On the Comforting Confusion of ‘Thimbleweed Park’

Point and click games used to follow some obtuse paths of progression, and Ron Gilbert and company’s new title soon has the player happily lost.

by Mike Diver
Mar 30 2017, 8:00pm

"Thimbleweed Park is challenging, but without the confusion. We give you all the pieces you need to solve any puzzle in the game, and nothing is too obtuse. We specifically removed all the stupid stuff. Everything is logical."

So Ron Gilbert told me when we met up in February to discuss his new point-and-click adventure. Thimbleweed Park, from its interface to its aesthetic through to its quirky humor, follows in the stylistic footsteps of the designer's previous works Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island (to name but two), but supposedly ditches the more obtuse elements of those games' puzzle-solving methods.

And yet here I am, trying to work out how to get a stamp off an envelope, with all of those pieces in hand, or to them, and I'm banging my head against a wall. Try this. Nope. That. Nah. What about…? Don't be ridiculous, the game tells me. That is the dumbest idea yet. But if I put this here and that beside it, and then I… Oh, I see. I suppose that was obvious. If only I'd got there what feels like ages ago.

And so it goes. Unlike Monkey Island, in which you used flowers found in the forest rubbed on stolen meat to put angry poodles to sleep because the game completely telegraphed those ingredients to you (it really didn't), Thimbleweed Park does conform to a breed of fuzzy logic. It's entirely its own, of course; but once you begin thinking like one of its characters—or, rather, more than one, as you'll control several in consecutive sequences in order to overcome certain obstacles—things begin to, if not exactly make sense, at least follow rules. Rules that the game doesn't break, that remain consistent once you know them.

All Thimbleweed Park screenshots courtesy of Terrible Toybox.

Need a dime for an inexplicably positioned pay phone, but you don't have one? And, to make matters worse, you're trapped in the sewers beneath the town? There's a way to work around that, using a little thinking outside the dusty boxes cluttering up these subterranean tunnels, and some sliding into the shoes of the stranded agent's temporary partner.

Need a map to leave the town and set about exploring the wider country? The local law enforcement won't let you wander freely unless you have one—and yet, all of the maps in town seem to have been pinched. What's this, though? An antique map of the area, framed on the wall of the local newspaper's office? The editor's not about to let you get your mitts on it, mind, even for a moment's photocopying. Perhaps it's time to radio for some distracting assistance.

At all of these moments, and more—all of which pop up during the first three or four hours of Thimbleweed Park—I took a while longer than I anticipated to arrive at a solution. I'm not talking tens of minutes of roaming the town's streets hopelessly lost, desperate for inspiration; more, quietly and calmly considering each asset available to me, to the "me" I was controlling at the time, and how it could influence the non-player characters to my advantage.

I nevertheless write in my notes, at a time when the game's two federal agents are forcefully separated: "shouldn't this be simpler?" No, it shouldn't. Thimbleweed Park's puzzles are just fine as they are.

By which I mean they are enjoyably frustrating, comfortably confusing—echoes of the point-and-click past. Mercifully, they're articulated in such a fashion that, again, once you begin to acknowledge the mechanics made available to you, key amongst them character swapping on the fly, they begin to sing. And they really are like songs, after a fashion, constituents of an arrangement fractured by design, until such a time that a third party, the player, can piece them back together and drink in the singular melodies.

There are a lot of regular, smaller puzzles that don't need to be seen from more than one perspective. In the role of a foul-mouthed clown with a joke book straight out of Jerry Sadowitz' pocket, you'll have to work out how to feed a famished hamster without losing a finger. Later, as a soft toy entrepreneur in waiting, you must shield your side activities from spying eyes—and they're everywhere in Thimbleweed. These are cool, semi-self-contained challenges that tie more explicitly to the game's wider plotline of murder and conspiracy.

And it's these more nuanced, multi-part teasers that leave me perplexed for the relatively longest time, only to have me feeling like Mensa's newest member when I crack their conundrums. That's very smart game design—like the test chambers of Portal and the best shrines in Breath of the Wild, Thimbleweed has you stumped dumb until your eyes pop open, just like that, and you see it. Aren't we all clever girls and boys. When the game says we are, yes.

You might go around and around on one seemingly impossible poser. But it's not. And you won't forever. You can brute-force Thimbleweed Park, picking up everything, trying to match verbs with nouns until the correct grammar sparks a result. But really, it's better to play slowly, considerably, and really look at what the game is giving you. There's great pleasure in that, in the procedural approach. Here's a checklist of what you need to do. Over there, all of the items you've acquired, and chances are most of them are good for something. Really break it down, and simplify what's being asked of you—as, most of the time, the "simple" solution is the one the game wants.

Then there's no stress, no anxiety about doing it wrong. Because there really is no "wrong" here, and no risk of defeat, of failure—every little movement is adding up into a triumphant whole. You're just not seeing it, yet. When you do, and it works, don't be ashamed to at least allow yourself a broad smile of satisfaction. It's unlikely to be your last before the credits roll on this most excellent contemporary twist on longstanding adventure genre conventions.

Thimbleweed Park is out now.

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Adventure Games
Ron Gilbert
point and click
Terrible Toybox