JtRH: Enter the Mud

Level 14 of Journey to Rooted Hold is the first appearance of the Awakened Mud, which is sort of like inverse Living Tar. Where tar can be cut on its edges but not on its corners, mud can be cut on its corners but not on its edges. The result is that clearing mud is fundamentally simpler. Cutting away a corner generally creates a new corner adjacent to the old one, so in the absence of walls or other obstacles, you can clear any mudshape by shaving it away in layers. Thus, to avoid being trivial, mud puzzles tend to use walls or other obstacles.

When there’s something you need to reach in the middle of a large pool of tar — usually a Tar Mother — all you need to do is reach the pool’s edge and you can slice your way through the thick of it and straight to your objective. You can’t do that with mud. The only way get to the middle of a mud pool is by removing enough mud that it isn’t the middle any more. Relatedly, if tar growth leaves you completely surrounded, you can cut your way free, but in mud, you just get stuck, immobilized by stuff you can’t damage. In short, mud behaves very differently from tar, and has a very different effect on puzzles.

JtRH takes a clever approach to illustrating this. Level 14 is basically just a selection of tar puzzles from King Dugan’s Dungeon turned upside-down and with the tar changed to mud. I don’t remember this from the first time I played through JtRH. Maybe I noticed at the time and just forgot about it, or maybe I’m only noticing this time around because I played KDD so recently. Regardless, the impact of recognition here is the one good reason I’ve seen for playing KDD before JtRH. It must be very strange to see the mud versions of these rooms first, because the conversion leaves in elements that don’t make sense, design-wise. For example, there’s one room that, in its original form, has a door that’s opened by an orb that’s very difficult to reach, because it’s in a tar-filled area that’s only exposed at its corners. In the mud version, the orb is trivial to reach, but also kind of pointless, because both sides of the door are also trivial to reach.

What really tickles me is the way the game builds story around all this. Overheard conversations and discarded memos depict a feud between the Tar Technicians and the Mud Coordinators, the latter being a recently-formed group that’s regarded by the former as upstarts peddling an inferior imitation. And the Tar Technicians have a point. Mud is inferior to tar from pretty much every perspective. As a defense, it’s more easily defeated. Because it’s so easily cleared, it has less potential for interesting puzzle design. Because you have to peel it away in layers instead of just plowing through the middle, it’s more tedious for the player. The reuse of old tar puzzles doesn’t just illustrate the differences between the two substances, it reinforces the “inferior imitation” idea, as if the Tar Coordinators didn’t have any new ideas of their own. From one overheard conversation, we learn that the reason that the rooms of Level 14 are all upside-down from the originals is that the architect was holding the blueprint the wrong way up, further emphasizing the sense of incompetence.

This is stuff we didn’t see in KDD. When tar was first introduced, it was just a new puzzle element, one of those things you find in dungeons. In JtRH, new elements have stories associated with them, with characters and conflicts and meaning. And old elements gain these things retroactively.

JtRH: Tar and Parity

A couple of levels on, and I’m once again finding myself spending a lot of my time clearing tar, not just because of those tar gates, but because clearing a room completely of tar has become a fairly common subject for Challenge scrolls. The mechanics of it are seeping into my dreaming mind, occupying my idle thoughts. Let me get some of this out in words.

Tar lies in multi-square puddles, which you can cut with your sword along any edge, except at the corners, which are vulnerable only to explosions — which is to say, invulnerable in rooms without bombs, which is most rooms. To remain stable, the puddles have to have a width of at least 2 in all places, both north-south and east-west; any square of tar that lacks a neighbor in either dimension will break off and start chasing you. Thus, the smallest stable configuration of tar is a simple 2×2 square. Since this puts all four tiles at a corner, such a square cannot be cleared. It’s the basic kernel of most unclearable tar shapes: if you can clear everything except a 2×2 square, you were doomed from the start. There are other invulnerable shapes, but they basically amount to multiple 2×2 squares stuck together by shared corners.

