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Everything wrong with the first three minutes of Thimbleweed Park

Look at sanity

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My very first interaction in Thimbleweed Park [official site], and most likely anyone else’s, was to “Look at Willie.” I don’t know who I’m playing yet, nor who Willie might be, but my German accented chap has appeared on a screen with two interactive items: a gate, and a slumped drunken man called Willie. So I looked at him, he being potentially more interesting than a gate, presuming that my character would inform me that either he knew this man and needed to speak to him, or that he did not. I got neither. Because “Look at Willie” speaks to him.

The classic adventure games were classic for a reason. It wasn’t just the stunning animations, background art, and hilarious writing. They were crucial, but it was more than that. It was about a level of care that went in to making sure things worked. When I hark back to those formative early 90s, it’s not with blinded nostalgia – games I enjoyed playing were so often enjoyed despite themselves. I loved Police Quest 3, but good grief, what a scrappy mess it was. I devoured all of Westwood’s half-arsed wannabes too, complete with all their dead ends, dialogue mistakes, and weak puzzles. But I don’t pretend they were perfect. However, a couple actually were. And when people attempt to make games inspired by (or scarequoted “inspired by”, as we say when we don’t want to open ourselves to litigious responses from people who just copied) that era, it’s my expectation that they not repeat the litany of issues that plagued the genre back then, but mimic the best of them.

Now, this isn’t new to adventures. My opening complaint is one of the most tiresome tropes of the genre, in fact, achingly familiar to anyone who’s played them all their life. And hey, let’s be fair, as the genre slips further and further from anything anyone actually wants it to be, even having “Look at” as an option is becoming a rare treat. (Yeah Broken Age, you half-finished anticlimax, I’m looking at you.) But when it’s there, and it’s the first interaction in the game, and when looking at someone to get the player character’s information makes complete sense, it’s really bloody annoying that it just overrides your choice.

“Push Willie” also talks to him.

For fuck’s sake.

So I exhaust the conversation options with this sprite, until he falls asleep, presuming I’m now tasked with getting him whiskey before he’ll talk. Whoever he is. Whatever he might Look like. I go through the gate. Then think, hmmm…

“Look at gate.”

“It is a gate to the trail above. I just came down from there.”

You have to be kidding me. I can look at a gate, and be informed not anything useful about what it looks like beyond what I can make out in the murky pixels, but am instead told of literally the only thing that’s happened in the game so far. In case, I presume, I had a severe head injury from my frustration at not being able to look at the drunk guy. Whatever, I walk right onto the next screen.

There’s a pretty sunset/rise, purple metal bridge dark across the colour gradients of the sky, and a rippling pool reflecting the last/start of the sun’s light. And in the water is a rock. I’ll look at that.

“I wonder if I can use this rock to put out the light.”

And wow. In two screens it commits the two most wearying crimes of point-and-click adventures. It hasn’t written responses for obvious interaction choices, AND it has my character pondering solutions to puzzles it knows it’s yet to introduce.

There’s a sign to the left of the pool reading, “TRESTLE TRAIL 1.7”, with an arrow pointing to the left. That’s the path I just walked down, I didn’t need to immediately look closer at the sign as I could read it. Going back and looking again, there’s a light over it. Looking at the light I’m told it’s very bright (it isn’t), and touching it I’m told it’s too hot. Fine. The light isn’t doing anyone any harm, nothing wrong with that light. Except of course I have been bestowed with the knowledge that I, for reasons it knows I haven’t learned yet, want to put out the light.

There’s a reason. There’s a note in your inventory, an innocuous piece of paper that the game hasn’t mentioned, let alone suggested reading it is a matter of immediate urgency since it explains who you are and what you’re doing. There’s also a teddy bear pillow and a room key for a hotel you’re not in. The inventory, in this opening scene of the game, isn’t an obvious priority. Look at the note, see that step 3 is the turn out the light, and yes, the puzzle makes sense.

Of course you should look through your inventory. Of course. But oh dear god, script the game so that it knows whether the player’s looked at the note before declaring puzzle solutions! That’s just the most basic essential of adventure design. “Has player looked at note? If no, don’t talk about light.” And, you know, suggest that the scrap of paper is of some import at some point?

Look, you’re right, these aren’t the biggest deals in the world. These aren’t game-breaking bugs, nor issues worthy of a thousand word rant. Except, you know, maybe they are. Because I care. I really care, about adventure games, about the genre. I played text adventures from the age of four. I still parse the word “exam” to mean “look closely at something”, and as I approach my fifth decade it’s apparent that’s not going away. I played every single adventure my dad bought, borrowed or copied throughout my childhood, as they gained line drawings, interactive art, dropped their parser bar and grew their verbs, lost their verbs and gained their cursors, and then struggled through the next twenty years of their flailing attempts to stay relevant. I know how ordinary these issues are, I know how common they are, and I know I’ve enjoyed many an adventure game that has committed such enormities. But it doesn’t make it fine, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t stick in my craw.

And you know what, when it’s the guy who sodding invented the verb-based adventure format, the guy who kicked the whole LucasArts classics off, it matters even more. I want this game to demonstrate to me that it cares too. When it bounces from one mortal sin to another in the first three minutes, it really feels like it doesn’t.

No, this isn’t our review. Adam wrote that, and he adored the game. He’s been enthusing about it all day on Twitter too. That’s our review. I am absolutely not saying this is a bad game, because I’ve literally played three minutes of it. I am in no position to form an opinion about the overall game. But I am in a position to rage about these constant bugbears, and how infuriating it is to see them occur immediately upon starting the game.

I want a game that cares about whether it declares solutions to puzzles that haven’t been introduced, a game that cares about the very first thing a player is most likely to do when playing. That matters! It can’t just be me who thinks so.

Oh, and when I looked at the rock, he fucking picked it up.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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