Thimbleweed Park propels you back to 1987 – in part, because that’s when the game’s set. But also, this is a love letter to classic point-and-click adventures such as Maniac Mansion, with its angular cast and their oversized heads, a clunky yet versatile verb-based interaction system, and a relentless stream of jokes and puzzles.
It’s unapologetically old-school – “like opening a dusty old desk drawer and finding an undiscovered LucasArts adventure game you’ve never played”, according to creators and industry veterans Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. Yet there are concessions to the modern player, without compromising what made the pair’s games so great in the first place.
Importantly, it’s also very odd.
It’s a mystery
The game centres on the titular Thimbleweed Park. Once home to a mighty pillow empire, it’s now a ramshackle mess of boarded up buildings, populated by a handful of weirdos. It starts with the first playable character carrying a hybrid pillow/stuffed animal, before he’s unceremoniously dispatched by something with glowing red eyes.
In short order, a couple of feds arrive, along with the creators’ trademark humour. The agents note the dead body is “starting to pixelate”; one adds she likes how her “state of the art camera can alter the angle of the shot” when the low-res inventory item it spits out looks nothing like what’s in front of her.
Head into town and you’re quickly immersed in a tale that ricochets between horror and absurdist humour. One minute, there’ll be a spooky CCTV cut-scene; the next, you’ll assist local plumbers, who also happen to be paranormal investigators, dressed as giant pigeons.
As a general rule in Thimbleweed Park, nothing is what it seems. Even as new playable characters – a games designer; a foul-mouthed clown cursed to never remove his make-up; a ghost – are introduced by puzzle-infused playable flashbacks, you’re only skimming the surface.
As you piece everything together, you might find motivations aren’t fully explored. But any narrative shortcomings are offset by the game’s smart structure. It’s really nice to just poke around, and you can spend hours digging into finer details, like the library’s books, and a little arcade of playable cabinets.
The title’s non-linear nature means you rarely dead-end; but there’s an in-game helpline to call if you do get stuck. Handily, characters cart about to-do lists as well, so you can always check what you’re supposed to be looking out for.
Blast from the past
The game can at times be too self-referential and in-jokey. But while gripes at age-old industry rivalries baffle, you can’t help but smile when a character says they told everyone a relative was in rehab rather than besmirching the family name by admitting they were a games designer.
Mostly, though, Thimbleweed Park is an old-school puzzler in the best way. It doesn’t want to be a movie or TV show, occasionally blocking your progress with puzzles; instead, it reminds you it’s a game at every opportunity – mostly by frequently smashing out your brains with a brick.
If you don’t fancy subjecting yourself to the logical twists games revelled in decades ago, there’s a ‘casual’ mode; but it hacks away half of the puzzles and much of the game’s soul. And anyway, aiming for shortcuts misses the point.
This game is one to breathe in and savour, and you’ll get 15 hours of puzzling – unless you’re a point-and-click genius. Even then, you’ll have your ego handed to you plenty of times before cracking the mysteries at the heart of this beautifully realised retro adventure.