The basic clearable tar shape, on the other hand, is the 2×3 rectangle. Poke that in one of its vulnerable longer sides, and the remaining five squares break into monsters. This can be generalized. Given a 2xn strip, the only things you can do are cut off two rows at one end, or remove one row in the middle and split it into two pieces. If n is odd, you can cut off two rows repeatedly until it’s 2×3. If n is even, then it will still be even if you cut off two rows, and splitting it in the middle will always create one strip with an odd length and one with an even length; thus, you’re always going to wind up cutting it down to a 2×2 square at the end. So strips of this sort are solvable if their length is odd and unsolvable if their length is even. Many rooms have a checkerboard pattern on the floor, allowing you to tell odd from even at a glance.

Similar logic, which I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader, shows that a rectangle is solvable if and only if it has at least one odd side. It’s basically a matter of parity, an odd-or-even property that you can’t change with your sword, except with “odd” and “even” confusingly swapped: an odd length represents even parity and vice versa. That is, by assigning “even” to odd lengths, an nxm rectangle has even parity if either n or m has even parity, just as the product of two integers is even if either of them is even. It works out this way because of how splitting a rectangle into two pieces requires removing a row. When you split a rectangle in two, the pieces will have similar parity if the original had even parity, and opposite parity if the original was odd.

At any rate, all rectangles with even parity are solvable, but things get more complicated when we move beyond rectangles. You can have lumpy shapes with corners in inconvenient places that keep you from making the cuts you want. If you can reduce a shape to two separate 2×2 squares, it had even parity, but might still have been unsolvable. Odd parity is always unsolvable, though, no matter the shape. Assuming that Challenges are never completely impossible, it’s therefore safe to assume that the parity of any completely inert tar pool you’re supposed to clear will be even. But if there’s a Tar Mother in the room, making the tar expand at regular intervals, it’s possible for the parity to change. Thus, when you kill the Mother, it’s imperative to make sure that the remaining tar has the right parity if you intend to clear it all. I have no better way to do this for wiggly shapes than to attempt to clear it and see if it I wind up with a 2×2 square left over. But if I do, at least I know better than to keep trying from the same point.

JtRH: Enter the Tar

JtRH Level 10 brings back the Living Tar, DROD‘s equivalent of slimes and oozes. Although not a new element in DROD, it was absent from JtRH until this point, and Beethro greets its reemergence with an “Oh no”. As well he should: it’s worse this time. One of the hard but useful lessons of the first game was that, although it’s often a good idea to clean up tar deposits completely (especially in the presence of a Tar Mother, which makes them grow and spread), it usually isn’t strictly necessary for the completion of a room, and in some rooms it’s actually impossible. Tar can spawn monsters — any tar that’s reduced to a width of 1 tile breaks off into a Tar Baby, which is functionally equivalent to a roach — but it doesn’t count as a monster itself in its senescent state, so a room can be full of tar and still count as conquered. (This has the peculiar effect that you can clear a room of monsters, and then, before you leave, cut into some leftover tar and spawn new babies, returning the room to
its unsolved state.) But JtRH adds a new element that changes this: Tar gates. Just as green gates open when there are no monsters in the room, and red gates open when all the trap doors in the room have dropped, the black tar gates open when all the tarstuff in the room is gone. 1To be more precise, these conditions don’t necessarily open the gates, but rather, toggle them. It’s just that gates usually start off closed. It’s possible to author a tar gate that starts open and closes when you clear the tar, but I haven’t seen this done in JtRH so far. So from here on out, clean-up-all-the-tar puzzles are a possibility. And that means it’s not only going to be necessary, it’s going to be difficult.

