At several points during Thimbleweed Park, the seemingly straightforward murder investigation being conducted by agents Angela Ray and Antonio Reyes is interrupted by flashbacks. Triggered by Ray and Reyes’s apparently not-so-casual conversations with the local residents of the small, economically depressed town of Thimbleweed Park, these playable flashbacks are designed to help players gradually acclimate to each controllable character (there are five in all) and learn the nuances of the varied locations that can be traveled to. Puzzles start out small and self-contained—how might you use a standard set of kitchen appliances to steam open a sealed letter?—and grow delightfully more absurd once players are able to freely travel through the town’s nooks and crannies, as you never know just when an innocuous seeming object will come in handy for, say, carrying toxic sludge.
Despite an excellent first act and the best intentions of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, the legendary team behind the classic Maniac Mansion, Thimbleweed Park ends up feeling like a flashback to the good old days of LucasArts adventure games. Once the plot veers away from the initial scope of its murder investigation, there’s nothing to keep it focused, and even the cleverest writing and most sublimely silly puzzles come across as interruptions. The constantly self-referential jokes are wearisome enough when they’re lampshading the game’s design choices: A corpse is said to be “pixelating” (in a nod to the game’s old-school graphics) and two pigeon-clad kooks deliver a lengthy rant about how LucasArts-style games, like this one, are superior to those by Sierra Games, because you don’t have to worry about dying. And this humor grows even worse once it becomes a major part of the plot. Players can easily shrug off hit-or-miss references to text-based adventure games, but not when they’re forced to play such a game.
Thimbleweed Park doesn’t need to explain the appeal of adventure games. When it gets out of its own way, it does a fine job of introducing a vibrant community that’s genuinely fun to explore. You’ll meet an adaptive entrepreneur, Ricki, who’s gone from selling pies to vacuum tubes, and contend with a druggie, Morena, who opened an occultist book shop largely to have more time alone. Instead of forcing players to spam the Look At button, hunting stray pixels for clues, Thimbleweed Park uses jokes to encourage you to get to know the titular town a little better.
The playable characters bring colorful twists to the gameplay. Ransome, an insult clown, has a low threshold for shame, and is willing to carry out commands that others might refuse. Delores, an aspiring video-game designer who has a knack for coding-related puzzles, shines whenever players are required to interact with the town’s robotic aides. The most intriguing, and sadly underutilized, character is Franklin, a ghost who haunts the local hotel. Whereas the other characters all share a pool of common action verbs with which to interact with objects (Pick Up or Push, for example), Franklin’s interactions with the world are more eclectic, as he can Zap electric objects or Splash water. When all else fails, he can stand there and Despair.
There’s a subtlety to Thimbleweed Park‘s first half that serves the suspenseful plot. Little details, like the different ways in which each character vomits, or the way in which Ransome’s dilapidated trailer creakily leans to whichever side the clown walks on, really sell the people and the place. The sort of in-jokes that are encountered at a nerdy convention are props that can be examined for extra laughs; there’s a literal library full of joke titles, and a phone book’s worth of numbers to call. When the game isn’t slapping you over the head with its conspiracy or shoehorning players into a linear final level, it succeeds in creating a world that feels lived-in. If you’re playing in Hard mode, the puzzles are less about simple inventory management and more about carefully observing the routines of the residents and the interconnectivity between objects in the town. One particularly clever and time-sensitive challenge requires one character to cause a distraction at the local radio station so that another can fiddle with what’s being broadcast, all so that yet another character can change the mood in another location.
That’s why it’s almost heartbreaking to realize that, in the end, Thimbleweed Park doesn’t actually care about the world it’s built. The final act basically turns the characters and the setting into objects on a puzzle-dependency chart, stripping away all the comically endearing red herrings and shrugging off the murder-mystery story. The plot begins to congeal around a single, bland location, and the game’s puzzles become equally straightforward. All of the careful world-building is deliberately and frustratingly undone. Here, Thimbleweed Park turns into the world’s most overconfident bit of fan service: One of the final tasks involves figuring out which local townsfolk to present with a “Game of the Year” Award. At this point, the Look At button is useless, because it, like the game itself, is fixated solely on its own navel.