Thimbleweed Park HERO

Controlling the Past: Hands-on with Thimbleweed Park

A body floats in the river, dead. Two federal agents come to investigate why.

This is how 2D point-and-click adventure Thimbleweed Park begins. Sounds routine, though it’s anything but. Soon, my two agents – doing their best impressions of Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” – are pounding the pavement of the titular town, shaking down the locals for any and all intel. And boy, do we get more than we bargained for!

Thimbleweed Park is home to some strange and humorous characters indeed, but the sleepy town exterior belies a more sinister core. If you imagine “Twin Peaks” with a shot of noir, you won’t be far off the mark.

The town, the characters, and the interface all look delightfully classic, evoking nostalgia-laden feelings for the bygone age of LucasArts past. Here, we find all the trappings and charm of classic adventure games, which makes sense: Thimbleweed Park is by none other than Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, creators of Maniac Mansion and many other games that shaped the genre.

And yet, the game feels decidedly modern. For example, the demo I played at this year’s ID@Xbox event during the 2016 Game Developers Conference was set up on an Xbox One, with a controller. As if by default, I immediately used the left analog stick to move the cursor around the screen, selecting a verb and then an object of interest. But you can also use the D-pad to navigate the verb and inventory menus – and pressing X will use the most-likely verb that you’re looking for, based on context. The bumpers handily flip through objects of interest, but to preserve a sense of exploration, you can only cycle through objects nearest to your character. This is especially helpful when you’re trying to target one of several small objects which are close to each other. With just a bit of mental recalibration, using this new control scheme felt snappy; the streamlined menu navigation meant that I could focus more on exploration and puzzle-solving.

The detectives are only two of the five characters that you eventually control in Thimbleweed Park. The others reveal themselves as you play through the game, each introduced in their own origin story flashback. Cleverly, these flashbacks are small, self-contained playable sequences that show, instead of tell. In fact, the bulk of this demo focused on the introductory flashback of Ransome, the third playable character – a balloon-toting, sweary jerk of a clown on what must be the worst night of his life. It’s the night that an old gypsy woman curses him to wear his clown makeup forevermore. Seeing Ransome’s frantic clown hands furiously wiping at his face to no avail is the best kind of dark humor. It’s also the first real hint you get that all is not as it seems in Thimbleweed Park.

An old-fashioned murder, a strange sleepy town, and mysterious dark forces at play… luckily, you won’t have to wait too long to uncover all of Thimbleweed Park’s secrets. The game is coming to Windows 10 and Xbox One later this year.

Oh, in case you were wondering, the game’s town features an arcade, complete with playable cabinets – the same games you could play in Maniac Mansion. My nostalgia meter may have just broken.