Monday, May 28, 2018

Thimbleweed Park is very 90s but has an unsatisfying ending.

This year I'm trying to review every game I finish. I've tried to review the game in the store I bought it in, because I think that's more helpful to developers. So far I've reviewed five games on Steam and one in Apple's app store. I recently finished Thumbleweed Park on the Switch and there isn't a way to leave written reviews in the Switch eShop, so it's back to this old blog for this one.

Last year I started watching Twin Peaks because people kept making references to it and I felt left out. I found it weird a compelling. The surreal small-town melodrama, its fantastic soundtrack, and its quirky characters stood out to me. I can see why it has a cult following. A lot of people compared Thimbleweed Park's aesthetic to Twin Peak's, and they both have the surreal, small-town murder in the 1990s going on. Twin Peaks was great at contrasting mundane things that would really happen with surreal ways things could go wrong. It was full of abusive relationships, mental and physical illness, secret illicit relationships, secret communications and liasons, and references to dream symbols.

I didn't make it to the end of Twin Peaks's second season, so I don't have to be unsatisfied with whatever ending they came up with... but I'm sure it was more satisfying than Thimbleweed Park's. Exploring the town and talking to characters in Thimbleweed Park was the best. The art style was so spot-on I just took it for granted. The tones from the phone and the soundtrack really brought me back to the 90s. I also made the mistake of calling a character's home phone instead of their business's phone, forgetting that most people didn't have cell phones back then!

The characters were zany and weird, and I loved Delores's flashback sequence where she applies to work at a videogame studio. I was really impressed with the sheer number of titles in the in-game library, which I guess were part of the Kickstarter rewards and were mostly written by backers, but they made it possible to hide information within the library. I thought this was a good integration of Kickstarter content. Similarly, having an entry in the phone directory was part of a Kickstarter reward, and there were over 3,000 of them. It definitely prevented me from dialing every single number in the phone book just to see what would happen.

Despite these things that I liked, there were quite a few things I disliked. Many, many puzzles were unintuitive. I found myself dialing the hint number many times in the middle of the game. I guess weird puzzle solutions are part of "classic" point-and-click adventure games, but it's not a part I like.

spoilers for Thimbleweed Park follow

The "twist" ending was that the characters discover they are in a videogame and want to delete it to escape the cycle of being characters in a videogame. This is a narrative conceit that has been done a few times before and I don't find it satisfying here. Zero Time Dillema, and Undertale made certain aspects of save games part of their games in brilliant ways that furthered the narrative. Okay, so the characters know it's a videogame... how does that help the narrative in Thimbleweed Park? From the build-up surrounding the mystery of the factory and Chuck's diary entries, I was expecting to engage in dialogue with the rogue AI, a highly traditional scene ripe for subversion. I was also expecting the text adventure to be a LOT longer, considering its build-up. I was hoping for some explanation for Chuck's madness beyond his highly transparent and convenient diary entries. I also expected one of the characters to go on a surreal vision quest and receive divine aid. I thought we were going to find out that some of the small-town residents were complicit in Chuck's crimes or at least that two unlikely people were making out. Instead, computer Chuck gave characters easy ways to fulfill their personal goals and Delores turned off the computer in a more primitive form of the game. It was very disappointing. It made me wonder if the developers were rushed to finish the game's script and came up with that?

I know that it's easy to establish a mood of weirdness and hard to write a satisfying ending. I would have been okay with lots of unanswered questions if the given explanation hadn't been so trite. I wish I had stopped in the middle of the game when I got stuck so I could just imagine the great ending I thought was coming. But since I finished, I get to gripe with everyone else about a genre I love. :-)