There’s one other thing JtRH adds to tar, though: context. Back in King Dugan’s Dungeon, tar was just one of those things you find in dungeons. There was no explanation for it. In JtRH, there’s… well, call it half an explanation for it. We know from notes found around the level that the the tar is artificial, concocted by the Tar Technicians of the Rooted Empire. What we don’t know is why. Very likely there is no real reason, or at least none that anyone remembers; I’ve commented before on how the Empire as a whole is an irrational system without a guiding purpose. Some of the notes we find describe experiments the technicians are doing on the tar, and the intro text for the level mentions “the crackpot theory that tar is in fact an artificial creation of a clandestine underground society whose scientific knowledge far exceeds our own” (emphasis mine). In short, this is the place where the game starts to suggest that this fantasy world may be a little sci-fi, possibly even futuristic.

The next level undercuts this severely by mentioning items of untold destructive power, which turn out to be round black ball bombs with long sparking fuses, an antiquated technology used today only by cartoon characters.

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1. To be more precise, these conditions don’t necessarily open the gates, but rather, toggle them. It’s just that gates usually start off closed. It’s possible to author a tar gate that starts open and closes when you clear the tar, but I haven’t seen this done in JtRH so far.

JtRH: Ironies

It’s only after I killed the Slayer in L7:1E using advanced techiques that I found out that there was a much easier way to do it, and that it was one I really should have noticed, because it’s basically just the exact same trick I described in the post where I complained about being unable to figure it out, just turned backward. Instead of forcing the Slayer to step on the force arrows, you walk on them yourself while approaching him. Done right, the effect is the same: the force arrow prevents the slayer from simply stepping onto your square, letting you make moves he doesn’t know how to counter.

Still, I’m past that, and galloping through the rooms at a pretty good clip again. And that means I’m well into I-don’t-remember-this-part-at-all territory. There’s a plot point on level 9 that I think is worth describing.

First, it should be noted that even though the title is Journey to Rooted Hold, journeying to Rooted Hold was never Beethro’s intention. He just wanted to get a look at what was behind that unopenable door in King Dugan’s dungeon, but then he had to go find Halph, and then he had to go down stairs a few times to escape the Slayer, and before you know it, he’s down at level 9 with no way back. There, he has an idea. He’s noticed that the levels have been heading generally southward for some time — that is, the stairs down on each level have been south of the starting location 1As in the first game, there are usually no stairs leading back up. You just go down some stairs and get deposited in a room in the next level.. So he figures they’re going to be under the neighboring city of Blorn pretty soon, and remembers a similar unopenable door in Blorn’s sewer system. Blorn isn’t where he wants to be, but at this point, anyplace where he can escape the dungeon with Halph in tow is good enough for him.

So you find the exit to the Blorn sewers, clearly labeled. It’s in the same room as the down stairs. But the Slayer is there waiting for you, and it’s clear what’s going to happen: Just at the point where Beethro is about to escape, he’s going to have to go down another floor instead. The irony of this is that the whole reason the Slayer was dispatched in the first place was that Beethro was unwilling to leave the dungeon. Now that he’s found Halph, he’s positively eager to leave, but the Slayer prevents it.

It strikes me that most of the plot of the game is driven by character flaws. Halph’s headstrong lack of cooperativeness draws Beethro down. The Slayer’s pride, his unwillingness to give up on a quarry even when the original purpose is lost, keeps him there. Even the Negotiator arguably takes some blame for the sense of superiority that makes her unwilling to listen to Beethro and therefore not actually very good at her job. Beethro himself is of course the hand that sets the dominoes in motion. His motivation? Curiosity, I guess. But if we want to peg it to a flaw, it’s the lack of consideration that led him to indulge that curiosity on a day when he was looking after Halph.

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1. As in the first game, there are usually no stairs leading back up. You just go down some stairs and get deposited in a room in the next level.

JtRH: Last Minute Subject Change

No progress on the JtRH L7:1E Challenge. I noticed that Steam’s description of the “kill the Slayer” Achievement is “(JtRH) Kill 39th Slayer in any room except L7:1E, L22:3N2W or L25:2W”, specifically excluding the room I’m stuck on, as well as the room on the final floor where the Slayer is supposed to die. I figure this could mean that completing the L7:1E Challenge requires killing the Slayer after all. Or it could mean that doing things the normal way and getting the invisibility potion makes killing the slayer way too easy to count as a Challenge. Regardless, I spent some time trying to kill the Slayer, but had no success.

