At first glance, you might think Thimbleweed Park, the classic SCUMM-style point-and-click adventure from Gary Winnick and Secret of Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert, is an unusual choice of setting. It’s a surreal mystery straight out of David Lynch, wherein a pair of FBI agents arrive in the small burg to investigate a recent murder, which Gilbert says is just the “tip of the iceberg” into a much stranger world journey.
Thimbleweed’s setting and clear allusions to Twin Peaks are intentional, of course, and Gilbert repeatedly explains his love of Lynch and his nightmare worlds to me. It was something I was curious about before seeing the game last month at PAX West. And while I soon learned his new game shares in the sense of humor seen in his classic LucasArts titles, Gilbert actually says he sees the bulk of his work as serious stories.
“Most of the games I’ve done, they’ve been funny, but they’ve kind of been serious,” Gilbert says. “Even if you look at something like Monkey Island, it’s a very funny game, but it’s actually a very serious story — it’s taking a very serious story and wrapping it in some funny stuff.”
Given most people — myself included — associate Monkey Island with its most ridiculous moments (insult sword fighting springs to mind, personally), Gilbert’s answer catches me off guard. But it also makes sense. He explains further.
“A wonderful example is Ghostbusters,” Gilbert continues. “I mean, that’s a very serious story it’s about these demonic alter-dimensional things coming in and destroying the world — but they wrap it in this humor. So as the characters are completing the serious quest, there’s a lot of funny around it.”
This, Gilbert says, is exactly how he’s always approached the narrative in his (very funny) games.
“Its not just slapstick comedy,” he says.
As for Thimbleweed Park’s style and tone, a thematic tableau Gilbert obviously cares about quite a bit, he says he wanted to capture the strangeness lurking beneath the surface of Anytown, USA.
“I like to try lots of new things,” he says. “What we wanted to do with Thimbleweed Park was to have on the surface this quiet little small town, but underneath there’s a lot of very strange people and a lot of strange, bizarre things,” he says, citing both Lynch and Stephen King.
The bit of gameplay Gilbert showed me, a playable flashback segment introducing one of the games five protagonists, has his sense of humor, and included a few parts that made me laugh out loud. I also kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Just as Lynch masterfully butted unexpected levity up against deep-seated dread – sometimes only separated by a quick, ethereal scene transition – Thimbleweed Park’s atmosphere feels like its weird is always lurking just beneath the surface. Gilbert knows the efficacy of the combination.
“I think it’s that juxtaposition,” he says, referring both to Thimbleweed Park and Lynch. “If the whole thing was nothing but terrifying and unsettling, I think you’d become numb to it after a while. And I don’t think Lynch is a comedic director, but there is kind of a weird comedy to his stuff in some of the absurdness that goes on it. I think that’s what were trying to capture.”
There’s something bizarre about what players do in point-and-click adventure design as well.
“I think humor always works well in adventure games, because I think you are asking players to do weird things in them, right?” Gilbert says. “They’re stealing everything they see, they’re doing all this stuff. So I think if you can wrap that in a package of humor it makes it a lot easier to digest.”
As to how that balance affects puzzles and narrative, Gilbert is a big believer in context.
“To me, really good adventure game puzzles are more than just arbitrary,” he says. “Every puzzle in an adventure game should tell you something about the characters, something about the world and something about the story — if the puzzle doesn’t tell you something about one of those three things, then get rid of it.”
Gilbert uses one of the game’s protagonists, a cursed clown named Ransom, as an example — he’s not the most lovable of characters; all of his puzzles revolve around him playing to his personality.
“Ransom’s kind of an asshole,” Gilbert says. “So a lot of his puzzles are about him being an asshole to somebody.”
Seemingly forever clutching a balloon and wearing an oversized bowtie — visual elements directly juxtaposed with a scowling expression and the broader, inescapable association to King’s It monster, Pennywise — Ransom is also perhaps a great visual indicator of how Thimbleweed Park straddles the line between comedy and dread. Still, while players shouldn’t go into the game expecting pure horror, Gilbert does see the humor that’s often inherent in the genre.
“I think pure horror is absurd — you know, if you watch real horror movies, it’s so absurd in what they’re doing,” he says. “[But] we don’t do horror in the same sense that some games do horror or movies do horror. And I don’t look at David Lynch as a horror director, but there’s an uneasiness to [what he does].”
In any case, Gilbert has earned the right to make any kind of game he wants — and given that a psychological inability to the unexplained can at times cause laughter, Thimbleweed Park feels like a natural fit. From the little I’ve seen thus far, what’s slightly off about it just makes me want to delve deeper.