Even though Timbleweed Park was released in March, the game continues to get substantial updates. It's not DLC, either, but meaningful responses to feedback.
As someone who spent their youth plucking away at obscure puzzles in games like Monkey Island and Sam & Max, there was every reason to think Thimbleweed Park, derived from the same mind responsible for some of my old favorites, was made just for me. In reality, though, it proved to be an utterly charming but often frustrating experience, as I found myself relying on a walkthrough to see things through. Back in May, I both excused and lamented my decision to use a walkthrough; what I really wanted was a built-in hint system for the game:
"Clearly, I'm not above looking for help, but Thimbleweed Park doesn't help its case by having a binary choice when it comes to choosing a difficulty. The game does have an option to throw out most of the puzzles, but that's not what I want to do! I just want the game to give me a small, vague hint. In one of my favorite puzzlers, The Room, you can ask for multiple hints before it outright tells you what to do next. I'd love if there was something similar, so the game could meet me halfway."
After publishing that story, I heard from the game's developers, who were curious about my reaction. The game's easier mode, which strips Thimbleweed Park of its most troublesome puzzles, was supposed to be for me. But as I explained to them, I didn't want a story-only mode, I was looking for a crutch to lean on when I'd become exasperated. In a world of limited time, I wanted to keep moving. A younger Patrick would be shaking their head, but you don't have a kid, bucko.
Months later, the game now has a hint system.
"I know this will cause the hardcore adventure gamer's blood to boil (as it does mine)," wrote designer Ron Gilbert in a blog post earlier this week, "but the lack of hints was widely criticized by some of the more casual press."
Next E3, I'll have to think about registering as casual press! (I'm kidding, Ron.)
Jokes aside, it's interesting to see how Gilbert and company arrived at their hint system, which appears to have come with plenty of internal protest over whether to design it at all. The team originally built something called the HintTron 3000, an item that would allow you to combine it with any item in the game world and receive a contextual hint. The problem? If players were lost to the point of utter confusion—like I often was—they may not know what item to look at.
Thimbleweed Park isn't enormous, but compared to the adventure games it builds on from the LucasArts days, it's sprawling. This was often my hangup with the game. While I appreciated the ability to tour so many places at once, the combination of context-specific characters and endless exploration options left me paralyzed. I'd have been the HintTron 3000 player they feared.
Gilbert settled on the solution I used back in the day for games like Tex Murphy: a hint line. In this case, you're not actually calling a person on the phone, but using Thimbleweed Park's in-game phone system to ask the HintTron 3000 for pointers.
"Calling the phone provides some natural friction, in that you'd have to get to a phone (or switch to whoever had the cell phone) and make a call and trip down a hint tree," said Gilbert. "The advantage we had over a true 80s hint line was that we know the context of where you are in the game, so the hint line can be smart and focus down to hints we know you might needed, and ignore spoilers and other distractions."
If you're worried about getting weak in the knees during a particularly nasty puzzle, it's possible to turn the hint system off entirely. And if you've already put some hours into the game, the hint system can be applied to your existing save, though it might be a little wonky.
Though I've already finished Thimbleweed Park, due to a walkthrough, I'm pleased future players will have a chance to play (and finish) a game that I ultimately had a great time with. It might have been more satisfying to play with the new hint system, but thankfully, the story and characters were more than enough to carry me to the finish line. If you're curious, definitely give it a try.