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Genre: Point & Click, Mystery, Adventure
Developer: Terrible Toybox
Release Date: March 30, 2017
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Thimbleweed Park is a point & click murder-mystery adventure that winds up being much more than just your run-of-the-mill “who done it?” Two federal agents, Ray and Reyes are dispatched to the small, titular town to investigate the murder of a foreign businessman, but each of them has an ulterior motive for being there. Ray, the senior agent, is snarky and sarcastic with no time for rookie Agent Reyes’ overly enthusiastic attitude. She wants to get in and get out as quickly as possible, and it’s clear early on how much she hates both the town and its residents, especially the irritating and unhelpful sheriff/coroner. The rest of the town’s residents vary in their degrees of helpfulness, and as everything comes together, more than a mystery will be cracked wide open.
There are five playable characters (six if you count the corpse) to eventually switch between; however, in the beginning you only have the option of Agents Ray and Reyes. Both of them carry a notebook filled with tasks that are checked off as you complete them. Most are shared between the two agents, though there’s some divergence as the game goes on. The task list makes it so much easier to keep track of what you’ve done and what needs doing, though I wish there was a way to have the agents travel together, as I found it a bit annoying to switch between them to facilitate that. In hindsight, that action wasn’t entirely necessary, but the option still would’ve been nice.
The main menu is always up on the bottom left of the screen and consists of the commands below.
The game has both an Easy and Hard Mode, but I believe both come with the Tip Line, an in-game service where your character can call a number for a clue. This is just a small taste of how self-referential Thimbleweed Park is. I chose Easy, because it’s been a long time since I’ve played a point & click (think King’s Quest for the last one. Yeaaaaah that long ago), and I still had problems with some of the puzzles.
Unfortunately, TP wasn’t immune to a common complaint of these types of games where the answer is not remotely intuitive. The Tip Line was useful, but sometimes I had to turn to good old Google for assistance. There are also different actions among puzzles between Easy and Hard. So even if I looked up a solution, it would often not work because the poster was referring to Hard Mode. I was able to muddle through though between in and out game sources. After I finished it on Easy, I did start up a play-through on Hard, but didn’t go very far. I also found a Let’s Play by Cryaotic, but he only played around an hour and a half. I could see replaying Thimbleweed on Hard Mode at some point in the future though, since I’m better versed in the controls, know the story, and understand the basics of each puzzle.
People who’ve seen it say that Thimbleweed Park is similar to Twin Peaks in both genre and meta…ness, but since that’s yet another show on my list to watch, it’s something I’ll have to take on faith. Set in 1987, the game’s story has the extreme meta of a more postmodern era. This is all I can really say without getting into spoiler territory (though I will do so after the spoiler tag). This factor is integral to a plot which brings several disparate personalities together with my favorite being Delores.
The town of Thimbleweed owes its prosperity to Chuck Edmund’s inventions: gadgets such as the ArrestTron (TM), which will issue an arrest warrant when adequate evidence is inserted and the HydrantTron (TM), which is malfunctioning when you first come upon it, making it a puzzle to solve. Chuck made a fortune with a his pillow factory where he manufactured (shock) pillows, streamlining the process with the PillowTronics (TM) AI. He wanted Delores, his favorite niece, to take over the business, but she had no interest in the business and wanted to become a computer game programmer. As a result, when she finally told him, Chuck threatened to kick her out of the will.
Nearly everyone in Thimbleweed Park worships the ground Chuck no longer walks on (being as he’s dead and all), lauding him for his ability to use vacuum tubes to create a “tronic” future. There are a few exceptions to this rule with homeless Willie, whose watch business was ruined by Chuck, being one of the important ones. All of these factors just complicate Agents Ray and Reyes’ task of finding the foreign investor’s murderer and the motive behind it. What does Chuck Edmund and his estate have to do with it? What really caused the pillow factory to burn down? What the fuck are thimbleberries? And what’s really going on in Thimbleweed Park?
The characters (especially Agent Ray) express their Genre Savvy from the start. There are consistent insights that suggest they know they’re in a story, and the dry humor is both witty and refreshing. The game has a retro aesthetic, which fits with the era it’s set in, and again I have to refer to something I’ve never played, Maniac Mansion, for another example. Internet delvings have informed me characters from that make cameos in Thimbleweed so it’s another Easter Egg for players to look forward to.
The finale to Thimbleweed Park was surprisingly bittersweet with some honestly heartbreaking moments. Each character has their own ending with one in particular being the last to pull the plug. There was not a thing unsatisfying about it, and though the story took quite a huge left turn, all of the aspects tied together nicely. My only complaints are the fore mentioned involving some of the puzzles being rife with “video game” logic. Thankfully, we live in the internet age, so finding solutions isn’t that difficult, but devs should strive to either make them more intuitive or have some kind of in game clue that doesn’t involve me looking up the Kickstarter video.
What’s this? More after the rating? Well…there are some things I want to talk about that are major spoilers, and since it’s a discussion topic, I’d rather not do my typical spoiler tag. So I’m going to put a
So is everyone who doesn’t want to be spoiled out of the pool? Okay, let’s swim in the murky waters of metaness.
This is the most self-aware game I’ve ever played. When all five characters converge on the pillow factory, that’s where everything is blown wide open. Agent Reyes’ real reason for taking the case was to clear his father’s name, since senior Reyes was the security guard accused of burning the factory down. Reyes, Jr. never accepted that and was willing to do anything to prove his father was a patsy. Agent Ray had been tasked with stealing computer secrets, but she found much more than she bargained for with the secret of PillowTronics (TM). When Delores disables the security system there, she discovers her Uncle Chuck has uploaded his consciousness into the factory computer. He attempts to stop her and the others from continuing by any means necessary. Randomly and desperately calls out for his niece to help him, while in between he asks her strange and taunting questions such as, “Why does this town only have 88 residents, but 3000 names in the phone book?” and “Who/Where’s your mother?”
When it’s finally revealed that the town is trapped in a video game, all of the characters are as stunned as the players should be that Chuck figured such a thing out. Not only are they in a game, but it keeps repeating, and the only way to stop the cycle is to delete the entire thing. So after all of the other characters have their endings, Delores gets into the “wireframe world” by giving a balloon animal to the murder victim’s corpse (that’s the non-intuitive shit I’m talking about). In there she travels back to the pillow factory and shuts down the computer Chuck was in, thereby “ending” the game.
This is where the meta sadness comes in. As a player I watched the game dissolve into lines of code, freeing the denizens of Thimbleweed Park from the cycle. Then the credits rolled, and the title screen came back up, allowing me to restart the game, which I did. Everything was exactly the same as the first play through with none of the characters knowledgeable about what had happened at the end. It made me…sad, because there is no end to the cycle so long as people continue to play the game. They’re never going to escape, and they’re never going to carry the knowledge of the end to the next cycle, because they weren’t programmed to retain it. It’s like that episode of Star Trek: TNG “Cause and Effect” where the Enterprise and her crew are trapped in a time loop that ends with the ship’s destruction over and over again, but in their case there are echoes of past loops that eventually aid them in escape. The denizens of Thimbleweed Park don’t have such a luxury, which means Chuck’s discovery and consequential upload into the computer and Delores’ shutdown of the mainframe are all for nothing. The cycle will continue unabated so long as people play the game. They’ll all be trapped in an endless loop forever unless people stop playing, which would be terrible Thimbleweed’s developers. It’s a no win situation. Granted, if you bought the game and played through it once, I suppose that would bring a satisfactory end to both outcomes, but you’ll know if you start Thimbleweed up again, everything will go back to null.
It becomes more mind bending when you realize Chuck only knows he’s in a video game, because his character was programmed by the developers of Thimbleweed Park to know he’s in a video game, so he’s hasn’t really found the truth; he’s only programmed to think he’s found the truth. It was much more of an existential conundrum than I expected from a point and click mystery, but I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked considering it shares paradigms with Twin Peaks, which (I’ve heard) is a huge mind fuck.
All narratives, regardless of their media, potentially restart at their end since you always have the option to experience them again. Reread Lord of the Rings, and Frodo is tasked with bringing the Ring to Mount Doom again without every knowing he’s done it a myriad times before in readers’ minds. Re-watch Star Wars and Luke is tortured with the truth of who his father really is once more. Re-play Super Mario Bros, and the princess is once again in another castle. You experience anything you’ve read, watched, or played before with the fore knowledge of what’s going to happen to all the characters involved, which means re-experiencing anything incites dramatic irony in making you an omniscient and removed entity of that world. Thimbleweed Park forces the player to ponder that position more intricately and consider how it affects those who are part of the unbreakable loop. It also can’t help but make me wonder if this reality is our own narrative trap.