Thimbleweed Park by Terrible Toybox
Thimbleweed Park is a Twin Peaks-soaked retro-aesthetic point-and-clicker with a dash of The Big Lebowski made by the original crew responsible not only for maximizing constrained illusion-of-choice titles like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, but also vastly improving upon the aesthetic of 1980’s era EGA graphics.
After reaching over 200% of its Kickstarter target – this lo-fi private-eye yarn raised over $650,000 – Thimbleweed Park proves, somehow, and once again – as did Tim Schafer’s Broken Age – that there is a land whose inhabitants believe in sustaining the limited palette of archaic so-called capital-“A” “Adventure Games” based on a limited set of actions one applies to pixel-hunting objects and hot spots in a 16-color representational setting.
Actually, that sounds rather deliciously cult-ish, niche and capable of provocative flights of fantasy. Which this is to a fault. I mean from the perspective of weirdness and world-building alone…you start out taking Polaroids of a dead guy feet away from a drunken transient, wander down a sewer drain with a flickering power line before being accosted by a pair of sisters outside their repair van who call themselves brothers dressed in human-sized pigeon costumes talking about frequencies and assorted unfiled esoterica.
The pixel art is beautiful. In fact, the game’s head artist was responsible for pioneering the science and art of dithering EGA pixel art and well, dithering, full stop.
Adding to the allure of the experience, the score is a delicious blend of twangy guitar, swirling synths and whimsical pulses and pads. Like the setting of the game itself, it straddles the ubiquitous influence of Badalamenti’s theme for Agent Cooper and a zany 80’s suburban magic realism wacky science romp – the kind Robert Zemeckis or Joe Roth might helm.
The vocal performances are nice – varied, whimsical, and distinctive. Distinct characters are each afforded their own idiosyncratic speech patterns and vocabulary. This is in support of many legitimately funny jokes, and some that end up a little forced and a little too long, but ultimately keep the levity consistent and the keep the proceedings entertaining.
The Plot Sickens
Oh right…there was a plot and stuff. Something about a guy who everyone seems to talk about at the old pillow factory and a dodgy sheriff who seems to not be what he claims. Everyone from the cashier at the diner to the cashier at the variety store seems suspect. Yep, something strange in the neighborhood, everyone seems suspect, and no one is helping. Like, at all. Not even the devs, really.
At the start of the game, you are able to toggle between your two investigators and flip through their respective journals, and thereby opinions of one another, which can sometimes give you alternate points of view, though sometimes they are redundant. With the protagonists’ names being so close – Reyes and Ray, respectively – it seems you are just choosing between a male or female protagonist, but you aren’t.
Their main function, it seems, is to give you lists of objectives – which is nice, so you don’t have to just poke around and guess – and, sometimes to solve puzzles from two different places in the world. Shortly after the basics are laid out, you split up and play just one of the two characters at a time, which you can easily toggle via their thumbnails top right of HUD. Eventually, the roster of characters you will control will multiply.
You Can Check Out Anytime You Like…
There are some strange constraints to the world map, and sometimes unnecessarily convoluted pathways: I found navigating the antiquated hotel overly tedious, or the interminably long path to the mausoleum in the graveyard – though these nonetheless induced the gestalt of a nightmare – you know the kind where you are running from a killer, but making no ground?
The devs are obviously cognizant of the career-spanning cliches of the adventure game genre and its infamous limitations, and they never hesitate to break the fourth wall to highlight them. The self-deprecating style migrates this title to one of slightly late post-modernity and nod-nods and wink-winks – an avant-garde trapdoor for whatever shortcomings may arise.
Without spoiling too much, they understand that long cutscenes are long, death and save points are lazy or ineffective/unfun and so on. You are never too far away from being reminded that Thimbleweed Park is a protracted tribute to itself and a joyride through the apple orchard for fans of the genre and its all-star development team.
Mementos – The Fresh Maker
Thimbleweed’s story passes through three acts, interspersed with flashbacks. I enjoyed the non-linearity of the telling, and some of the side-stories were a nice break from the central plot. The circus and its crusty clown was particularly beguiling.
The problem is that as interesting as the world promises to be, it never really gets there. It promises to be sandboxy but feels like a small cage with unnecessary travel time between zones. The verb-system becomes a matter of trial-and-error rather than intuition. Though the story does get continually richer and the conspiracies ever more bizarre, only true enthusiasts will find the patience and diligence to find their way to Thimbleweed Park’s chamber of secrets.
I am sorry, for though I grew up on Hitchhiker’s Guide and Zork and Planetfall, those days are now long behind me. Life moves too fast and my patience has mutated into something less interested in reverse engineering longform guessing games of this type, as painstakingly beautifully crafted as they may be.
Thimbleweed Park sustains all the frustration of constrained, logic-based, verb-controlled gaming: ultimately tedious, counter-intuitive and mental-virus-inducing. It succeeds at reproducing the allure of the purist’s digital narrative, with all the foibles of the genre’s early heyday. Besides undetectable modernization, though, it offers little more than a perfect tribute.
Thimbleweed Park is available via Steam.
Watch the official trailer for Thimbleweed Park below: