The era of point-and-click adventure games is, for the most part, remembered fondly by the gaming community. The genre helped establish Lucasfilm Games (later renamed LucasArts) as a powerhouse game studio (to say nothing of film) during its time. Now, over 20 years later, the point-and-click (PAC) genre has sustained itself almost strictly through fan games or deliberately indie fare looking to tap into nostalgia, but the team behind Thimbleweed Park aims to change that. As point-and-click genre visionaries, game developers like Ron Gilbert, David Fox, and Gary Winnick are teaming up once again (along with a small team of younger developers) to give genre fans another grand adventure. We played an early demo with developers Ron Gilbert (creator of Monkey Island, co-creator of Maniac Mansion) and David Fox (Lucasfilm’s third employee and SCUMM scriptor for Maniac Mansion) and spoke about how it feels to come back to an adult point-and-click game after so long, and what they hope to achieve.
Ron Gilbert: Gary Winnick and I, we did Maniac Mansion together. We kind of wanted to create a game that really captured the charm of those old games. And we really weren't sure what that charm was. It was very ethereal. We didn't really know. It's just like, well if we kind of make a game in the same way that we made a game back then, can we kind of capture what that was? [Thimbleweed Park] is really the story of these two detectives. This is agent Ray, and the other detective is agent Reyes. So it's these two detectives who show up in Thimbleweed Park because this dead body has been discovered out by the bridge. It's really the story of their investigation into the mystery of what killed this person in this really strange, bizarre town. You realize these two agents are really not partners. They don't actually know each other until they show up. They kind of randomly show up and the other one was there. So you're always very suspect of them. Like, why are they here? What are they doing? And it really plays into the bizarre-ness of Thimbleweed.
I don't think I remember seeing any of the classic control layout of “interact,” “grab,” “combine,” etc (during gameplay) at the bottom, so it's interesting that you're still going with that. It's the most obvious callback.
Ron: Yeah. I think it's also a bit of the charm of those games. You had all your options and you built the sentences and the verbs and stuff. So we really wanted to retain that as much as possible.
We've done play testing with people who have not played classic adventure games before. There's probably this maybe 15-20 second period where they're kind of going oh my god there's all these things on the screen, and then they realize, if they want to look at something, you just click look at it.
[At this point in the demo, Gilbert reveals that the character Dolores, a young programmer, is attempting to mail a job application to a studio called “Mucus Phlegm.”]
Is Mucus Phlegm a play on LucasArts?
Ron: It was Lucasfilm. We all used to joke. We called it Mucus Phlegm when we worked there. Anytime we wanted to make fun of who we were working for.
Are you guys coming back to “adult” point-and-click games for any particular reason? Did it feel like a good time or were you thinking you should fill gap? Because there are a few other indie point-and-click games out there.
Ron: Yeah, there’s other point-and-click stuff. I guess I haven't really designed a pure PAC adventure since those days. I did "The Cave," which is like an adventure game but more a platformer adventure. I haven't really done pure PAC adventure. I think that is interesting. When Gary and I first did the Kickstarter, that really came about because Gary and I were talking about the charm a game like Maniac Mansion had, or Monkey Island, and just talking about what seemed to be missing from modern adventure games. Because while they're fun and interesting, they're kind of missing that charm that old games had. This really became an experiment. What is that charm? Can we capture that charm? If we just go back and make this game just like we would have made a game when we were doing Maniac Mansion, can we recapture the charm of those games or not?
It seems interesting. Even in just the short playthrough here, the style, and writing as well, seems to be much closer to that old school Maniac Mansion. It's goofy, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes very intentionally. [laughs] I've played my fair share of PAC games that were inspired by those that came before, but I would grow so frustrated with them because I was never amused. It was either a raw story or it didn't have a carrot on a stick to help push me through. So what would you say are the bigger changes, if any, in making a PAC game in modern times? Like you said, you play-tested with people who never played PAC games before. Are you changing the aesthetic or gameplay loop in any significant way?
Ron: We are changing it, but I think what we're doing is changing it in very subtle ways. Because I think if you look at modern gamers who like modern adventure games like Kentucky Route Zero or Firewatch- I think modern gamers in general, they enjoy being challenged, but they don't enjoy being frustrated. I think when we were making games back in the 80's and 90's, being frustrated was almost a badge of honor for players back then. Players today just won't put up with that stuff. But they don't mind being challenged. They don't want to be led around. They don't want to be told "go here and do this," but they want to understand that yes I'm heading in the right direction. They need that comfort, that little bit of security to know that yes, you're doing the right thing. This is the right path for you to be going down. So those are some of the small changes we're making.
