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Wot I Think: Thimbleweed Park

Secrets and curses. No monkeys.

In Thimbleweed Park [official site], few things are what they appear to be. The game, which reunites Ron Gilbert with his Maniac Mansion co-designer Gary Winnick, is a point and click comedy-mystery that looks like a relic from the past. Or, more accurately, like memories of the past; it has handsome lighting and a level of visual detail that actually fills in the blanks that memory often papers over.

Attractive as it is, should such pixels please your eye, it's the quality of the story and the puzzles that really count. On one of those fronts, Thimbleweed eventually finds a way to go above and beyond anything I expected from it, but the combination of broad jokes and mystery-thriller sometimes creates confusion and frustration in both the narrative and the puzzling along the road.

The first hour or two were equal parts a pleasant return to the comfort zone of point and click puzzling, and a sense that things were just a little too comfortable in Thimbleweed Park. The writing, in those early stages, has to do a lot of work, introducing lots of characters (five of them playable, eventually) and fleshing out the backstory of the town. The setting seemed muddled, with references to an all-powerful pillow factory magnate and ever-present vacuum tubes running everything from the crime-solving computers in the sheriff's offices to the telephones and fire hydrants.

A town with a pillow factory as its most magnificent achievement, inspiring awe in the residents, falls dangerously close to precisely the kind of zany humour that makes me cringe. A pillow factory, it seems, is funny because pillows are funny and not the sort of thing that impresses anyone in the real world. And two of the first characters you meet, the sheriff and coroner, share a similar sprite and the same voice actor using a different comedy speech pattern for each. It's oh so wacky.

It's easy to forget, as all of these daft characters and situations pile up, that Thimbleweed begins with a corpse. The sinister and mysterious aspects are quickly buried underneath a deluge of daft references and conversations that meander without doing very much to build the world, establish interesting characters or elaborate on the strong opening mystery. It seems to be a murder mystery in which nobody cares about the murder because they're so intent on performing their comedy routines.

And then there is an actual comedy routine, delivered in flashback by Ransome the Clown. I've written about Ransome before and I'm pleased to report that he continues to be a horrible delight right up until Thimbleweed's final moments, but it's his first appearance in that flashback that stabilised the game for me. Partly, it's because Ransome is an easy character to understand – a jerk who gets his comeuppance – but it's mostly because the flashback is a self-contained setting that allows the story to find its focus.

Because Thimbleweed quickly opens up, allowing any character to go to (almost) any location, the story isn't told as efficiently as it could be were the structure more linear. To begin with you have just two characters to control, but they're interchangeable, with one unifying motive and objective, and their own ulterior motives that remain hidden in the early stages. The three flashbacks, each of which introduces a new playable character, are useful anchors or punctuation, breaking the game into more manageable slices.

It's odd to think of pacing as a problem in a point and click game, but more than anything else that's what I struggled with in the opening hours. My interest was in solving a murder, but the game's interest was in explaining exactly what Thimbleweed park is, from the pillow factory to the occult bookstore to the haunted hotel. It's a complex place and not all of the individual parts and people gel together to give a sense of precisely why it is such a strange little ghost town.

That all settles down though and even if the bigger questions are left dangling until the final chapters, the town does start to cohere. It's an odd place but its oddities – even the pillow factory and those vacuum tubes – are more than throwaway jokes or convenient and welcome puzzling short-hand (the tubes become a shortcut for many tasks that require a device to be repaired, so you don't need to worry about carrying all manner of tools around).

There are throwaway jokes everywhere though and even the ones that got a laugh out of me sometimes felt like a distraction from the actual mystery portion of the game. Where the comedy and mystery elements are intertwined, they work fantastically well, and the humour doesn't shy away from the story's darker threads. Curses, death, loss, murder, families torn apart, anxiety, despair – individual lines and scenes are cheery and light-hearted, but the overall tone is rarely frivolous.

But Gilbert and his team have other plates to spin: Kickstarter rewards in the form of answering machine messages (and a stacked phonebook of names and numbers corresponding to them) and library books, and more in-jokes and callbacks than comfortably fit within the framework of the story. When you're searching for a clue to advance the case, all of those names, numbers and allusions become an extra layer of noise to navigate.

Is a number mentioned in a journal actually important or is it a pop culture reference? Is a witty line about the idiosyncracies of point and click adventures actually a hint about the conventions and how to break them, or simply...a witty line? It can be hard to cut through the sheer volume of asides and one-liners to find the clues that actually matter. To be clear, this isn't a problem throughout the entire game, but one of the lead characters is an adventure game designer and an important location contains a Comic Con style ThimbleCon; that character and setting occasionally turn the volume up to eleven, though Delores (the game designer) swiftly became my favouite person in Thimbleweed. But, still, I never want to hear another line about the shame of working in the games industry. In my chosen, that's unlikely.

