Opinion: Thimbleweed Park relies too heavily on nostalgia

[This is a spoiler free article on Thimbleweed Park. This is not a review.]

Upon its Kickstarter announcement, Thimbleweed Park is a game that I’ve been looking forward to since late 2014. At its heart, it’s a nostalgia project. Like so many other Kickstarters for point-and-click adventure games, it used the nostalgia of the genre’s heyday to sell itself: a self-proclaimed “LucasArts adventure game you’ve never played before.” But what separates this adventure game Kickstarter from all the others are its developers: Ron Gilbert—arguably the godfather of the graphic point-and-click adventure game—and Gary Winnick. The duo that brought us the 1987 classic Maniac Mansion.

To say it simply, adventure games are my favorite genre, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit just how excited I was to get this game. But after putting 6.5 hours into Thimbleweed Park, I’m left with a conflicting judgment: Where should the line be drawn between trying to develop a good game, and simultaneously make something that embraces the nostalgic roots that influenced a game’s existence in the first place? Even more importantly, where do I stand with judging the developers who’ve practically created the genre?

Within moments of starting the game, you are immediately reminded that you’re playing a pixelated point-and-click adventure game. Ron Gilbert wastes no time breaking the fourth wall, and has his characters cracking jokes about the tropes of classic adventure games. At first, this got a chuckle out of me. But it didn’t take long until I realized this would be a common theme in most of the conversations I would have in the game. So much to the point that I was being taken out of the experience, and felt completely removed from the narrative of the story: solving a murder in the small town of Thimbleweed Park.

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Being taken out of the game is a frustrating contradiction to what has made this genre so important to me. I love adventure games for their immersion. Because they’re a “play-at-your-own-pace” style of gaming, and rely almost solely on story and atmosphere to drive the player forward, it forces the player to step into the world, rather than speed through it. It influences the player to relax when other games heighten them. I’ve always preferred adventure games over other genres for this reason.

Gilbert’s constant wink at the players almost feels like he has to remind you that he was one of the creators of the genre. Like he’s giving you a proud shoulder nudge, met with an exaggerated smirk, and saying “yeah, that was me. I created that.”  It feels like he’s trying to prove his worth to the audience, as if they forgot about him, which clearly isn’t the case, given that the Kickstarter’s success could be directly owed to his name being attached to it.

It’s strange—the constant reminder of the basic mechanics of the genre feels like it could be intended to tell a new audience the rules of the genre, like saying “this game was expertly designed to have no dead-ends or deaths.” It’s something longtime fans already know, but it equally feels like it could be patronizing to a new audience of the genre. It doesn’t allow them to figure out how the game works on their own. Whether or not that was the developer’s intention? I don’t know. I’m speaking not only as a player, but also a long-time fan of the genre, and I’m annoyed on both ends. It alienates newcomers.

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Give yourself a nice pat on the back, Gilbert.

Contrary to what I’ve said, I’m enjoying the game quite a bit. Actually, it’s really good. Its pacing is like none other I’ve played in its genre. It moves fast, while still giving the player time to experience their environment and discover at their own pace. Its soundtrack sets the mood immediately; the settings are wonderfully varied and well crafted; and the characters are unforgettable. And as the game progresses, the references become much less frequent.

But despite all that I like about it, the experience has left me asking: how much nostalgia is too much? Where is that line drawn between trying to please fans, and making a good game? In this case, Thimbleweed Park is good, but I can’t help wonder if I’d be enjoying it more if it just took a step back from itself.

I also think it’s safe to assume Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick made this purely to satisfy their own need to make a game in the genre that they helped create. And with that respect, I totally get it: artists and creators should make what they want to play. At the end of the day, Gilbert is the artist, and artists can do whatever the they damn want. He did, after all, create the engine Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion (SCUMM) that all Lucasarts point-and-click games were made with in the 90’s. So more power to him.

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Get it?

Thimbleweed Park does, however, represent some of its nostalgic references right. X-Files and Twin Peaks are deliberate influences, but take a back seat in developing mood, atmosphere, and story, opposed to telling the player that they were influences within the game. Also, there’s good references to past adventure games, specifically when a character refers to his cousin Bernard (a lead character in both previous Gilbert projects Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle) is a quick nod to previous installments in Gilbert’s works, but done right.

Gilbert and Winnick set out to make a game that would reward longtime fans, and by doing so, risked alienating a new audience. And whether or not that was their intention, or should have even taken that risk, is debatable. I just didn’t expect that I would be one of those feeling alienated.

