Review: Thimbleweed Park

May 30, 2018

I've been confined to bed for the last week or so with the worst flu of my life. It's not the end of the world or anything, but it means the trouble I usually have with filling my time has been exacerbated. As a result, I bought the neo-classic point-n-click adventure game Thimbleweed Park and played through it in record time.

You might not know this about me, but I have a strong affection for graphical adventure games; the genre was a huge part of my childhood, and I'm unable to count the aesthetic influences they've left on me. I've also built a lot of [technology][devlog3] on which to create my own adventure games, if I ever get around to it.

But Thimbleweed Park is the first game of its kind that I've played for the first time as an adult. While it was an enjoyable experience, it gave me a lot of insight into why the genre hasn't persevered in the modern era. There are lots of good things I can say about the game, but it seems more instructive to focus on its negative points.

Part 1: The Puzzles Don't Make Any Damn Sense

Without getting into any spoilers, a lot of the puzzles here are crap. There's a running stereotype about how crap puzzles in adventure games can be, as exemplified by Gabriel Knight 3:

In Gabriel Knight 3, Gabriel needs to get a motorbike to continue the story. But in order to get it, he has to disguise himself as long-suffering Detective Mosley. And in order to do THAT, he has to make a mustache out of cat-hair. Though Mosley doesn't have a mustache… so Gabriel will also have to draw a mustache onto Mosley's license so that his cat-mustache-using disguise looks like Mosley's ID.

Thimbleweed Park doesn't have anything that egregious, but it require a lot more suspension of belief than I was capable. The game features multiple playable characters, none of whom like one another nor seem very keen to help the others. But that doesn't stop there from being puzzles that need to be solved cooperatively between two or more characters. While in principle this is a fine idea, the execution falls apart in most cases.

For example, at one point, my dude was kidnapped and brought into a sewer. There was a payphone inside and a number I was supposed to call to get help. But I didn't have a quarter to use the payphone! My other character did, however, and the solution was to drop the quarter down a sewer grate for the kidnapped lad to pick up. Despite the fact that the character with the quarter didn't know the other guy was in the sewer, let alone that he was missing a quarter to make a phone call.

I mean, sure, the solution to the puzzle makes sense if you're an omniscient player, which technically I am, but that doesn't make it a satisfying solution. It has no verisimilitude. If the guy in the sewer had some means of contacting his partner and informing her of the situation, I would be fine with it. But that's not how the game works.

A small problem, certainly, but it's endemic in the game. Later on, you need to do cooperative problem-solving with a ghost playable character and your living characters, but a huge plot point is that none of them know about the ghost, and he is unable to communicate with them.

Oh, but then the solution to one of the puzzles is for the ghost to make a phone call. BUT BY THIS POINT IT HAS BEEN VERY WELL ESTABLISHED THAT NOBODY LIVING CAN HEAR HIM. This is inexcusable storytelling; it contracts the internal logic of the world, and as a result actively punishes players for paying attention and making inferences.

Part 2: Ineffective Feedback

A classic trope in well-done adventure games is that if there's a silly, arbitrary solution to a puzzle, that you'll get feedback when you do something wrong if in the right vein. For example, maybe you're trying to get past someone whom you know likes sour things. The solution is to offer them lemons, but if you tried giving them lemonade you might get a response like "hey, this is pretty good, but it doesn't really have enough kick. Got anything a little more concentrated?"

Thems the rules. I don't mind hunting for arbitrary solutions to puzzles so long as they're not illogical, and that my less arbitrary attempts are rewarded in some way. Thimbleweed Park falls completely on its face on this front. And oh god is it frustrating.

At one point, I needed to follow someone, but couldn't actually get close enough to tail them. So I thought, maybe I should put something on their shoes so that I could follow their footprints. I looked through my four characters' inventories worth of stuff, and found a few reasonable candidates: ketchup and soot. I tried using both, but the responses the game gave me were "nope, I don't think this works with that." Like, it gave me the responses you get when you do something so stupid and illogical that the developers couldn't even be fucked to program in a response for it. Like trying to use a stick with the microwave, or something. And so I gave up on that line of inquiry.

And then I got stuck for an hour. Because the solution was that I needed to put some other item on their shoes. Some other item I had found, but hadn't known I could pick up, because it was a liquid and I didn't have a suitable container.

I'll get back to this in a minute.

