Thimbleweed Park is a little bit afraid you won't love it.
In its worst moments, this point-and-click adventure from industry legends Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, without putting too fine a point on it, can be insufferable. It doesn't so much wink at its audience as it does demand we fall into position, singing paeans to its cleverness. Even worse are the shots that Thimbleweed Park takes at old-school adventure games. Yes, everyone knows that the King's Quest series was obtuse, murderous, and frankly unplayable at times, but to have a character in your game gush about howlucky they are to be a protagonist in the hands of a certain other studio?
But slowly, you realize that this is all just bluster, its swagger a way to deflect from its existential uncertainty. Make no mistake, Thimbleweed Park delivers on its Kickstarter promises. The tone, the artwork, the subtle callbacks, the five-character menagerie, the way they used modern technology to improve ever-so-slightly on nostalgia, all those variables are here in their Sunday's best, shoes polished and hair beautifully pomaded. I dug the hell out of fact Thimbleweed Park evokes some serious Nightvale vibes, marrying humor with existential dread. (You don't know what Nightvale is? Here, have a link. Come back after an episode.)
But it is smug, and it does take its jokes slightly too far. There's a sequence with a truculent clown where you stomp onto the stage to deliver insults by the pound. I understood that our vitriolic pierrot was intended to be an ass and Thimbleweed Park doesn't allow him to escape unscathed. Nonetheless, there's something frankly uncomfortable about staring at the options and thinking, "Do I rag on the kid in the wheelchair, or do I make the old woman cry?"
Luckily, and I say this with a gusty sigh of relief, it does get better. Thimbleweed Park relaxes after a while, and stops trying to prove itself. The pivotal moment for me was when a character discovered an out-of-order spiral staircase. Expecting some esoteric solution, I scurried about the dilapidated mansion, fruitlessly jamming items together, until at last, I thought, "Why not?"
And did A Thing.
And it worked.
When Thimbleweed Park works, it works beautifully. Like a Swiss-made watch or a production of Hamilton, every actor and cog sliding perfectly into place, aware of their place, their importance in the overarching narrative, and so very conscious of the genre's foibles and strengths. In that respect, Thimbleweed Park can, at times, feel peculiarly over-rehearsed, as though the jokes were built to an empirically proven formula. Which is not necessarily bad. Media is, by and large, a carefully structured experience, adhering to certain specific structures. (Example A: The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot) Nonetheless, I can't help but slightly miss the lunatic genius of inexperience.
What I love about Thimbleweed Park is its willingness to catapult players straight into the weird. It opens with an European-sounding man wandering down to the water, a reversible teddybear in grip, no explanation at all. Things escalate without the concept of brakes. The scene ends with him blue, bleeding, face-down in the water, and clearly dead because look, you can tell by the pixelation.
Fourth wall-breaking federal agents, who bear more than a passing resemblance to certain characters from The X-Files, then show up to investigate, at which point everything becomes even stranger. The two head down to the shambles of Thimbleweed Park, which once profited from the presence of an eccentric pillow magnate. There's also a clown, a game developer, a woman who works in a cake shop that once sold vacuum tubes, plumbers in pigeon suits, a coroner, a sheriff, and a hotel manager. (The last three are probably the same people. Probably. Don't trust those distinctive verbal tics.)
By and large, Thimbleweed Park succeeds in crafting a menagerie both humorous and sinister. The sheriff, for example, makes me think of Ned Flanders on the brink of a psychotic break. And the vacuum tube-saleswoman I found particularly unsettling, all smiles in her softly glowing dominion. But characters like the Pigeon Brothers, who are actually sisters with an inaccurately named van, only succeed in being grating, and the less said about that *bleeping* Ransome the *bleeping* clown, the *bleeping* better.
The puzzles, on the other hand, are more uniformly enjoyable. Gone are the ciphers that only be unlocked with the use of a rubber chicken. Thimbleweed Park roots itself in relatively rational conundrums, demanding only the smallest leaps of logic. Curiously, the game's at its weakest when it makes you juggle its characters. During cutscenes, they're all capable of banter, trading quips and verbal blows with all the elegance you'd expect of their creators. Outside of cutscenes? It is weird, I tell you, to have a federal agent hand her phone to a game developer, and even weirder for a clown to silently pass a bloodied wallet to a presumed law enforcer, all without fuss.
I won't even get into how eerie it is to have them all standing in the room, silently watching as you manoeuvre one of their ranks to a specific task.
(For the sake of posterity, I'd also like to note that the interface is pleasantly intuitive: accelerate your character -you often can swap between a few- by holding down the left mouse button; have your character use the most logical action by right-clicking on an object.)
Thimbleweed Park makes me think of that irascible uncle in a Hawaiian shirt, full of good intentions, but incapable of communicating save in fart jokes. I didn't know if I'd like the game. Real talk? I had to walk away from the game once, outraged by its attitude. But nostalgia - and the professional obligation to play - kept me coming back. Eventually, that sense of responsibility transmuted into genuine curiosity, and when the game surrendered self-aggrandisement, I learned to love it.
There's something endearing about a game that allows you to ask its characters, "Do you like adventure games?" over and over, as though it is stammering for validation. In an epoch of virtual reality and blockbuster graphics, Thimbleweed Park is genuinely a creature out of its time.
It works, though. All of it. And while the overture might be rough, the rest demands attention. Confectioned by the virtuosos of yesterday, Thimbleweed Park is surreal, silly and sinister.
Remember: the signals are strong tonight.