At this point, I’m ready to openly ask for help. I’ve tried looking online already, but the old Caravel forums where the Challenges were first mooted don’t explain how to do them, and the new Steam forums are pretty thoroughly useless for anything other than tech support, and the game is obscure enough that just googling for help doesn’t yield much of anything other than the Caravel and Steam forums. In fact, the top hit for “drod L7:1E” is my own previous blog post on the subject, which is oddly embarrassing.

The Caravel forums turn out have some good general advice on killing the Slayer, though. The first time I managed to do it in a room where you’re not supposed to, I managed it by making the Slayer walk onto a force arrow. Getting within killing range of the Slayer makes him counter your every move in ways that are often symmetrical about a pivot: you tilt your sword this way and he tilts his the opposite way, you move south and he moves north, more like you’re dancing than fighting. The force arrow broke this symmetry, allowing me to get close to him without him being able to do his usual counter. But it turns out that special-terrain tricks like this aren’t really necessary. All you really need is walls in the right configuration — an interior corner with a single block jutting out will do. Alas, L7:1E has no such thing.

…Is what I was in the middle of writing when I suddenly found some threads on the Caravel forums about more advanced Slayer-killing techniques. It turns out that there are Slayercidal dances that require only a straight wall and enough empty space. It took some finagling to get Beethro and the Slayer into the starting positions for such a dance, but it was quite possible within the constraints of L7:1E. So now I get to continue! Yay!

JtRH: Clog Monsters

Since I’m still stuck on the 7F:1E challenge, let’s take a brief look at what’s happened on the floors I’ve glossed over. A couple of new monsters were introduced — well, not new to me, and not new to people playing Journey to Rooted Hold as DLC for Gunthro and the Epic Blunder, which also had them, but they were new once.

Floor 5 is the first appearance of the puffy marshmallow-like Wubbas, an entirely new concept for a monster in this game: they don’t attack you, but neither can they be attacked. Your sword just passes right through them without harming them. As such, they’re not counted as monsters for the purpose of conquering a room. They’re dangerous all the same — it’s just a danger of being surrounded and immobilized rather than killed. Wubbas tend to come in quantity, and they chase you like anything else. Their one weakness is that they’re a little stupider than most monsters, and get stuck on obstacles easily. The standard movement algorithm for most monster types is:
1. If the player avatar is due north, south, east, or west of you, just try to move in that direction.
2. Otherwise, try to move diagonally towards the player.
3. If there’s an obstacle in the way of moving diagonally, try to move around it north or south, whichever brings you closer to the player.
4. If you can’t do that either, try east-west.
(Some monsters, such as Goblins and Wraithwings, embellish this with special behavior when they get close to you, but use the standard algorithm from a distance.)
Wubbas omit steps 3 and 4. If they can’t just move straight towards you horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, they give up. Just as they try to block your path, so are they especially vulnerable to having their path blocked. In some rooms, though, this serves to split the Wubbas up, so they can keep coming at you from multiple directions as you move hither and thither.

Floor 6 introduces Rock Golems, which, I only realize on preparing to write this, are essentially a variation on the same theme as Wubbas: things that clog your path and don’t go away. The mechanics are different, though. Rock Golems can be killed (and can kill you if you’re careless), but once you kill them, they turn into impassable piles of rock. So where Wubbas are all about outpacing the herd, Rock Golems are best handled by luring them one by one to an open area and murdering them where their corpses won’t cut off any passageways. (Unless you want to cut off a passageway to keep the Slayer away or something.) Curiously, they have the same diminished movement algorithm as the Wubbas, the better to get them stuck on each other’s remains, for good and for ill — after you’ve led a few of them to your chosen killing grounds, it can become difficult to get more down there.

