Adventure game veterans Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick discuss the nature of nostalgia and how you capture what made the old games so special
In 1987, at last, there was a game that, if you were sick enough to think of it, let you microwave a hamster.
The game was Maniac Mansion, the influential point-and-click graphic adventure created by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, two of the earliest employees of the Lucasfilm Games Group (later Games Division, then Lucasfilm Games, then LucasArts), who would also go on to create The Secret of Monkey Island. Among the other innovations of Maniac Mansion – the game also pioneered the use of the cut-scene in games – its inclusion of gratuitous hamster detonation was an example of the gleeful sense of off-leash freedom it granted the player, a premonition of the edgy, open-world feel of games to come.
Thirty years later, the principal duo behind Maniac Mansion have reunited and treated the congealing adventure game genre to a much-needed reheating. Where their first game was a delirious spoof of B-movies, Thimbleweed Park is a noir thriller riffing on The X-Files, Twin Peaks and True Detective, with playable characters including a pillow factory heiress and a cursed clown. The Kickstarter pitch (the campaign raised $626,250) promised an experience "like opening a dusty old desk drawer and finding an undiscovered LucasArts adventure game you've never played before." Thimbleweed Park artfully replicates the low-resolution, chunky-pixel aesthetic of a bygone era but, even more crucially, it evokes the spirit of a halcyon time when the idea that you could blow up a rodent would blow your mind.
The impetus for Thimbleweed Park came out of a conversation Gilbert and Winnick were having about the long-ago "good old days" of adventure games, Maniac Mansion in particular. It wasn't just that they missed the rolling Northern Californian hills of Marin County around Skywalker Ranch, where Maniac Mansion was developed – though Winnick does have fond memories of their "great gourmet lunches". It was the fact that, as far as Gilbert and Winnick were concerned, modern adventure games have been lacking a certain undefinable appeal that the old ones had in spades.
Gilbert plays down the "sad old man" aspect of the origin story. "No one was crying into their pasta," he says. And actually, he is at pains to point out, he has sincerely enjoyed modern adventure games like Gone Home, Kentucky Route Zero and Firewatch.
"But they don't have the whimsical charm those Lucasfilm games had," says Gilbert. "We talked about why that was and really didn't figure anything out." By the end of lunch, Gilbert and Winnick had decided to see if they could recapture that elusive feeling of old by simply making a game exactly the way they used to.
In some senses, there's no comparing 1987's Maniac Mansion and 2017's Thimbleweed Park: at 320 kilobytes, the former fit onto both sides of a Commodore 64 floppy disk; one texture in the latter exceeds that size.
But the games feel connected in more meaningful ways. That ill-fated hamster – plopped into Maniac Mansion in a flash of inspiration by programmer David Fox, who also worked on Thimbleweed Park – was the result of an "improvisational" creative spirit that Gilbert was looking to bring back to life.
"The idea that someone will have a weird idea and – boom – it's in the game," he says. "I think that is part of that elusive charm that we were looking for. It's just being able to fill the game with all these fun, almost non-sequitur things that you can do. If it's a good idea, it doesn't matter who came up with it – it goes in the game. Great ideas aren't just limited to the designers. Everyone would get involved – the programmers, testers."
An online community of Thimbleweed Park supporters made significant contributions too. An in-game library is populated by 1,056 books written and submitted by fans and followers; the exceptionally keen player can unlock an achievement by listening to all 1,848 of fans’ voicemail messages in the game. There is also a collectable speck of dust in every room. “Someone tweeted at me to include a speck of dust, and I thought, ‘Ooh, that’s interesting,’” says Gilbert.
Nostalgia-driven and backward-glancing as it is, Thimbleweed Park also benefits from Gilbert and Winnick's 30 years of accumulated experience as game designers and interactive storytellers since Maniac Mansion. Not that he would go back and change a thing, Gilbert readily acknowledges that Maniac Mansion was littered with unwinnable situations and unsolvable puzzles.
"And it didn't have a story – it had a scenario," Gilbert says. "The hallmark of a great story is that the character emerges at the end of the story a different person than they were at the beginning of the story. I think that is one of the things that I really started to pay attention to: just understanding story arcs. Thimbleweed Park has a lot of that. The story moves through these very complicated twists and arcs and turns, and characters change from the beginning to the end of the story like they would in a novel or a movie."
