Hands-on: Thimbleweed Park is like a long-lost LucasArts adventure for the modern era

OPEN. CLOSE. GIVE. PICK UP. LOOK AT. TALK TO. PUSH. PULL. USE. Nine verbs that would be iconic to any adventure gamer in the 1990s, to anyone who once pored over Secret of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle or Indiana Jones & The Fate of Atlantis. The LucasArts classics.

And thus nine verbs that form the core of the would-be LucasArts classic Thimbleweed Park. It’s not purely homage. Sure, Ron Gilbert (along with Gary Winnick and other LucasArts alumni) billed Thimbleweed Park as like “finding an undiscovered LucasArts adventure game you’ve never played before,” but Gilbert’s not just recreating SCUMM for throwback purposes. No, he honestly believes verb-based adventure games are better.

He might be right.

Kickstarted in 2014, Thimbleweed Park tasks you with solving the mystery behind a body discovered in the titular town. It looks like it cribs heavily from, say, Maniac Mansion in that you have five different characters to swap between. I spent most of my demo playing as a naughty-mouthed clown, but there are also two detectives, a nerdy-looking lady, and a ghost.

Yes, a ghost character.

“Undiscovered LucasArts adventure game” is an accurate description for Thimbleweed Park. The humor, sure, but also the look and feel of the game. Gilbert and Co. haven’t actually resurrected SCUMM for this game—“I started making changes to deal with updated technology, some subtle UI things I think modern gamers expect. Full shaders working to light everything,” says Gilbert.

But the project called for a nostalgic resurrection, and that includes the big slate of verbs at the bottom of the screen.

Verb-based adventure games died out for a reason. There are some obvious disadvantages—clunkiness, for one. The constant Click A Verb/Click A Noun/Click Another Noun rhythm of ‘90s point-and-clicks has a certain retro charm, but it’s slow. Tedious.

...Especially when you’re stuck on a puzzle and resort to the tried-and-true “Combine Everything With Everything” brute force approach. In a modern, two-button Use/Look system (as seen in Deponia, Broken Age, and countless other modern adventure games) there are only so many “wrong” actions the player can take. Each item can be used, looked at, or combined with something else. That’s it.

Nine verbs Technically nine possible actions for each item. Exponentially more dead ends for the player.

But consider Gilbert’s viewpoint: “Post-Monkey Island the games devolved into everything being this Use verb,” says Gilbert. “You touch stuff and it does things. That was nice from a streamlining standpoint but I think it removed a whole level of puzzle-solving and a whole level of humor opportunities.”

Sure, it was a huge pain to get stuck on a puzzle and realize the answer resided in some arcane verb combination you hadn’t thought to try. But Gilbert claims that’s “a product of poor design more than anything.”

“I think a lot of adventure games in the nineties, the puzzles just got to be arbitrary. Players knew there were no rules, so they were just trying random stuff because there were no rules to follow,” says Gilbert.

Poor puzzle design didn’t go away when seven verbs were taken out back behind the LucasArts headquarters and summarily shot. Poor design is still a hallmark of the point-and-click genre. “Adventure Game Logic” or “Moon Logic.” You know: Combine the wood block with the razor to get paper, take that paper and combine it with the squid to get a receipt for a silk scarf to dry the tears you’ve begun to cry because these puzzles are stupid.

We didn’t lose Moon Logic. But what we did lose was, as Gilbert is quick to point out, a whole layer of humor—the point-and-click’s version of a wrong-answer buzzer. The “Square Peg, Round Hole” quip.

In a verb-based system, trying to “Give Man The Toothbrush” is very different from trying to “Use Toothbrush On Man,” and there are different responses for both. A Use/Look system strips out complexity, inferring what you probably meant to do based on the needs of the story. Which isn’t necessarily bad. The designer simply doesn’t have as much room for flavor-text and hidden gags.

Follow that line of thinking through twenty or so years of design evolution and you end up with modern point-and-clicks, where wrong answers rarely lead to anything interesting.

Not that Thimbleweed Park doesn’t have to make concessions to 2016. “I think one of the things you need to do, especially with more modern gamers, is you need to be clear about what you expect them to do. You need to give them good focus and direction on things. You can’t just push them in the pool and expect them to swim like we could back then,” says Gilbert.

Thus Thimbleweed Park features a system whereby each time you talk to characters they’ll give you more information about what you’re supposed to do next. An in-universe hint system, of sorts, built into the fantasy.

Gilbert was also adamant about the inclusion of voice acting. “I think if you’re trying to attract a newer audience, you have to do voice. It’s just one of those things you have to have in a game.”

Still, it’s one of the most decidedly-retro games to come out of the Kickstarter scene. With Double Fine steadily pumping out HD updates of the old LucasArts games (Day of the Tentacle hits Steam today by the way), Thimbleweed Park looks like it could’ve arisen from the same initiative—like someone at Disney pulled a floppy disk off a shelf and oh, there’s a new Ron Gilbert game. Dust it off and put it on Steam.

Better brush up on your verbs. Thimbleweed Park is scheduled to release sometime this summer.


Hayden Dingman

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