JtRH: L7:1E

Time for a confession: Although my posts about DROD stalled last year, I didn’t really wait four months after finishing King Dugan’s Dungeon to start playing Journey to Rooted Hold. I started playing it from the beginning back in December, and got all the way to the end of the 7th floor without posting anything here about it. Then I got stuck. And now, having started from the beginning again, I’m stuck in exactly the same place.

“Stuck” isn’t really the right word. I can continue to the 8th floor any time I want. In fact, I have already done so, only to reload back into floor 7. What I’m stuck on is one of those Challenge scrolls. To date, I’ve been meeting every Challenge I find — as I noted before, this is the main part of the remakes that’s new to me, so it seems a shame to skip them. But this one Challenge has been a lot harder for me than any other I’ve seen.

The overall theme of the seventh floor is puzzles involving invisibility potions and/or evil eyes — in particular, it makes puzzles out of the non-obvious fact that being invisible can be a liability, because monsters that can’t see you won’t chase you, and if they’re not chasing you, you can’t manipulate them into going where you want. The Slayer makes one appearance on this floor: after the repeated failure of his usual approach, he’s decided to just wait for you by the exit stairs. The stairs are near the floor’s start, but access to them is limited by an orb at the end of a long, winding hallway. If the Slayer follows you into that hallway, there’s no way to get back out. Thus, you need to be invisible, so he won’t follow you. There is an invisibility potion in the room, but you can only reach it if you enter via an alternate route in the south, which only opens after you conquer all of the other rooms in the level.

Or that was the intent, anyway. Someone figured out how to open the stairs without going through the alternate passage, so now it’s a Challenge. As the challenge scroll notes, you can skip the entire rest of the level this way.

Now, I can see only two possible routes to this goal. One is to kill the Slayer, but I don’t think this is likely. The room lacks features that can be exploited for this, and besides, would they really include both a Challenge for killing the Slayer in any room and another Challenge that requires killing the Slayer in a specific room? The other possibility is to take advantage of the Slayer’s Wisp. The Wisp is the thing that the Slayer uses to find a path to the player. It moves at one square per turn, leaving a trail of swirlies as it goes, and while it’s moving, the Slayer himself doesn’t move at all. So if you could lead the Wisp on a sufficiently long and winding path through the room, it would send the Slayer on a long and winding path while you escape from the long and winding hallway. I’ve managed to get within a hair’s breadth of making this work, but I assume that was the intent behind the room’s design: to make this approach almost but not quite workable.

I feel there must be some trick to making the winding path approach work. Some insight that I’m missing. And that’s largely why I’m still working on the problem. Most of the Challenges are of the form “Forget about the lynchpin, there’s an incredibly fiddly solution that you can do instead.” But this Challenge may well be introducing a lynchpin of its own.

JtRH: 39th Slayer

I’ve mentioned JtRH‘s Slayer before, in my post about The City Beneath‘s Slayer trainees. There, I described Slayers as “kind of like the Terminator: perfect killers, relentless and unstoppable, something to be escaped from rather than defeated”. This time through, bearing that in mind, I’m struck by how different 39th Slayer’s attitude is from your typical dogged pursuer. Usually such adversaries are depicted as grim, dour, and driven by single-minded determination, but 39th Slayer carries a sense of joie de vivre. He just seems to really enjoy his job and approach it with pride and relish and even merriment. Slaying delvers is, we will eventually learn, literally what he was made for, and he takes pleasure in fulfilling his purpose. His voice is deep and echoey, but has a hint of a laugh in it; when he taunts Beethro, it almost seems flirtatious.

But this attitude is based on confidence. When we first meet him, he makes a point of Beethro’s predictability, telling another NPC that you’re going to walk into a trap — which you then do, because it’s the only way forward. He even invites a class of Slayer trainees to observe him slaying you. Your repeated escapes are a clear embarrassment to him, but he tries to maintain a facade of confidence all the same, assuring you that your demise is inevitable, as much to convince himself as you.

