Ron Gilbert, the famed videogame designer behind Maniac Mansion and The Secret Of Monkey Island, is in an apologetic mood. “I don’t think we did a very good job of setting expectations in the classic adventure games,” he tells us. “We kind of gave players a lot of vague instructions and expected you to go and figure it out on your own.” It’s a legacy he’s keen to address in Thimbleweed Park, the Kickstarted spiritual successor to Maniac Mansion.
“This has been a slow evolution of adventure game design for me, going all the way back to Maniac Mansion,” he continues. “That was a game filled with dead ends and weird arbitrary deaths that I would, of course, never do now. Monkey Island got rid of death and the arbitrariness of a lot of the puzzles, so that felt like a big advance. And when I left Lucasfilm I started Humongous Entertainment, which built adventure games for kids. Kids are a very interesting audience to design adventure games for – they have a very short attention span. You need to really keep them engaged and make sure that they’re very clear about what they need to be doing – which is different to telling them what they need to do.”
To that end, Terrible Toybox is aiming to streamline as much of the puzzle-solving process as possible, without ever leading by the hand. There’s an easy mode that will take the complexity out of certain puzzles – one puzzle in hard mode, for example, requires you to find and empty a bottle, figure out how to make ink, and then fill it in order to top up a printer; in easy mode, the full bottle is waiting there for you. And in a particularly nice touch, each of the five playable characters carries a personalised notebook that contains a checklist of things to do for each section of the game, which should ensure that you always know where to focus your efforts.
“Adventure games kind of have this stigma attached to them,” Gilbert says. “It probably came from a lot of the games in the early ’90s – that was the dark age of a lot of point-and-clicks in some ways. It’s probably my number-one worry with this game – I want to communicate to people that this is all of the wonderful things about point-and-click adventures, without all the stupid things about them.”
Within that concern lies Gilbert’s larger ambition for Thimbleweed Park: to somehow recapture the inscrutable charm of early adventures. “We didn’t want to make a retro point-and-click game,” he explains. “We wanted to make a retro point-and-click game that was like you remembered those old games. I don’t know what that charm was, and we’re really just trying to figure it out. I think we’ve done it. Part of that was just updating the graphics: we wanted to do 8bit art, but without all the technical limitations of 8bit art. But if I really think about Monkey Island or Maniac Mansion or Loom, or any of those games, there’s one thing I think they did a really good job of, and that’s creating a sense of place. In Maniac Mansion you really felt like you were exploring this weird house. And
Monkey Island was this whole pirate world, and after a while you really felt like it was a real world that you were walking around. I’ve played some recent point-and-click games and I’ll be walking around the police station or something, and I’ll walk out of the door and I’m teleported to some other place. I never get a chance to really explore the world.” From the small section of Thimbleweed
Park in our demo, which takes in a riverbed, a highway, a couple of streets from the main town, an expansive mansion, and an atmospheric overlook that shows off a view of the game world, it’s clear that Terrible Toybox has already succeeded at building a characterful, enigmatic environment that begs for deeper exploration. And it’s all made more vivid by realtime lighting, a sprawling cast of imaginatively bizarre individuals, and – perhaps most importantly of all – a script stuffed with some cracking gags. We’re keen to find out whether it can recapture the spirit of a much-cherished genre without tripping on any of its more irritating foibles, but we’re charmed by its approach already.
“I want to communicate that this is all of the wonderful things about point-and-click”
Just a small selection of a fat deck of trading cards, which reveals an extensive cast. These five are the game’s protagonists – you can switch between them throughout