For gamers of a certain age, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s 1987 Maniac Mansion was a watershed moment. The first point-and-click graphic adventure game, it was a technical achievement that forever shifted the genre. But at the same time, it was charming, filled with fun characters and the kind of irreverent, sardonic humor beloved by geeks far and wide.
In 2014 Gilbert and Winnick launched a Kickstarter for a new game, Thimbleweed Park, nearly doubling their initial $375,000 ask with a final funding total of $626,250. A knowing parody of shows like Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and modern noir like True Detective, it plays off the seriousness of investigating a murder by surrounding it with the supernatural and a healthy dose of straight-faced absurdism.
I had a chance to see Thimbleweed Park in action at GDC, where Gilbert and Game programmer Jenn Sandercock ran us through a bit of the game. It opened with two Mulder and Scully-like detectives, Special Agents Reyes and Ray, respectively, standing in a ravine with a dead body at their feet. Gilbert immediately pointed out that players shouldn’t get too hung up on actually solving this mystery, the body that kicks the game off is just left to languish in the river the whole time, hardly the behavior of consummate professionals.
The agents then explored the city a bit, looking for clues, and before long we were playing through a flashback as one of the game’s other major characters, Ransome the Clown. A dreadful, foul-mouthed jerk, Ransome is a popular insult comic, who routinely berates his audience. During his evening routine, which involves some preparatory clickwork from the player to track down his clownish accoutrements, he picks the wrong target to verbally accost, and quickly learns the easy come, easy go nature of fame.
A joke briefly appears between scenes explaining that Ransome’s offensive jokes are getting laughs not because they’re funny, but because laughter is a natural response to being in an awkward social situation. I’m in a fairly intimate setting with one of the creators of one of my most beloved childhood games (The Secret of Monkey Island), so I’m conscious not to laugh after this scene. The silence of the hotel room is palpable. I laugh.
The puzzles on display in the demo I saw involved cross-checking hidden notes to crack a safe, and transferring items between characters, in short, they were logical. The notorious days of insane adventure game puzzles have fortunately passed.
Thimbleweed Park remains loyal to the original SCUMM interface with a big list of verbs at the bottom of the screen, and the characters hew closely to Winnick’s original Maniac Mansion physiology. That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress though; the graphics have been updated, with some great lighting and shading effects, and denser pixels overall. The game is set in a sort of permanent dusk, which lets the game both show off its improved look while adding an air of spookiness.
Like Maniac Mansion and its successor, Day of the Tentacle, the game encourages swapping between its five different characters and exploiting their individual skills to solve puzzles. With a few puzzle-related exceptions, the players are generally free to play as their favorite character, and the game will provide different dialogue depending on who they are playing in a given situation. Ransome the surly clown will receive abuse everywhere he goes, while the stern Special Agent Ray will get fearful respect from intimidated citizens.
Gilbert and his team are clearly aiming to make a game that appeals to both old and new adventure game players, challenges veteran players while still being accessible, and all while tells a funny but still suspenseful story. In short, they’re aiming high, but given the vast experience of the team, it seems well within their grasp.
Thimbleweed Park is aiming for an October release (though it might slip to December/January), and will be available on Xbox One, Linux, Microsoft Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android.