Mechanically, his role is to chase you. Rooms that would otherwise be simple are complicated by your need to keep running away from him. Also, it should be understood that, like Halph, he doesn’t appear in most rooms, and that when he does, he usually enters the room after Beethro, the better to chase you. So the typical pattern is: You enter a room, you look at what’s in it, you formulate a plan for killing all the monsters, you step forward to start executing that plan… and then the Slayer comes in, adding that extra complication and forcing you to rethink everything.

Occasionally — occasionally — you can use the Slayer to your advantage. For all that he calls Beethro predictable, he’s the one whose behavior is completely deterministic. Sometimes you can manipulate him into killing monsters for you by getting the monsters between you and him. This is particularly useful when a Challenge constrains your ability to kill stuff yourself.

I said before that the Slayer in JtRH is unkillable until the ending, where it takes a whole roomful of explosives to do him in. This turns out not to be the case — the more dedicated Droddists figured out ways to do it that the designers didn’t intend, kind of like how Ultima players figured out unintended ways to kill Lord British. Killing him doesn’t affect subsequent rooms, mind you, because the authors didn’t plan for it happening at all. In a way, it’s surprising that killing him causes him to die at all. I mean, it’s not like your sword necessarily has to affect monsters; Serpents aren’t affected by your sword. But I guess he’s just inheriting the “die” behavior from the more general monster class, which the programmers didn’t originally see a need to override. In the remake, killing the Slayer prematurely is a Challenge (and thus, on Steam, an Achievement) — the only Challenge that’s not bound to a specific room. And it’s a Challenge that I’ve completed. It turns out that the only thing preventing me from figuring out how to do it was that I thought it was impossible. Once I knew it could be done, I knew to look for ways it could be done.

DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold

Let’s get back to that much-delayed DROD replay, shall we? The second game in the series is Journey to Rooted Hold, and the most immediately striking thing about it in contrast to the first game, apart from the increasing sophistication of the puzzles, is that it has characters, and that the characters are an important part of the game. This is apparent from the very first room, where Halph shows up.

Halph is one of the few major recurring characters in the series. He’s the nephew of Beethro, the player character, and most of the rooms where he shows up use him for his unique puzzle-solving mechanics. Beethro can give Halph a few simple orders: “Follow me”, “Stay here”, and “Open this door” (which Halph does by striking the associated orb, which might be in a place Beethro can’t get to at the moment). It’s pretty similar to the commands you can give to your followers in the Oddworld games, come to think of it, even if the door-opening mechanism was a little different there. But where Oddworld made things complicated for the player by assigning a chord of controller buttons to each utterance, JtRH cleverly manages without introducing any new controls at all. To toggle Halph between follow mode and stay-put mode, you just nudge him by trying to walk into his tile. To tell him to open a door, you try to walk into the door. Trying to walk into stuff is something that was already possible, but didn’t do anything other than waste a turn until Halph showed up.

Even though ordering Halph around can make for pretty good puzzle content, I think I prefer him as a character when he’s not obedient. That’s his main role in the story: running off into other rooms when Beethro tells him not to, petting the roaches when Beethro says to back away, taking that one crucial step onto a force arrow that makes it impossible to get back to Beethro even if he arbitrarily decides to start being obedient again. This makes him a terrific foil. Beethro, as we know from his puzzle solutions, is a planner, and Halph leaves his plans in shambles. Beethro didn’t even want him in the dungeon at all — at the beginning, he instructs him to just wait by the exit — and the main impetus for delving deeper in the beginning is just chasing after Halph to bring him back safely to his parents — something hasn’t yet happened in the games I’ve played. And it isn’t just Beethro’s plans that he lays waste: Halph shatters his preconceptions, too. Monsters don’t attack him, which calls the whole idea of “monsters” into question. Beethro solves complicated monster-slaying puzzles to get from room to room, but sometimes Halph just shows up ahead of him and can’t explain how he got there.

