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

Hayden Dingman | March 23, 2016
Get the SCUMM off your boots.

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.

Use with dead body

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.

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.”

 

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