Playing something like Broken Age, I think that was another game that really hit the nail on the head in certain ways, but there were a few instances where I had no idea if I was doing the right thing. I can appreciate that as someone who both appreciates more old school things like Maniac Mansion, but I'm a big Firewatch fan, too. The narrative is obviously very X-Files, Mulder and Scully inspired. Was there any particular reason you guys ran with a mystery, or what appears to be a mystery, with a lot of supernatural stuff? Does that stem from time with Maniac Mansion or Indiana Jones? Is it kind of just you had a story idea and wanted to go further with it?
Ron: Maniac Mansion really came from the fact that Gary [Winnick] and I were fans of bad B-horror movies, so Maniac Mansion was sort of a send-up of B horror movies. In particular, I’m a big fan of David Lynch. I really like the the stuff he's done. So in some ways it's almost a send-up of Twin Peaks and really not the X-Files. We have this man, this woman, federal agents, and everybody thinks Mulder and Scully, but really that wasn't in our heads at all.
David: This is set in 1987 which is before the X-Files [laughs].
Ron: Right, so it's impossible it would be Mulder and Scully [laughs]. Case closed. But I think a lot of it is more Twin Peaks and David Lynch. When Gary and I did the Kickstarter and came up with the story of the characters, we were not thinking of X-Files at all. I was not an X-Files fan. I've seen maybe five episodes. And the second we did the Kickstarter and that image went up, everybody went "oh my god, it's agent Mulder and Scully X-Files." And I kind of went "oh, shit." [laughs]. That was my first reaction, "oh, shit, this is not the X-Files." I hope nobody is disappointed when they play the game expecting an X-Files game.
David: Having watched every episode of the X-Files, the story does not do X-Files in any way. It's very Twin Peaks.
So aside from the certainly-not-X-Files, certainly-not-Mulder-and-Scully duo, what is the kind of narrative that you're wanting to tell? I remember that you're exploring this old American town. It’s very post-industrial. Was there anything you were trying to communicate there?
Ron: Yeah, it is. I think adventure games in general, to me, I've always looked at the main character of an adventure game as the world. The main character in Maniac Mansion is that house. The main character in Monkey Island is that world [Guybrush Threepwood] inhabits. I think if you treat the adventure game world as if it's the main character, it can come alive. We treat the town like that. We built a real town. It connects like a real town would be. We expect you to navigate like a real town. So I think the town is kind of important.
In terms of themes, this is 1987, but Uncle Chuck [Delores’ relative], he's this strange inventor. He has all these weird computers all over town, and so there's a little bit of hints of this modern world we live in where we're all connected in some way with computers everywhere. So you see this little thread of that running through the story, but kind of in this 1987 frame of mind.
I guess even the humor too? PAC games feel like the first to really approach dry and sardonic humor.
Ron: I think that's kind of my humor style in general. I love dry humor. I have a lot of respect for comedians that can deliver really dry lines. I never use smiley faces in my tweets or emails. Sometimes it throws people off, because I say something and "oooh, there's no smiley face. Is he mad at me?" No, no, it's just that I'm sarcastic. I think a lot of the humor in the game is that kind. That's just me. That's what I enjoy. And there's a lot of fourth wall. I love breaking the fourth wall.
You've got to tell me about the damn clown. What's the deal there?
Ron: The clown? [laughs]. Ransom the Clown. He's been cursed. He's an insult clown. He goes up on stage and he basically insults everybody. But he's really an asshole, so everybody really kind of hates him, but they laugh at him because people laugh in uncomfortable moments. And he insults the wrong person in the audience and he gets cursed. And he can no longer remove his makeup. So he's stuck with this clown makeup and he retires to live in this old run down circus, can't really ever leave because everyone hates him and he's stuck with the makeup. His story is how he got cursed to never lose his makeup. So now he's a has-been, no career, he's broke and living out of a circus.
That was one of the things that struck me most interesting. There's a few clown-based horror films out there.
Ron: Some people find clowns terrifying. Not me. They've never bothered me. I've never had a clown phobia. But a lot of people really do hate clowns.
It's always the older, washed-up clowns like Ransom. Like something CLEARLY went wrong in this guy's life. Not where they enjoy their career.
Ron: If you look at the old advertisements from the 1950s or 60's where they had Ronald McDonald, he just looks creepy as hell. He just looks like a child molester clown. It's amazing that they got away with that, but it's weird.