I also have to admit that I have an ongoing dilemma with nostalgia, and our reliance on it to make something interesting, like we’re not capable of accepting new ideas unless it refers to something we already know and love. Someday down the road if I have the time, I’d like to elaborate more on our obsession with nostalgia.

So how about you? Do you utterly disagree with me and love a good fan pleaser? Or is there another game of recent times that has made you feel same way?

A list of adventure games of recent years that I love:
The Dream Machine
The Journey Down
Kentucky Route Zero
Machinarium

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-Kurt

Why Grim Fandango made me who I am.

Everyone has that one thing. That thing that shapes who you are without you even really being consciously aware of it. For a lot of people, it’s a particular movie, cartoon show, or album that just fills them with a rushing sense of nostalgia, or a reminder of something that defined a period in their life. For me, it was a video game. That game was Grim Fandango. If you’re aware of what this masterpiece of a game is, then reading the rest of this article may be just a reminder to how sweet you are for having known what it is. Otherwise, indulge with me and my analysis of how this game subconsciously defined who I would eventually become, despite its commercial failure.

For the sad souls that have somehow slithered through their lives not knowing about this game, Grim Fandango is an adventure game directed by Tim Schaffer, who is now more commonly known today for his work at ‘Double Fine’ which put out Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. In Grim Fandango, you play as Manny Calavera, a travel agent for the recently deceased. It’s his job to give them a form of transportation through the land of the dead to their final resting place. It isn’t until he meets Mercedes Colomar that he must travel across the land of the dead himself to save her.

Released on October 30th, 1998, I distinctly recall my father purchasing Grim Fandango in November of the same year. At the time, my 8 year old self wasn’t sure what it was, or what kind of game it was.

I knew what an adventure game was by the standards such as The Legend of Zelda. And at the time, I was obsessing over the uprising first person shooter genre of games such as Duke Nukem 3D or Quake. Was Grim Fandango a first person shooter? I didn’t think it looked like one. In fact, I didn’t think it really looked like a game at all, but more like an animated film about well dressed skeletons.

Grim Fandango was brought home and installed on our PC in the basement. My sister, who was 14 at the time, was much more familiar with the genre and style of adventure games (being that titles like ‘D’ and ‘7th Guest’ were her favorite games; I was too scared of them). She began playing Grim Fandango while I sat from a distance only showing mild intrigue. I remember wanting to play, and being interested, but I let my older and intimidating sister have her fun while she laughed at the dialogue and characters. It wasn’t until she couldn’t figure out how to open the main menu of the game and save that she had lost interest for the time being, thus allowing me to sneak into scene and give the Grim Fandango a try.

I wandered around the town aimlessly speaking to characters, collecting items that I had no idea held relevance to the progression of the story in any way. I was completely immersed in the ability to choose whatever I’d like to say. I found myself spending the next hour choosing every single possible dialogue entry to hear the entire tree that had been written for that conversation. It felt so open and free to whatever I wanted to do, and though my choices were actually limited to only a couple of lines, it still felt as though I had been given a freedom I had never experienced in a game before. In Duke Nukem, I could choose to compliment the strippers, but I had only one line to say, and I didn’t have a say in even choosing it.

But the moment that Grim Fandango really blew my 8 year old mind a way was when I had made the decision to shove the festival bread I collected earlier in the game down Manny’s mail tube in his office. It was at that moment, I think I was changed forever. It almost felt as if I was creating the story; I was creating the events happening, not consciously aware that it may or may not have a consequence in the game. Though shoving the bread down that mail tube truly had no consequence in the end, it’s the principal that I was allowed to execute this very random thought of mine. Even more brilliant, is that action foreshadowed the solution to a puzzle later in the game.

Now, to most reading this, you probably think this is all old news, given that adventure games and this mechanic had existed since text adventures. But admittedly I was young, and my feeble pre-adolescent mind could not handle that style of gaming until I approached the later years of my first decade of life. Sadly, and also amazingly, I wasn’t truly able to comprehend and really play games of this depth and design until I was 8, and Grim just so happened to be my first exposure of it. But I had only caught it in its tail end of the genres decline. Leaving me with, what most argue, the greatest adventure game ever made.

WELCOME TO RUBACAVA.

I grew up into my teen years finding an absolute fascination for old crime and pulp films, as well as literature. I became obsessed with the works of Raymond Chandler like The Big Sleep, and Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon.