Apart from Halph, all the other characters are citizens of the Rooted Empire. As early as the first floor, you start encountering weird gray-skinned guys with silly voices, who just hang out and watch you solve puzzles and comment on your technique and whether it meets their personal standards. These guys were the equivalent of Challenge Scrolls before there were Challenge Scrolls. There are Challenge Scrolls in the same rooms now, of course, formalizing the whole thing, but the watchers are still there, kind of redundant but preserving a touch of character. On the second floor, you meet the Negotiator, who sits behind a grand desk and tries to persuade you, in a lengthy cutscene-like dialogue, to leave the dungeon voluntarily before the Slayers get involved. This time through, I noticed that the Negotiator basically lays out what we eventually learn to be the main overarching conflict driving events in the DROD setting, but does so in long-winded terms that the first-time player doesn’t yet know enough about the setting to understand.

Floor 3 introduces 39th Slayer, who’s a big enough part of the game to get a separate post of his own.

Thimbleweed Park: Spoilers

It’s been said that murder mysteries are inherently conservative. The murder is a disruption in the status quo, which the detective fixes by finding and punishing the right person, creating justice and restoring the world to its proper order. But there’s a rarely-seen counter-pattern: every once in a while, someone 1usually Alan Moore writes a story that starts as a murder mystery, but grows beyond that. The culprit escapes the possibility of punishment, the breach in the status quo grows beyond repair. Instead of healing, revolution. The story’s end sees a transformation of society.

Thimbleweed Park sort of fits this counter-pattern and sort of doesn’t. The part that it definitely fits is that it grows a larger story out of a murder mystery — and it’s sneaky about it, too, introducing the bigger picture not just through exposition but through game mechanics.

The game starts with a brief prologue in which you play the murder victim during his final moments, then kicks off the main part of the game by giving you control of FBI agents Ray and Reyes (a name pairing that reminds me of Costume Quest‘s Wren and Reynold) as they arrive at the scene to investigate. The prologue segment teases the plot somewhat, but more importantly, it serves to set expectations about how the game works, showing you that you can play characters other than Ray and Reyes, but only temporarily, in self-contained mini-scenarios. And that’s the pattern the game follows for a while. By questioning other characters, you can trigger flashbacks in which you play as Delores Edmond, budding game developer, and as the deliciously surly and unpleasant Ransome the Insult Clown. You even get to play as an earlier murder victim in his final moments — Franklin Edmond, father of Delores.

But then a strange thing happens: When you finally meet Delores and Ransome in person, outside of the flashbacks, they silently become playable again. The next time you open the UI for switching characters, there they are. (The introduction of Franklin’s ghost as a playable character is a bit more conspicuous.) This breaks the implicit promise that this is fundamentally a story about two FBI agents investigating a murder. Delores, Ransome, and Franklin have their own agendas not directly related to the murder, and suddenly you’re pursuing their personal goals in addition to the investigation. This is taken even further when the agents “solve” the murder — scare quotes because the game makes it really obvious that they’ve been manipulated into fingering the wrong man — and leave town, leaving you with just the other characters and their personal agendas. The agents both return before long, because, as has been clear from the beginning, each of them has a personal agenda as well, which they’ve kept secret both from each other and from the player.

So at this point, everyone’s pursuing their own goals, but they’re doing it under the player’s control, which means they can cooperate. Indeed, they have to. You need to use the characters together to solve puzzles. And this is strange, because they do it without any sort of in-world coordination. If Delores needs an object that’s in Ransome’s trailer, which she refuses to enter because it’s gross, the player just directs Ransome to go and fetch it for her, without Delores communicating her need to him. From her perspective, she’s just standing there and a clown randomly walks up to her and hands her the thing she needs. I suppose this is basically how Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle work as well, but it stands out more when the characters aren’t cooperating on a common goal. Ignoring the communication issue, Ransome has no particular reason to help Delores, and it’s really out of character for him. But under the player’s control, he simply does it. And then consider Franklin. When you’re controlling any other character, Franklin is invisible. The other characters aren’t even aware that he exists. They cooperate with him anyway.