Almost as soon as all of the characters were in play and the whole of Thimbleweed County was open for exploration, I settled into the game's groove. Pacing was no longer a problem because I almost always had two or three major puzzles to chip away at, meaning I could turn away from one and to another if I got stuck. Eventually, of course, you hit bottlenecks, having solved all but one puzzle that will advance the story, but despite all of the distractions mentioned above, the world does have a strange but consistent logic. There wasn't a single solution that felt unjustified and the couple of times I resorted to trial and error, the way forward I eventually stumbled across always made sense in retrospect.

And when the characters are allowed to show their personalities and their past rather than acting as vessels for joke-delivery, they're a fascinating bunch, with excellent voice acting. I particularly like Ray and Reyes, the agents. Ray rolls her eyes and treats Thimbleweed's silliness with utter disdain – a much-needed voice of caustic reason – and Reyes is nervous and naive in a way that immediately made me suspicious. Everyone in Thimbleweed is an unreliable narrator and even though you're controlling these people, you aren't actually being them; their secrets remain their own, until they choose to reveal them.

I could quibble (am am going to, clearly) about how the player characters don't actually speak to one another, except on are scripted occasions, and can't share information effectively. How Delores can give Reyes an item that helps to resolve his entire storyline but that he is oblivious to it. How I never want to ride an elevator again because the wait between floors feels eternal when you're struggling to figure out a puzzle. How some of the actual rules of being a ghost don't seem entirely consistent. I've made notes about so many things that made me frown, but they don't add up to more than one big frown, and it's countered by the much bigger grin I had for the back half of the game (it took me sixteen hours to finish and I only got properly stuck a couple of times).

This has been a tricky review to write because some of the things that I love about Thimbleweed will almost certainly be off-putting to other people, and some parts that fell flat might well be your favourite moments. It's a dense game, which means that if one joke fails to land, there's almost certainly a follow-up that just might, hot on its heels. The bigger picture - which I'm unwilling to reveal because this begins as a whodunnit but eventually becomes a whatisit - ties everything together, making a tidy package of all the loose threads and awkward gags.

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the journey, despite a few unhappy detours, but the ending brought everything together in a way that didn't just resolve the characters' individual stories in a satisfying way, but found the emotional beat at the heart of their investigations. Not in every case, but certainly with three of the five. Though it rushes to its conclusion once the cat is out of the bag and I was a little let-down by the way smaller mysteries are absorbed into the Big Question raised in the final act (though hinted at previously), Thimbleweed's final moments made me sad to say goodbye. Properly sad, with the suggestion of a little sniffle and everything. I suspect that ending will be divisive. Some people will make like Ray and roll their eyes.

By the end, all of my earlier frustrations didn't seem to matter, though it's important to remember that they absolutely did at times during the hours I was playing, and if I was disappointed at all it was because Thimbleweed Park doesn't pack more emotional punches into its running time. As the individual stories play out, Ransome and Delores in particular show that Gilbert and his team care for their characters and their disappointments. This is more recognisably the work of writers who showed empathy for Guybrush and Elaine and their dreams than the people who brought us insult swordfighting.

At the beginning of the game, I'd hoped to solve a mystery and have a few laughs, but now I miss the company of this little crew. It's a smart game though and a thoughtful one, even if it sometimes hides those qualities behind its clown makeup and a beaglepuss. The final puzzle sequence in particular shows just how long a game Terrible Toybox have been playing with the design. It's a callback that works as more than a joke. At their worst, the many adventure game references feel almost apologetic, as if the game isn't entirely confident in its own skin, but as it moves toward an ending, it embraces its own oddities and past in a way that left me entirely satisfied.

And for all of that that, I can forgive a few too-vague clues and the jokes that fell flat. It's a beautiful game as well, the non-interactive foregrounds adding as much life to the world as the backgrounds. Even the old-school verb system, which I was wary of, doesn't get in the way, with a right click always picking the most sensible options, and others existing for laughs or mild experimentation. Oh, and before I leave you, one piece of advice that might save you some time: as soon as one character has a map, the rest can collect one from an obvious place. Don't do what I did and spend precious time sprint-clicking around the world.

Thimbleweed Park is out now, for Windows, Mac and Linux, and is $19.99 (US) via Steam and GOG.

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