I had fallen in love with films of the same titles, and then I had finally come across the movie that was Casablanca – which Grim Fandango is most heavily influenced by. Like Grim Fandango, I became oddly infatuated with Casablanca, and found myself coming back to it again and again, studying and researching it.

But as this love and fascination for older films and pulp fiction had developed, never was I consciously aware where that love stemmed from. When I was 8, I did not declare “that because of Grim, I will love and seek out film noir.” In fact, the connection between the two didn’t even become apparent to me until my early twenties.

I also had a fascination with what would be considered darker themes in life, such as the afterlife, and death. As a young artist, I always enjoyed drawing skeletons, and all things spooky, once again, never consciously aware that if I were to take all my separate and many interests and combine them, that it would essentially create Grim Fandango! I didn’t even really notice how much of an impact the conceptual artist of Grim, Peter Chan, had made on my art style alone! And of course, and lastly, the impact it made on my undeniable love for all things adventure games.

Conceptual artwork by Peter Chan

1998 – THE DAWN OF A NEW ERA OF VIDEO GAMES

I consider 1998 to be the most important year in gaming in terms of what I think became the standard of modern game design with titles such as Resident Evil 2 and Half Life that weren’t only a commercial success, but critically considered ground breaking. Both of these games are also amongst my favorite games of all time, that both eventually spawned sequels that make my top 3 (being Resident Evil 4 and Half Life 2).

Though Resident Evil 2 didn’t change the landscape much from its predecessor, it is the most successful in the series, selling nearly 5 million copies alone on the playstation platform. It brought the horror survival genre to the forefront, making zombies cool again, which despite its undying popularity today with new zombie franchise games being announced left and right, films, and TV shows. Zombies were not that apparent in the late 80’s and 90’s. Mainstream horror was more focused on teen slasher films at the time. I’m willing to go so far to say that the success of Resident Evil paved way for what is now this renaissance of zombie movies, shows, and games.

Then there is of course, arguably one of the greatest games ever made, Half Life. Which not only set the standard for the first person shooter genre, but reshaped the way stories could be told in video games. In 2004, Half Life had sold 8 million copies. It was an enormous success. It can’t be denied that every FPS to come out since Half Life, learned something from that game.

So… how did Grim Fandango hold up with its fellow 1998 games. Sales are estimated around 100,000 – 500,000 units worldwide. In which by those standards the game is considered a commercial failure. Following Grim Fandango’s failure, LucasArts (its publisher) cancelled the sequels to past adventure game classic such as Sam & Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle.

1998 was a year of broad diversity in new genres coming out, old genres being redefined, and also, classic genres dying out. 1998 was a year that had huge influence on game design for years to come. Being an 8 year old and experiencing these games on the cusp of beginning to define myself early on was a remarkable age to digest all this.

WHY GRIM?

In the midst of over a dozen other influential ground breaking titles that could have defined my interests, may it have been Resident Evil with its obvious Romero Zombie film influence, or Half Life that could have made FPS’s and science fiction my favorite genres, it was Grim Fandango that became a timeless never ending influence and inspiration to my personality, career choices, and interests.

Obviously Grim differs in the obvious compared to HL and RE2. So what was it? Was it that sense of freedom I felt while choosing what I can say, or do? Was it that I could play at my own pace and not feel rushed to kill the next enemy or more importantly, not die?

Grim Fandango captured atmosphere and style that could never be replicated. A world so beautifully realized simply from all of Schaffers interests at the time: mexican folklore, and old film noir. Peter Chan managed to hone in on what made the world of Grim what it was. All the while Peter McConnell’s instalntly nostalgic and memorable soundtrack completed the back drop. I really can’t say this in any other way, but I think Grim Fandango is perfect. Most folk like to make a stink about its clunky controls, but hey, thats only a product of its time period. Lets not forget, that Resident Evil also shared that same control scheme.

I think Grim could and should be studied for years to come, not only for its design, but its ability to execute a story on the same level as classic literature and film. And though Grim Fandango ended the genre for over a decade, it’s also Tim Schaffer that may have even brought it back from the dead with his recent kickstarted success “Broken Age.”

Also, I can’t end this without mentioning my shock and excitement that Grim Fandango is being remastered for the PS4 and PS vita. I’m hopeful for a PC remaster as well.

Anyway, I gotta relax. I do like other games… and other things… for that matter, I swear.

KURT