There's a corollary to this, which is that when the game DID give me feedback on my incorrect solutions, it often would imply that my completely wrong solutions were close. At one point in the game, you (the player, not the character) are trying to get the plumbers to show up, You can mess with the fountain, which temporarily makes significantly more water come out of it than usual, and then goes back to normal after five seconds.

My adventure game brain interpreted this as "hmm, I need to find something I can do in these five seconds in order to intensify the problem." But no, this is unrelated. Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate the value of red herrings, but I would have appreciated a little bit of dialog along the lines of "this doesn't seem to be working" after ten tries or so.

The plumbing situation gets worse, however. There are lots of plumbing-related problems you can cause, but most of them leave the proprietor saying "hmm, this doesn't seem serious enough to call the plumbers." When you do come up with the correct action, the proprietor then proceeds to call not the plumbers, but maintenance, who tell him they can't do anything for him. Getting him to actually talk to the plumbers instead of maintenance is a completely different puzzle!

I understand that making these things is hard work, but this kind of thing is pretty inexcusable. If the characters can't keep straight what they know and what they don't, how in hell am I going to be able to?

Part 3: Object Impermanence

Getting back to putting objects on people's shoes, that I had found but didn't realize I could pick up because I didn't have a suitable container.

But! At one point in time I did have a suitable container to hold the necessary liquid!

Thimbleweed Park is told via many flashbacks; you'll be working on a puzzle and then an innocent piece of dialog with an unrelated character will send you back in time as you play through someone's memory. And you can't switch back to the puzzle you were solving until you've finished the flashback. It's jarring, but I can't say I hated it.

However, during one of those flashbacks, I did in fact pick up the necessary container to solve my shoe-tracking problem. But I picked it up in the adventure game sense of "attempt to pick up every interesting-looking object in the room, and sort it out later." I'm quite gregarious with this, and I don't leave a room until I'm convinced I've interacted with everything in it to exhaustion.

So anyway, the flashback ends, and an act later, I regain control of the character from the flashback. Except that she hasn't kept all of the items I picked up in the flashback -- though she has kept some. I haven't interacted with her in an hour or two, and so I don't notice the missing item, nor do I think to go back into the room I got it, since I assumed all of the content there was already inspected.

This is more likely a bug than being bad game design, but it was a pretty infuriating one to have run into.

There were other cases of this too though. One of the game's gags is three characters who are all the same, but have different verbal tics. It's funny, if a little overplayed, but at one point in act 1, my character called him on it, asking "aren't you the same as Guy A and Guy B?" Except that I hadn't met Guy B yet, and was arbitrarily gated by the game from meeting him until several hours of play through later. Again, it broke my immersion. Worse, it continued to distract me for a few hours until I actually ran into Guy B, as I anticipated the joke.

Part 4: Arbitrary Goal Gating

Our ghost friend accomplishes everything he needs to do by part 4 or so, and then just kind of waits around as a playable character until the end of the game (part 8? 9?). As a result, I found myself often switching to him with a problem in mind, and then fucking around for a little while and failing to solve my problem before switching back.

This ghost dude of ours can walk through walls and open doors, which is the solution to more than one puzzle. As a result, it starts training the player that we can use him to solve puzzles involving otherwise inaccessible switches. Except that he can't leave this haunt, except for that one time he could. It's misleading, in the sense that he would be the perfect solution to a puzzle late in the game, and has already been set up to be. Except that he can't get there, so maybe the puzzle is to figure out HOW to get him there?

As it happens, that is not the solution. Furthermore, having the ghost be a playable character with nothing to do reinforces the interactions he does have. There's a bully who is preventing our ghost from leaving his haunt, and obviously the solution is to have the ghost stand up for himself. But this is never an option, and in all of your attempts to get past him through the later acts, you learn that "nope, this is not a thing that is going to happen."

Except, inexplicably, it does! At the last act, with absolutely no intervention, our ghost finally finds the courage to stand up to the bully. Worse than that, not even do we get any hints that anything has changed. A quick line like 'I've had it, sticking around in here. It's time to leave!" or something along those lines would have been enough to lampshade the interaction.

But no. The intended solution is to just have learned nothing and to keep trying the same thing that hasn't worked before until it does work.

This is nowhere near anything construable as "good game design."

Conclusion

At the end of the day, Thimbleweed Park is mostly a good distraction from being so ill you think you're going to die. If you're already a big fan of the genre, I'd recommend it with all of the above caveats. But if you're not, skip this one -- it's only going to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Go start with Monkey Island II, which is a vastly superior game, made by the same dude.