The rest of the team. Have they had any significant input, especially having people come back from Lucasfilm?
Ron: Yeah, there's me, Gary, David, and [Lucasfilm background artist] Mark [Ferrari].
Coming back from something like that, 20 years later, has the group collaborated in any interesting ways that you didn't expect?
Ron: I think the thing about working together again was how quickly we just fell into working. Dave and I worked on several projects together, plus Gary and I. And just how quickly we got into that mode where we're just anticipating each other's' thoughts about stuff. And that's been nice because we've really been able to work through issues and problems and all this stuff really quickly.
David: I think there may also be like an ego-less part to it. Like each of us dealt with it the way we have to be, where one tries to take the lead on something. In this case I feel like Ron is the lead. And he's the one who's arbitrated choices. So if I say how about this, I try to see if he'll say he'll think about it.
Ron: There's a respect, right? A respect for each other.
David: It's safe for me to throw out ideas. And the same thing with people who aren't directly working with us, like playtesters. A lot of our ideas we get from playtesters.
Ron: They'll start calling us on stuff that isn't good enough.
I think that's one of the things that struck me the most. A lot of games in the AAA space, they tout that they're bringing back the creator of X, Y, or Z game, and he or she is serving as the project lead, but it's like subscribing to auteur theory. I like that there's a handful of the guys who helped build the genre and then you have younger devs to make those sorts of suggestions.
Ron: I think what you need on any project is a vision. There has to be a vision. Sometimes that comes from one person. Sometimes it comes from a small group of people. But I think as long as you have that strong vision then everything is going to be OK. Where projects I see don't really work it's because there were five different visions. All these people had their own vision and it never really meshed together. So at the end you don't produce a cohesive piece of art at the end. Where if everybody has a shared vision, you're going to do that.
David: It's broader than just the vision of the game. We worked together for years at this company where there was already a strong culture, even before we started. It kind of took on the culture of Lucasfilm as a film company and then right into our attention to detail and really wanted to make a way to do our own thing. So with the four of us who've worked together before, there was already this established sense of culture. So as we brought in other people who were new to it, they fell into that established culture, so in a way this is really is kind of the continuation of that original Lucasfilm culture. I don't know what happened 25 years later, for how much of that stuck.
So you keep saying culture. You mean just the work environment or how you guys communicate or something deeper?
Ron: I think it's when you're dealing with a creative medium, right? It's like how you deal with creative issues, input, and ideas. Because it's like anybody on the team should be able to contribute. It's not like "this is my vision, I will think of everything. I don't need you." A game like Monkey Island, everybody was suggesting ideas for that, from the testers to the artists, programmers. The whole vision. My job on Monkey Island wasn't to come up with the ideas, it was just to sift through all the ideas. It was to say "that works, that doesn't." Some project leads understand that, and there are others that do not, where everything they feel has to come from them. And we just try to create this culture that anybody on the team could just throw out an idea. Hey, if they have an idea for a puzzle or an animation, just throw it out there. That's the only criteria is it has to be good and fit the vision for the game.
David: The art, our primary character animator Octavi [Navarro], is a really good example of that. We know he's brilliant at doing animation, we'll give him direction. We'll give him intent and what has to happen, and he'll go crazy building something we never would have thought of. This all means you're pulling creativity from all these different talents into the game.
Kind of like the, computer animation where [Delores] is printing out the job application, that was a funny animation. You pointed it out, that reminded me that the best point and click adventure games do have those little nuggets of motion to them.
David: I agree. With that printer animation, the original puzzle was a good example of something that was kind of tedious because you had to have the letter, put it in the envelope. You had to press the button on the computer, get it to print, had to combine the letter and envelope, and it was all busywork. To Ron's point, this wasn't working. We had the idea for hands on the computer and Octavi made the animation that combined all these steps. It's not really fun to stamp envelopes [laughs].
Ron: And it masks all the really fun animation.
Did you guys think you’re taking anything from PAC adventure games that have come between then and now anyway, or do you think the medium/subgenre has reached a zenith. Are these games going to get stagnant again? Have you guys been inspired by anything, or some of the earliest stuff?
