As a veteran of SCUMM-engine games like Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island, I’ve been exciting to see the modern-day resurgence in this genre. The good folks over at Wadjet Eye Games are doing God’s work, that’s for certain.
But many of those games, such as the Blackwell series or Gemini Rue, have brought back the point-and-click adventure in a very modernized way. It’s a great thing but what about those of us who need that nostalgia itch scratched just that much harder? For us, we have Thimbleweed Park. This is a game that emulates the SCUMM-engine style of games in the perfect way while still learning from the lessons of those games which have come before.
If you’ll forgive this brief note before we move forward, Thimbleweed Park starts you off asking if you want to play Casual or Hard mode. No matter who you are or your experience with adventure games, pick Hard mode. Casual straight up removes half of the game including story elements and puzzles. I cannot see any benefit to casual unless you’re speed-running it. And with that, moving on.
After a brief prologue, you are thrown into the role of two FBI agents, Agent Ray and Agent Reyes. They are tasked with investigating a dead body found face-down in a river a short walk out from the small town of Thimbleweed Park. It becomes clear from the get-go that both Ray and Reyes have more of a personal stake in this case than either is willing to admit to the other. Over the course of the game, you are also handed control of a newly-dead spirit trapped in a hotel, a game programmer only recently returned to the town she fought to escape, and a raunchy clown who has fallen hard from stardom.
Five characters may seem like a huge amount to manage in an adventure game and while it can be tedious at times, the characters do have interesting stories of their own and swapping between them allows some variation in the standard adventure game commentary. In particular, the game programmer, Delores, and the clown, Ransome, are a joy to play as. On the other hand, it’s clear that Agents Ray and Reyes were initially intended as no more than a gender swap and they never quite escape those roots.
For those unfamiliar with the SCUMM-engine adventure games (and let’s be honest, that’s probably the majority of you!), they are games made using the SCUMM engine, a language created and used for LucasArts adventure games. They’re famous for their list of verbs at the bottom of the screen that allow you to perform different actions on items in the environment. While modern games may choose actions for the player based on context, SCUMM games let you decide. Sure it may be obvious that you want Agent Ray to “look at” the corpse but maybe you want her to “pick up” the corpse or even “use” the corpse (Interpret that however you would like!), the game lets you do that and may even reward you for your… thoroughness…
You’ll have to use all these verbs to explore the bizarre town of Thimbleweed Park which exists in an alternate 1987 where vacuum tubes have replaced transistors as the future of computing. The town has some serious Twin Peaks-vibes about it as you explore this small town that doesn’t seem to realize anything is off about it’s diner that doesn’t have any food or its coroner who ends everything with “a-who” for… reasons.
If you’ve ever played an old adventure game, this will feel just like that. The game lets you explore and talk to people while solving inventory puzzle after inventory puzzle to progress. Most of these puzzles are very well thought out and reward you for really sticking with it and not looking up the answer. Once or twice though, there were puzzles where I stumbled across the answer after hours of pacing and still am not sure of the logic behind them. Seriously, who thinks of putting radioactive waste in a puddle??? (There’s a hint for you all. Remember that!)
Overall, Thimbleweed Park is a wonderfully crafted game but it’s hard to recommend on one major flaw alone: the game’s plot. While the town and characters are a ton of fun, the plot doesn’t come together at all throughout the game. One challenge the game had in juggling five characters was making sure they all tied together in a meaningful way. The developers solved this problem by just ignoring it completely. None of the main characters talk to each other which makes their cooperation in solving puzzles feel strange and out of place. I know why I just had Ransome climb a radio tower but what did Ransome think he was accomplishing here? He got nothing out of it and the character who’s story required it never actually talked to Ransome. It may not bother most players but it took me out of the game several times.
The other part of that, and the more damning part, is the game’s ending. See, Thimbleweed Park spends a ton of time getting the player invested via its murder mystery but drops that story almost entirely about halfway through the game. Not only is it abandoned, but you’re given an answer that you and the game knows isn’t correct but then never addresses it again. In fact, almost none of your questions from the early parts of the game are ever answered as the game becomes completely involved in its own meta-ness.
Forums show that the ending is hotly debated and some people don’t mind it at all. Still, it’s worth knowing going into it that answers to your early game questions will need to be answered by you since the game won’t do it for you. If you’re alright hunting for answers that may or may not be there, Thimbleweed Park is a good place to visit because all of that being said, I did truly enjoy my time with the game. The puzzles were satisfying and made sense, for the most part, even if the solutions weren’t always obvious.
This may not reach the classic heights of The Secret of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle but Thimbleweed Park is a fun look at how basic game design lessons we’ve learned over the last thirty years can be applied to retro-styled games. If you’ve been craving one last adventure in the SCUMM engine, this is as close as you’re going to get.