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.

1 usually Alan Moore

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.