Ron: I don't think there's anything in the PAC genre that necessarily has. I kind of feel the PAC genre is very stagnant in a lot of ways. There are interesting PAC games being made now, but they really feel like they are just 1990's PAC games, and I don't feel like they're moving anything forward with what they're doing. So more of the inspiration, especially with the narrative, has really come from games like Firewatch and Kentucky Route Zero, and the more modern games and how they deal with narrative, and how they deal with moving players through their worlds, and what modern gamers find compelling about that. I think PAC adventures fell off the face of the earth. I think there's something about them that very modern players don't quite get. How do we make them feel safe and comfortable playing this? If you're a Firewatch fan or Kentucky Route Zero fan, [Thimbleweed Park] isn't going to be this horrible, frustrating experience that you heard your parents talk about [when they mentioned] how much they hate PAC adventures. This is going to be an interesting kind of experience. I think that's our challenge in a way.
David: There's a whole lot of stuff we've learned over the years about what you think is funny, what's good. I think back then, part of what was supposed to be fun was having a game that lasted a certain number of hours. You didn't kill people off. We did things that would extend gameplay, but they weren't especially that fun to do. So we want to make sure the gameplay is really fun and in-depth. There's a density, I think, to making progress. You're solving a lot of filler that you have to get through to make something happen. We talk a lot about puzzle design, which I don't think we thought about much back then. If you have a puzzle, it's really good to know what you're trying to solve before you start clicking on random objects and try to combine them randomly. So there's an intent. You're actively solving something.
In researching, I reacquainted myself watching old videos of Maniac Mansion, and yeah that makes sense that you see somebody who knows the game saying "we're going to go here and here," click, click, click, picking up 50 items, but you would never have any idea what to use them for. So having that intent I think, especially as a younger gamer who certainly didn't grow up with these, that makes a lot of sense. You're being much more intentional.
David: Yeah, we have a bunch of objects which have no use. They're there for atmosphere or backer objects [laughs].
Ron: If you backed at the $1,000 level you got to create an object in the game. There's the Ransom the Clown itch cream that's kind of fun. Octavi did a great animation of Ransom applying his itch cream [laughs].
You’ve said you’re aiming for an early 2017 release. I've noticed a lot of indie developers, old and new, seem to work on a timetable on three years. Have you guys been busting to get this done?
Ron: We've been really focused. A lot of Kickstarter projects work off the rails. It's like five years later they haven't built a game. We were very intent to not have that happen. We were supposed to release in July . So we've kind of slipped by about six months, but we've stayed very focused. We've tried to say hey, we're going to build this game, we're going to scope correctly, we're going to do all of these things that we've learned about games and shipping games on time.
David: There's also the work in making sure to do the wireframe art. We wireframed rough versions of every single room or area.
Ron: We cut a lot of stuff. There's a lot of stuff we did with this quick wireframe art, that we had working, and then said, this room isn't needed, and decided to cut it because it was only half the work time. It's easy to cut that stuff. I think that keeps the world kind of lean. Everything is there for a reason. We've gone through this process of essentially storyboarding the game out and cutting the stuff that isn't needed before time is invested.
David: There was a point where Ron had us each come up with a list of 10 or 15 rooms we could cut without killing the game. Some of our favorite rooms were in there, but I think one or two of them got back in the game[laughs]. It was a really good exercise to see what we needed, and if each room has a purpose, something happens there, do you need that room there?
Ron: There's the bar that's just gone.
Aside from the collaboration element, is that wireframe method, making drastic cuts, similar to what you did back when you were in the Maniac Mansion era?
Ron: No, actually, not at all. When I was doing Monkey Island, it was like we would have a room, and the artist would draw the whole thing, and it would be done to completion, and we'd do it and move onto the next one. It was this really linear fashion. It really wasn't until - because I started the company Humongous Entertainment after Lucasfilm, and we made adventure games for kids - it was there that we started doing all this very hand-drawn animation. I say hand-drawn, it was literally drawn on paper with pencil. Not in Photoshop. It was a very time consuming and expensive process. The results were amazing, but we couldn't waste doing animation that wasn't needed. So we got in this habit of doing storyboards of the entire game, all this black and white stuff. And within a month or two, we could play our entire game from beginning to end. It was all this black and white art, but that was the point we started going through and cutting a bunch of stuff that didn't matter, because the actual production was so expensive. We needed the production to just happen, to just go. I've really adopted that philosophy ever since. So now I like to build games and get them up and completely playable very, very early, and then go through and cut stuff before it's expensive to actually develop.
So obviously the value of budget and money has fluctuated in the decades that have passed. Does it feel like you're operating on a larger or stricter budget since those days? Because with Lucasfilm, I don't know what it was like in those days, especially in the gaming division.