But in a weird way, even this strangeness fits, because the town of Thimbleweed Park is a gratuitously strange place. It’s a setting inspired in part by Twin Peaks, as modulated through the style and conventions of a retro adventure game. Technology throughout the town is controlled by large external vacuum tubes. Plumbers dress in pigeon costumes and make cryptic statements about how “the signals are unusually strong tonight”. A clown sits in the decaying remains of an abandoned circus, unable to remove his makeup due to a curse. The mood is as uncanny as it is silly, and that affects how I perceive the fourth-wall-breaking bits, like when characters comment on pixelation or unfinished art. So when the characters act on the commands I give them, and in so doing make the artifice of the adventure game apparent, it doesn’t feel unfitting. In a way, it feels sinister. There’s a mysterious unseen force affecting the minds and behavior of Thimbleweed Park’s citizens — some of the NPCs are aware of it, and wear tinfoil hats to resist the signals, which are unusually strong tonight. Perhaps what they’re really resisting is player control.

And that brings us to the ending, where things really get meta. Ultimately, everyone’s personal agenda leads to them wanting to break into the old pillow factory. (Except for perennial exception Franklin, who can’t leave the areas he’s haunting. The game makes some good puzzles about the player’s tendency to forget about Franklin because he’s not there with the rest of the team.) The pillow factory was the cornerstone of the local economy until it caught fire, triggering the town’s collapse. Now it houses a vast secret underground vacuum-tube-based computer complex, host of the AI that’s been hinted throughout the game to be really behind everything that’s happened, murders and all. Presumably the designers chose pillows to connote sleep and dreaming, because it’s here in the factory that your goal becomes waking up from an illusionary world — the world of the game. Somehow, the factory mainframe is linked to the very hardware that the the developers of Thimbleweed Park are running the game on, and the characters thus learn that they’re fictional, merely things in a game, going through the same actions whenever the game is restarted.

I can’t really explain the logic that leads from this revelation to the decision to crash the system and delete the files, but at least it’s suitably climactic, and it fits the counter-pattern of the murder-mystery-turned-revolution. Each of the playable characters has one final optional puzzle to solve, a way of achieving their goals so they can escape the game before it’s destroyed. But rather than triumphant, the mood here is melancholy. Everyone gets what they want, but as the characters one by one disappear forever from the character-switching UI, I’m aware that I’m effectively killing them. But this is the end, and the world has been exhausted of all other potential.

And then, once you’ve taken the plunge and put this empty world out of its misery, your efforts are rendered futile. After the credits, the screen switches to an imitation of a Commodore 64 booting up, running a file recovery utility, compiling Thimbleweed Park, and running it, producing — what else? — the game’s main menu. Despite heroic efforts, the status quo reasserts itself, depositing everyone back onto the wheel of samsara.

Of course, this C64 isn’t real. It’s as much a part of the game’s fiction as the town of Thimbleweed Park is. And I think it’s worth pointing out that Delores herself develops adventure games on a C64. Delores is a sort of stealth protagonist for the game — the detectives seem like the main characters as long as there’s a murder to investigate, but once it turns out to be all about adventure games, the adventure game developer assumes greater importance. In her flashback, she applies for a job at MmucusFlem Games, an obvious riff on LucasFilm Games. Perhaps the reason for all the Maniac Mansion references in the game is that Delores was a developer on Maniac Mansion, or its equivalent in the Thimbleverse, and drew inspiration from her home town and its weird inhabitants. Moreover, the conceit that the game is running on a fictional development C64 implies a fictional Thimbleweed Park dev team. Perhaps Delores is on that team, or, to be more prosaic, perhaps the Delores we know is an authorial self-insert character for someone on that team. Someone writing a roman a clef about her life, in game form. For example, Delores-the-character was under pressure by her family to take over running the pillow factory, but chose to run off and become a game dev instead, after which Delores-the-developer wrote a story in which the factory itself is the antagonist, clearly a metaphor for her feelings about it. I feel like there’s an entire story about the “real” Delores looming behind Thimbleweed Park, visible only in glimpses.

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1. usually Alan Moore

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