Thimbleweed Park and the Trap of Nostalgia
When I found out that Thimbleweed Park came out all the way back in 2017, I have to admit I was shocked. I could have sworn that it came out in late 2018, but I could have just as easily believed that it came out… yesterday. Time flies by mercilessly, and the problem with this (aside from the obvious) is that things start to show their age much faster than we think.
It is exactly for this reason that the entire concept of nostalgia is a knife that cuts two ways. I know I could have just as easily said “a double-edged knife”, but let’s move along.
So what’s with this overly long intro? Simply put, Thimbleweed Park’s entire reason of being, what the French call raison d’ etre, is nostalgia. Just by looking at its graphics, we are immediately reminded of LucasFilm’s first game called Maniac Mansion, which came out all the way back in 1989. But it’s not just the graphics, the user interface is identical to later LucasArts (by that time they had changed their name) games such as Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, which came out in 1992, not to mention that the gameplay itself is identical to the games that were being made a quarter of a century ago. There are a few improvements here and there, but nothing to write home (via snail mail) about.
That is not to say that this is a quick cash grab, specifically tailored to the people that yell “Hey, I remember that thing from my childhood!” and then flood the movie theaters for each mediocre new Star Wars film. This is a quality game, worthy of the legacy of its creator Ron Gilbert (Google him. Do it) and his companions.
But it could have been so much more, and this raises the question: why should Thimbleweed Park exist if it’s only here to remind us of games from the past? Why not simply play, y’ know, the old games?
Lotsa questions today, folks, so we’d better get on with some answerin’.
The simplest answer to the questions posed above is really rather obvious: because there is nothing else like it. It’s just that simple. Sure, back in the 1990s you couldn’t enter a games store without seeing a bunch of point & click adventure games all over the place as they were the most popular genre at the time, but this rapidly changed by the end of that very same decade. First Person Shooters supplanted adventure games as the genre to showcase the advances in graphics, and things only got worse as the 2000s rolled in. There was a very minor attempt at a point & click renaissance at the mid-to-late 2000s, but it didn’t really go anywhere as this sort of games aren’t really conductive to DLC and Microtransaction policies.
Thus inevitably a vacuum, however small, was created in the mainstream games’ market as there were but a few high profile adventure games being created. This is where Thimbleweed Park comes in, valiantly trying to cover this rather forgotten niche. To be frank, it doesn’t offer something new, it might not be better than LucasArts’s seminal games of the past, it does not even attempt to change some of the objectively negative aspects of the genre that have existed for three decades, but…
But, goddamnit, it exists. And that’s more than enough. Because there might still be a few romantics and/or lunatics around that play the classics almost every year (me being one of them) but, inevitably, that is something that makes you focus on their negatives after a while, so you start craving something new.
Because, on its own, Thimbleweed Park may not be enough to make a difference, but it could be the stepping stone that provides the urge for someone else to make the difference.
And, lastly, because few things in this universe of ours have the well-written script, the impeccable atmosphere and the hilarious humor of a good point & click adventure game. And Thimbleweed Park is exactly that, a good adventure game.
So what is this game about anyway? I’d rather not go into too much detail, because this is one of those stories that goes off the rails real fast, and it’s better to know as little as possible before you experience it for yourself. Still, the story here is based on a tried-and-trusted formula: a weird and desolate little town in the middle of nowhere that’s ravaged by unemployment, a dead body with no obvious answers and a million questions, and a Police case that is a good old dead end. Stuck in the middle of all this are our main characters, trying to find some sort of answer, yet each with their own agendas that seem to clash at times.
You may have noticed some similarities with the TV shows Twin Peaks and The X-Files, and that is hardly by accident but the game has enough of its own character that these similarities do not feel like anything more than a welcome homage.
Our five protagonists, two FBI agents (at least that’s what they claim) and three residents of the town will eventually come up against the town itself, in a way that reminds me of the Silent Hill games, where the real big bad is the town and not the people in it. We may not have the horror trappings of Silent Hill here, but Thimbleweed Park is a town that’s just as empty and depressing, and the few people that are left create a sense of paranoid and dread. In order to solve the mystery, our protagonists will have to face this paranoia head on, with the outcome being uncertain. There’s a reason, after all, that most towns stay relatively the same as time passes by, while people come and go.
I’d like to point out, again, that Thimbleweed Park is not a horror game, you’re not going to be chased down by Pyramid Head or anything. However, an uneasy feeling permeates the game constantly, as if we’re stuck in a weird dream that we can’t get out, as if most characters in the game (even some protagonists) are privy to some inside information that we’re not allowed to know. Is that not a scary feeling?
One of the main reasons that point & click adventures aren’t as popular as they were thirty years ago (aside from the obvious fact that it’s been three decades since) has to do with how they played, what in the industry we call the gameplay. The main way of interacting with the game itself was to solve puzzles created by the developers, in order to progress the story. When there were but a few adventure games, creating puzzles for them was easy, almost every other idea was a novel one. However, as soon as companies started pushing out adventure games as fast as they push out battle royale clones today, these puzzles started becoming samey, repetitive. And game companies… well, they decided that making puzzles more obscure was the way to go. Those of you that were around back in the day, you know all about the whole debacle with the cat and the mustache in Gabriel Knight 3. These obscure puzzles alienated the few adventure game fans that were left, and sadly Thimbleweed Park does nothing to change that, on the contrary it contains some puzzles that you will not be able to solve unless you’ve cleansed yourself in the waters of lake Minnetonka. This is why I was so down on the concept of nostalgia at the start of this post. There is a very helpful hint system (that is itself a reference to the hint lines of yesteryear) present, so that’s something.
It would be a disservice to the game if I weren’t to mention that it’s self-aware about the limitations of the genre. One of the game’s sidequests has the characters looking around for specs of dust, which are exactly one pixel in size, making that a literal pixel hunt!
The game is not without its quality of life improvements, however, such as holding down the left mouse button to keep your character moving about instead of having to frantically click every second (how did we ever live without this? Seriously), and if you double-click anywhere on the map you practically teleport there, but again, none of these make a huge change to how the game plays compared to its predecessors.
The same goes for the way the game looks, as previously mentioned. Certainly, there are clear and obvious reasons for this (budget and time constraints, a feeling of familiarity for the players) but again it feels like a missed opportunity to make something truly new. Again, though, the game seems to be aware of this as at some point near the end we get to play with actual 1987-era EGA graphics, as if the game is directly addressing us and saying “Look, we’re not on the level God of War (2018) here but that doesn’t mean we didn’t work hard on our graphics!” Which is fair enough.
Again, I feel like I’m presenting Thimbleweed Park as if it’s some sort of disappointment, one of many resulting from the Kickstarter craze of the mid 2010s.
It’s not. It is a very solid and fun game, one that respects the player. It has a great sense of humor, an incredible atmosphere and this entire odd, weird, paranoid game world it presents you with, slowly draws you in and makes you part of it -Ron Gilbert has always had some of the best methods of breaking the fourth wall in his games.
If I sound disappointed, it may be because I had very high expectations for the game. Maybe I was expecting something that would be a milestone for the genre instead of a high quality entry. Maybe I was spoiled by other games such as the two Pillars of Eternity games that combined a strong sense of nostalgia with the improvements made in their genre over the last twenty years. Or maybe I’m getting old and thus cranky (doubtful, I always was this cranky).
Maybe none of the above matter. Maybe the only thing that matters is that Thimbleweed Park is a really good game, both for its genre and in general, that is worth investing your time into. There aren’t many games quite as good as this one out there.
Yeah, I think I’m gonna go with that last answer.