Ron: Well, we didn't spend a lot of money. I don't think there was a lot of money to be spent. We had money, obviously. We had billions of dollars from Star Wars flowing in. But I think games were so simple that we couldn't have spent that much. There wasn't any place to pour that kind of money into games. So it was a much easier to keep things scoped a bit more. Games now, there's so many places you can pour money into a game that I think you have to be really careful. Certainly, coming from Kickstarter, we only had a certain bucket full of money. We got $623,000. I think with Kickstarter, the most important thing for a Kickstarter is you need a hook. You can't just have an idea for a game. You need a hook that hooks people. People often ask me, "what's some advice for running a Kickstarter?" I always tell them "sell people your dream. Don't sell them your game." It's not a store. Because if all you're doing is trying to sell people your game and getting them to fund the game, it's like well, go to Steam and find 50 games just like that. Sell them your dream. Sell them your passion for making this thing because that's what people will give you money for- it’s that kind of stuff. So I think Kickstarters need some kind of hook.
David: So the [original Kickstarter] art was Gary's and much closer to Maniac Mansion-style. [To Ron] Do you think if we had done the Kickstarter with Mark's art and actual scenes, do you think that would have gotten more or less?
Ron: Yeah, I think we would have raised a lot more money.
If it evoked the Maniac Mansion aesthetic?
David: I'm stunned by [the game] now because when I go back and look at the Kickstarter art, or I see the Kickstarter art in some articles that still pull from the old stuff, it's like "whoa" because it's so different.
Ron: Well we didn't know how much money we were going to raise. We asked for significantly less money than we got and we wanted to make sure that we had an art style that we could do for the money we wanted to raise so we kind of went with this more simplistic art that was more like Maniac Mansion. But then we raised almost twice the money; then we had the money to bring on Mark and Octavi and all these people and kind of raise the bar on the art.
David: The characters look different, too. Totally redone.
Ron: Which I think is just natural. Any game, you go through this natural process.
At least you're not going backwards.
Ron: [laughs] That's true.
Is there anything else you guys want to add?
David: You talk about other graphic adventure games that maybe don't have people doing it with as much experience. It's almost like most art forms where maybe some people think that it's really easy to do it because you consume it. "I can make a movie because I see movies," or "I can write a book because I read books. I can make games because I play games." The best games, I think, are not accidents. They're people who work really hard and have a lot of experience and draw on experience and keep polishing and polishing and polishing, and not take the first ideas that come up. In brainstorming we'd come up with ideas and say "that's not good enough. We can push a little further into it and not just use the first thing that comes up." And so I think that to do a really good one it helps to have that experience of which pitfalls to avoid, and to keep pushing on until it really feels like "yeah, that's a good puzzle."
The old saying being innovation rather than emulation, but this time it’s iteration over emulation.
Ron: I find with writing humor, I'll kind of write a line of dialogue and I just immediately say "well, how can I make this funnier?" And then I'll rewrite it and I'll go "how can I make this funnier?" Then I'll rewrite it again, and maybe after the third or fourth time I can go "that's a good line." It's like the writer's room on a TV show, right? It's just a group of writers, and somebody comes up with the core thing and then the group writers punch it up. Everybody just adds little things upon it to make it better and better. That's how you get really, really funny things.
David: I've seen a few movies lately where I'm just totally caught up in it, and then there's some point where, maybe in the third act, it just kind of goes "wham!" and falls to the ground. Whether you have this great idea -- you polish the first part over and over again, then you get to the end and whoops, you fall back on the easy solutions or cliches.
Or it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
David: I shouldn't be talking about this since we haven't done the end of our game yet.
[laughs] I'll be looking for that.
Ron: We see a lot of that in our game, because we get a lot of time on the beginning of the game. There isn't a lot of playtesting on the end of the game. The beginning of the game is going to be super tight.
David: Earlier games at Lucas, there never was a budget that I was aware of. I don't know if that changed for Monkey Island. But basically, it was "here's the game, any idea of how big it's going to be?" You'd have to estimate how many discs it would be.
Ron: That was our budget. Our budget wasn't "you can spend $200,000." It was "this game has to fit on five floppy disks. They can accord for the cost of goods for the box. So I just looked at everything as "I have to fit this game on five floppy disks. That constrains the budget right there, because there's only so much art that can fit on five floppy disks.
As someone who appreciates not just where games are going, but where they’ve come from, Thimbleweed Park feels poised to remind us why the genre charmed a generation of players. With a cast of memorable (if freaky) characters and an accessibility that previous point-and-click games felt little need to include, Thimbleweed Park may reignite that enchantment, if only for another moment in history.
Thimbleweed Park releases on March 30th on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One.