Video games have an odd combination to work out when it comes to crafting a great narrative whilst also giving their players interactivity which paces out long stretches of cutscenes or conversations. This balance between drama and gameplay can be one that most developers find hard to hit and one certainly limited by what gamers expect their experiences to feel like. These expectations were shattered as Thimbleweed Park, an adventure game by Terrible Toybox, weaved both sides of narrative and gameplay together into a tapestry that echoes genre greats like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle. My adventures in the small world made even more sense on Nintendo’s newest hybrid console, the Switch.
The grimy, noir-like world of Thimbleweed Park is introduced to the player with precise clippings of knowledge. First, we see what brings Detectives Ray and Reyes to the small town by way of a foretelling bit of gameplay which sees a man adventuring around the edges of town by the orders of an unknown figure. As it turns out, the man is murdered and the federal agents which are assigned to the investigation begin their awkward happenings in the strange, rat-filled back alleys of a town that whispers to new visitors like the calm aura before a storm. As the detectives put their magnifying glasses on Thimbleweed Park, they begin to uncover the interconnected stories of the populace, expanding the once little dot on the map into a bundle of communal relationships that make their mission of discovery almost impossible.
It was here that the adventure game Terrible Toybox created displayed its original charm. Characters are at the center of this story just as much as the small town is. It is these characters that drive the seemingly simple plot into a convoluted labyrinth of truth and lies, one that the player is learning just as slow as the detectives they play as. Whether it was the annoying sheriff who was also the coroner, the dastardly clown, or a wannabe video game designer, Thimbleweed Park introduced its history and exposition in ways that kept the player focused yet attentive. Each new cast member introduced through unforced dialogue or nifty flashbacks had me wanting more, and to say that any of these characters could be rewritten to star in their own adventure game is a statement that reflects the brilliance in a game so ripe with quirky attitude that pulled me in every time I played. I found out quickly that just an hour with Thimbleweed Park quickly turned into a night where I was fully invested in the antics of these palpable characters.
Gluing these characters in with the tone of the writing made Terrible Toybox’s obvious proficiency in the craft such a center of the game. Though the plot as a whole remained serious, often sounding like a 50s-inspired noir film, it also did not rush through the moments of satisfactory comedy. These inside jokes and fourth wall-breaking punchlines were exceptionally clever as players venture an hour or so into the roughly twelve hour story. Dialogue options, NPC comments, and full on cutscene narration made Thimbleweed Park more like an audio book with bright neon lights than a video game. Although this might sound boring to some, the gameplay kept things fresh enough so that players can deal with the more monotonous bits of story.
This gameplay, inspired by old LucasArts adventure games, is one which provides the player with ample room to discover new things in every scene. Interacting with items by using them, opening them, pushing them, and more, made the simplest looking spaces appear to be much more. At times I would think I was done with an area, only to find later that a particular item could’ve been used to get a specific piece of information, sometimes valuable to the larger story but sometimes a tool in which more history is built into the fictional city. This find and assess style of gameplay is made even better in the Switch version of Thimbleweed Park.
Few third party games so far have made use of the features that the Switch markets as its biggest selling factors. This list includes the HD rumble of the Joy-Cons, the motion controls of the same, and the touch screen tapping of the Switch’s handheld mode. Thimbleweed Park, instead, chose to fully embrace that last design aspect to its fullest potential. In handheld mode, the touch screen can basically be used to control the whole game and even improves the moment to moment gameplay of Thimbleweed Park.
Instead of making slow, methodical movements with the game’s traditional control method (an onscreen cursor that points to virtual buttons and items to interact with), I found myself making use of the touch screen controls which Thimbleweed Park gave to players through the handheld mode. Not only did these controls make Thimbleweed Park a faster and more precise experience, it made my levels of interactivity feel a lot more abundant than they probably were. To see a third party developer take their port to Nintendo Switch and actually use some of its unique aspects is a true sign of a developer who cares about the product, no matter what platform it’s on. Though some technical aspects of the port could be handled better (like some weird word clippings onscreen in handheld mode), something about having this medium-sized adventure game with me wherever I go added immersion, even when I had to get up from my TV and couch. Even better, the Switch version of Thimbleweed Park downgrades essentially nothing in terms of art, I just wished the same could be said for the sound design.
Upon arriving at eerie Thimbleweed Park, its pixel-styled graphics radiated a charm that only its brick-made buildings could match. The way lights glow on lonely corners, the way foreground art shows more detail in the overall setting, the way each location had its own sense of place all gave way to an excellent piece of art. Though much of the game served as a reminder that the adventure genre can still be entertaining and look great while doing it, it never showed its hand too much or tried too hard in order to make me appreciate the level of detail put into the 2D art. As previously stated, I wish the same could be said for the sound design that struck the wrong note while the game was played in handheld mode. Maybe it was the technical limitations of the Switch, but the game rarely sounded quite right when I was playing on the go, even when using headphones. A certain static and low quality made the fantastic soundtrack stand out way less, and it irritated me when I wanted to hear the characters’ expertly performed dialogue. It was a shame that so much great sound went into Thimbleweed Park, only to have the end product ring of a nasty tone. Other than this and the aforementioned clipped out words, handheld mode ran perfect, albeit costing the adventure some spark.
Developer: Terrible Toybox
Publisher: Terrible Toybox
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 21st September 2017 (Nintendo Switch)