WE NEVER did learn the secret of Monkey Island, but maybe that wasn’t the point. Ron Gilbert’s seminal adventure game wasn’t meant to be a mystery — the real secret to its success was the world it created, quirky and mythical in equal measure.
For years, gamers have been crying out for Gilbert to return to the genre he defined, like Monty Python fans begging the troupe to reform for one more show. In Thimbleweed Park, that wish has been granted. This is exactly the kind of experience that 1990 might have delivered, in all the best possible ways.
Thimbleweed Park is small-town, sleepy America. Sleepy is the right word, too, as the town’s population of 80 grew up around the pillow factory that used to, ahem, prop up the community. The pillow factory has since closed down and the town is in the doldrums, which is where the story begins. A man is murdered and two FBI agents arrive to investigate. As the game progresses, the secrets of Thimbleweed Park unfold.
You’ll control five characters throughout the game — the two FBI agents, a foul-mouthed clown, a ghost and the heir to the pillow factory fortune — but these characters aren’t the main attraction. As always with a Ron Gilbert creation, the humour and supporting cast are what make Thimbleweed Park a joy to play. Some of the first characters you meet make this abundantly clear: a pair of plumbers call the ‘The Pigeon Brothers’, except the brothers are actually sisters working under the name ‘because Dad always wanted sons’. Dressed in ridiculous pigeon costumes, the sisters tease newcomers to the town by muttering about ‘the signals’ and looking to the sky.
“The signals are strong tonight”, the first mutters. “Yes, the signals,” the second affirms.
Then there’s the town sheriff, who finishes words with the annoying ‘a-reno’ addendum. “It’s nice-a-reno to meet you,” he might say, evoking a state-authorised Ned Flanders. The coroner and hotel manager, meanwhile, look exactly the same as the sheriff but finish their words with different annoying addendums. “I’m nothing like the coroner!” the sheriff exclaims, “except maybe around the eyes.” (They are exactly the same character models).
Overall, the story and setting are what make Thimbleweed Park a satisfying experience. The dialogue and quirky world won’t fail to bring a smile to your face.
In saying that, this wouldn’t be a Ron Gilbert game without an inventory or puzzles, and Thimbleweed Park delivers on that front too. We see the return of the ‘verb’ action system of 30 years ago, with different actions you can perform on the world, like ‘pick up’, ‘look at’, ‘give’ and so on.
Progress through the game is made by switching between the characters and clearing their ‘To Do’ checklists, which usually involves solving contextual or environmental puzzles. For example, ‘Find the murder weapon’ or ‘Open Ransome’s safe’. These puzzles are never frustrating and there’s even a casual mode for people who don’t want to get stuck while playing.
If you can imagine Guns and Roses releasing an album that perfectly evokes Appetite for Destruction in tone and sound, or seeing a new Simpsons episode drawn and scripted in the style of the first few seasons, then that is what Thimbleweed Park does for Ron Gilbert and adventure games. There have been better adventure games released in the years since Monkey Island was king, but none of them quite had that Gilbert magic. Thimbleweed Park does — and for fans, that’s more than enough. (It must be the signals.)
Meanwhile, Insomnia Ireland will take place at the INEC in Killarney from June 9-11. Insomnia is one of the the biggest gaming festivals in Ireland and last year saw a great attendance for its inaugural event. This year, some of the YouTube names involved include NerdoutMusic, ChoosChoosGaming and MiniMuka. In total, the YouTubers have a combined subscriber base of over 2.3m.
The organisers say they will bring together publishers and exhibitors to showcase games, including a retro gaming zone. They expect over 10,000 people to attend over the course of the weekend.
Tickets for a full day cost €27.50 and can be purchased on the insomnia gaming festival website.