Thimbleweed Park

I was a Kickstarter backer of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s retro point-and-click adventure Thimbleweed Park, and have my name in the in-game phone books to prove it. As such, I’ve had a copy since its release. I finished it just last night.

I feel like this may be the game that the people disappointed by Broken Age had been expecting. I mean, both games had more or less the same mandate: to revive old-fashioned point-and-click adventure games. But where Broken Age tried to reinvent the genre afresh for today’s world, with a unique style and a sleek modern UI, Thimbleweed goes flat-out for the nostalgia factor. It’s set in 1987 inside and out, storywise and stylistically. The art is pixely and proud of it — character dialogue even explicitly calls attention to it sometimes. The command interface is a throwback to early Lucasfilm games, with the bottom quarter of the screen devoted to a grid of verbs. It even takes the time to throw some barbs at Sierra adventure games, even though it’s been nearly twenty years since Sierra last made an adventure game.

The verb-selection interface, by the way, is almost unnecessary. Right-clicking on an object selects a default verb for that object, and that’s usually all you need. Offhand, I can think of one object in the whole game that can have multiple different verbs usefully applied to it. Verbs like “Push” and “Pull”, “Open” and “Close”, are only narrowly applicable and might as well be merged with “Use”, while “Give” might as well just be the result of applying an inventory item on another character. And yet all these verbs permanently occupy space on the screen. Even though I know from the kickstarter that this isn’t the case, it almost feels like the game content was originally designed for a more modern verbless point-and-click-adventure interface. But I guess that wouldn’t have felt retro enough.

Ron Gilbert has said that the design goal here was to make “the game you think you remember”: not exactly a recreation of the classic Lucasfilm games, but an imitation of what you imagine they were like when you think of them fondly. Thus, we have big chunky pixels, but the color resolution is high, and the game freely breaks the grid when it wants to do a screen-warp effect or scale a character down with distance. The game’s audio meets modern expectations instead of faking period instruments like the Ad Lib sound card or, worse, the PC Internal Speaker.

The strange part is exactly what it’s imitating. Usually, things that look back fondly on the glory days of Lucasfilm Games focus on Secret of Monkey Island. And for good reason! But Thimbleweed Park is more focused on Maniac Mansion. And very blatantly so: all the characters are drawn in a MM-like big-head style, at least three characters from MM are significant NPCs, and the famous library scene, with Chuck the Plant and the out-of-order staircase, is reused here, albeit rendered in more detail. Most of all, though, it uses multiple playable characters in a very MM-like way. Unlike Broken Age or Day of the Tentacle, the playable characters are all in the same environment, and can largely do the same things, apart from a few special talents or limitations. While you’re piloting one around, the others just stand there waiting. This may be why later Lucasfilm adventures avoided putting multiple playable characters in the same place. It’s not very natural for a person to just be on standby like that. It is, however, conspicuously retro, so it fits right in here.

I’ll have more to say about the use of multiple characters in my next post, wherein I’ll talk about the story.

Broken Age

I suppose I should at least say a little about Broken Age. I backed its Kickstarter back when it had no title other than “Double Fine Adventure”, and played the first half during this blog’s hiatus. Act 2 was released about a month ago, and I’ve managed to find the time to complete it.

I recall seeing some grumbling of dissatisfaction from other supporters when the first half was released, but I find the whole thing highly satisfactory. We were promised an old-school point-and-click adventure game, and that’s what we got. The style is gentle and sweet, even when people are being fed to monsters. It’s got the old familiar Tim Schafer sense of humor, somehow zany and wry at the same time, involving absurd situations and people taking them seriously — but somehow, the feel of this humor is changed quite a lot when it’s overlaid on soft and rosy children’s-book-like illustrations. Really good, well-paced 2D animation — sometimes I just sat and watched the character idles. So much good voice acting — there are some big-name actors here, but I felt the best performances came from the minor characters. Basically, a delightful world to be in, except in the few occasions when I got stuck. And even then, there’s a good lot of humorous quips to be gotten from trying wrong things.

The game wasn’t originally planned to be released in two parts, but it’s at least thematic. The whole story is broken in two, with two protagonists that you can switch between freely, like in Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle. Except where Maniac Mansion put all the player characters into the same environment, and Day of the Tentacle put them into disjoint but linked environments where one character’s actions affect another’s situation, Broken Age almost puts them in completely distinct games. It isn’t until the end of Act 1 that the two characters meet, and it isn’t until the ending sequence of Act 2 that you have to control the two characters in tandem to solve puzzles. Before that, the only link between them is at the story level, and even that takes a while to become apparent. At the start they seem to be in completely separate stories.

