to work together with the others, it highlights how interesting the game could have been if it made each character unique. Unfortunately, since you can trade almost all of the items back and forth between characters and most characters can go anywhere, there never seems to be a need to use one over the other. I used the game designer, Dolores, almost exclusively through the second half of my playthrough, only switching to others at rare occasions. This made the other character feel superfluous.
Before I leave with the impression that Thimbleweed Park completely dropped the ball, it’s important to take moment to recognize that there clearly is some decent puzzle-design at work here - and I hate to repeat myself again, but those who crave the mind-numbing frustration of convoluted adventure game puzzles of old will likely get what they paid for. If you thought that Broken Age was too casual, Thimbleweed Park will likely finally get that itch you’ve been dying to scratch. And that’s important. In some ways, it feels worth acknowledging that Thimbleweed Park should get some extra credit for being a true-blue adventure game. With the genre largely shifting its efforts toward mimicking Telltale’s narrative-driven design, something like Thimbleweed Park feels refreshing.
The highlight of Thimbleweed Park is it’s aesthetic. The pixel art feels necessary to match the throwback mechanics and there are some nice animations that avoid making the style feel overly dated. The whole game takes place moments before sunrise and it creates some interesting vistas and lighting choices. Again, I think a lot of the beauty and charm of the game fades as you get deeper into the experience and the locales become less interesting, but I think the game has an engaging look in the early goings.
Though the disjointed nature of Thimbleweed Park continues in the level design. The game starts with a single location in the downtown area, then expands to cover the entire county, and concludes with a third location. It’s actually nice bit of design, because as the world expands, you’ve usually gathered all the necessary items from the previous areas and can focus on the new locations. However, the downtown area is so aesthetically interesting and filled with such a solid cast of characters, that the next two areas feel a little barebones - especially the last one. Some of the locations in the county are explored in earlier flashbacks, undercutting their novelty. The game makes a nice first impression, but by the end, I felt like I was just mindlessly pressing forward, unenthused with what the latter stages of the game offered.
Thimbleweed Park is a pretty solid game tech-wise. I didn’t hit any glitches or crashes, nor did I run into anything else that would adversely affect my time with Thimbleweed Park. It’s a pretty small game doing some pretty simple things, but it’s still worth calling out a game that runs well the whole way through.
I think it’s pretty clear by now that I while I enjoy adventure games, this wasn’t one of my favorites. While I think Gilbert and his backers enjoyed themselves with this project - and more power to them for that - I don’t think this is a game that many others would take to. The best things about Thimbleweed Park feel tailor-made for its specific audience, but if those jokes and nods don’t register with you, you’re left with an experience that feels devoid of life and tonally scattered. I feel like this game should be recommended to adventure game aficionados, and if you’ve missed Gilbert’s style of adventure game, you’ll find it here in spades. Still, I think Thimbleweed Park is a far cry from his more celebrated work. If you’re not already an expert on the genre, it’s better to start with games like Maniac Mansion or The Secret of Monkey Island, that really show off Gilbert’s skill. Gilbert really is a great game designer, however I don’t think Thimbleweed Park is proof of that.