Opposed stories, even, juxtaposed for contrast. We have two youths, Vella and Shay. Vella lives in one of those ahistorical sort-of-pre-industrial-seeming fantasy worlds with modern attitudes. You’ve got people living on clouds and the occasional talking tree there. Shay lives on a spaceship. Vella is suspicious and argumentative; Shay is naive and easily-manipulated. Vella’s story is full of people — entire families, sometimes — with their own desires and agendas. Shay lives alone, apart from some robots whose entire existence is devoted to him. That’s his base situation: pampered, infantilized, kept safe. Shay’s story starts with scenes of him being showered and his teeth brushed by automated systems, just another day for him; he’s taken to a bridge decorated like a playpen and given a choice of various important-sounding “missions”, which turn out to be fake play scenarios arranged by the doting ship’s computer, or “Mom”. A jab at videogame plots, perhaps, with all their save-the-world bluster? Anyway, this is his life, and he’s extremely bored with it, craving new adventure, just like the player after a few iterations — the whole thing repeats in a cycle until you figure out how to break out of it. Vella, meanwhile, is being rushed against her will into a grotesque parody of a rite of passage. Once every 14 years, her village sacrifices maidens to a monster called Mog Chothra so it will spare everyone else, and nearly everyone other than Vella treats this like a good thing. Not just “It’s good that we have a way to spare the village”, or even “We honor your sacrifice”, but “I can’t wait to be eaten by the monster!” The maidens wear elaborate prom dresses for the occasion, and the ones that don’t get eaten wonder “Is there something wrong with me?” Such is the power of social pressure that Vella goes along with this to an extent (with the result that she winds up spending the rest of the story in her prom dress), but she ultimately escapes, determined to find a way to kill Mog Chothra and bring her society to its senses. So, both stories are about youth rebelling against an authority that’s placing unreasonable expectations on them, but in opposite ways: eternal inconsequential safety in an environment that’s all about you vs demands for complete self-abnegation. Shay rejects this because he doesn’t like his life as it is and wants change; Vella, because she does like her life and doesn’t want to throw it away.

Now, I don’t want to get too deep into spoilers here, so I’ll only describe Act 2 briefly. Act 2 has a theme of unmaskings. The ending of Act 1 is a kind of great unmasking, a peek behind the curtain, but smaller revelations come thick and fast in Act 2, including the true nature of the ship’s computers, the exposure of the guru in the clouds, and the literal unmasking of the deliciously shifty Marek. Marek spends the entirety of Act 1 in a wolf costume, and, given the game’s style and content, it’s reasonable to think he might actually be an anthropomorphic wolf. He admits to being human within Act 1, but it isn’t until Act 2 that we see his face. The biggest revelation, though, is Shay and Vella getting to know each other. Through Act 1, they’re unaware of each others’ existence, and even in Act 2, they can’t interact. They’ve seen each other briefly, exchanged no words. (The extent of their communication was Vella throwing a punch at Shay.) But at the end of Act 1, they swap environments. Vella is now trapped in Shay’s ship, while Shay is in Vella’s world. In both cases, the presence of the other person is unavoidable. Vella is basically snooping around Shay’s house, looking at his old toys and embarrassing childhood photos. Shay is meeting Vella’s family and everyone who was affected by her passing through in Act 1, for good or ill, and they all have things to say about her. Neither of the pair is exactly looking for the other, but it’s clear that the story is preparing them for remeeting.

And what then, after they remeet, at the story’s very end? One of the things that I like the best about this story is that it doesn’t try to force a romance. Oh, there’s room for one. If you play this game and want to imagine Shay and Vella getting married after the credits roll, there’s nothing to contradict that. But I think I’d rather imagine them becoming friends, and the story affords that just as easily. But there is one thing hinting at some sort of deeper connection between the two, and it’s something that’s left mysterious within the game’s content.

Now, I said that the two stories are basically distinct games. The stories sync up at the end of Act 1, with the result that you have to complete both sub-games before either can proceed to Act 2, and a similar thing happens just before the endgame. But for the entirety of Act 1, the game never forces you to switch characters. And some players respond to that by, well, not switching characters. By playing through the entirety of Shay’s story before starting Vella’s or vice versa. I’ve even had conversations more or less like: “I’m giving up on Broken Age. I’m stuck on a puzzle in Vella’s half.” “Maybe you should switch to Shay’s half for a while.” “No, I wanted to finish Vella’s half first before starting Shay’s.” Now, I generally don’t like telling people other than myself that they’re playing a game wrong, but: This is the wrong way to play the game. The links between the two stories are set up to be optimally discovered gradually as you play through them both at the same time; if you play one to the end first, you’ll get a lot of the other half’s foreshadowing as aftshadowing.

In Act 2, though, the author forces the issue. The two characters still can’t affect each other directly, but there’s a puzzle in Shay’s half that can only be solved with information from Vella’s half, and vice versa. Thus, the obstinate player has to switch between characters to solve it without a walkthrough. The mystery comes in when we try to interpret this diegetically. In both cases, the player is acting on knowledge that’s unavailable to the player character, making us ask: I knew what to do, but how did Shay and Vella know? In the endgame, this happens frequently enough to become normal, to the point where the two characters are cooperating on complicated time-sensitive actions without any intercommunication whatever, occasionally saying things like “I have a good feeling about this combination. I don’t know why.” And they trust this good feeling above the advice of the grown-ups who get in their way. And so they should — both have been betrayed by the older generation plenty.

I imagine that there’s been a lot of complaint about this. That the game is breaking its own rules, forgetting to provide character motivations for player actions, and making the player do things that don’t fit into the story. But I personally dig it, because of the implications if it does fit into the story. There’s something special about these kids, something that links them, and the game isn’t telling us what. I mean, obviously you know full well what it is that links them: it’s you, the player. They are linked by the single mind that controls them both. But what are you, within the story? Usually the player is represented by the player character, but if there are two distinct player characters, what are you? Through Act 1, you can pretend that you’re nothing at all — you’re subsumed into Vella and into Shay. But the information-sharing puzzles wake you up, make it clear that you’re something distinct from them both.