The visuals for Maniac Mansion had been state-of-the-art at the time; the challenge was fighting the manifold technical limitations of the Commodore 64 and Apple II: RAM, CPU, disk space. By contrast, one of the challenges the Thimbleweed Park designers faced was "formatting down" the graphics, approximating the primitive capabilities of EA's Deluxe Paint II. It was a mode that required a vigilant artistic focus comparable to that of an ancient mosaic makers.
"One criterion we had was we wanted all the pixels in the game to feel very hand-placed," says Gilbert. "We didn't want to do a bunch of art, scan it and reduce the resolution so it would look pixelated. We wanted every pixel to exist in a particular place for a particular reason. To me that's the hallmark of great pixel art. Pixel art isn't just low-resolution art—pixel art is pixels hand-placed by an artist for a purpose."
Thimbleweed Park's defiantly 2D sprites, whose features are so obviously a collection of stubborn square dots, are remarkable in an age of increasingly sophisticated, hyperreal, 3D motion-captured video game characters. The pixelated aesthetic, Gilbert believes, encourages a closer connection between player and character.
"Things become icons of things. Because Agent Ray is fairly low-res she is an icon of a federal agent more than she is a federal agent. You have to fill in the gaps of what these people look like – you have to imagine, like in a book, as opposed to a movie. Pixel art lies somewhere between a book and a movie in that sense."
That said, whereas Gilbert and Winnick originally intended Thimbleweed Park to truthfully emulate 1987-era EGA visuals, 16 pre-defined colors and all, the look of the game went through a necessary evolution around the time it was decided that it would be released on Xbox. There were increased concerns about the need to compete visually with contemporary console games, not to mention the fear that the hip postmodern appeal of blatant pixelation would be lost on younger gamers. "There was a lot of discussion and exploration at the beginning to come up with a good balance between looking like our original games, but also pushing the art further based on current hardware," says Winnick. LucasArts background artist Mark Ferrari (who created the backgrounds for the original versions of Secret of Monkey Island and Loom) joined the team, ambient environmental animation and parallaxing layers were introduced, and the "doll's house" look of the earliest screens was superseded by more sophisticated layout perspectives.
Composer Steve Kirk was also enlisted to produce an unabashedly modern, crime-jazz-influenced score. As Gilbert explained in a blog post: "Don't get me wrong, I loved the SID chip, PC speaker, the Adlib card and amazing digital sound of the SoundBlaster (that still sounded like it was coming out of a PC speaker), but so much 'emotional data' can be carried in music and your eyes are already bleeding from the awesomely retro art, so why should your ears bleed too?"
The guiding analogy for the game's development gradually morphed from making "the game you remember" to "the game you think you remember." For veteran adventure gamers, the experience of Thimbleweed Park will be much more like the rose-tinted memory of Maniac Mansion or the Monkey Island games than those games themselves. "Nostalgia is an odd thing," Gilbert says. "We remember it being better than it was."
Along with the quiet confidence that Thimbleweed Park will "feel like 1987" and please older LucasArts fans, the hope is that the game will resonate with younger gamers that weren't around to experience the storied golden age of adventure games. More than ever, Gilbert says, gamers as a whole are primed to appreciate the exploratory quality so intrinsic to the genre. "It's not about being on rails and being taken from one scene to another, when the narrative wants you to – it's about uncovering the narrative, as you talk to people and you see things, this narrative kind of uncovered almost through this open-world exploration."
It remains to be seen how modern gamers will take to the puzzle-solving element, but it's an aspect that Gilbert has given a lot of thought. "Where point-and-click games can often fail is that the puzzles can become too frustrating or arbitrary," he says. "They almost repel you from the world because you're so frustrated with them. But if puzzle solving is done right it's very engaging. It's kinda the thing that keeps you anchored to the world." In any case, they haven't taken any chances: where there was just one tester in the early days of Lucasfilm, Thimbleweed Park has benefited from the services of one full-time and five part-time quality assurance testers.
Three decades on, Gilbert and Winnick still think fondly of their time at Lucasfilm, when working till two in the morning was the norm. Hours on Thimbleweed Park have been more sensible, rarely invading weekends. "I think those were some of the best times in our respective careers," says Winnick.
"I think the thing that makes games like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island kind of special in a way is that we didn't know what we were doing," says Gilbert. "When you don't know what you're doing you tend to break a lot of rules because you don't know better, and a lot of the time it actually makes things more interesting."
But wisdom and experience come in handy too, Gilbert admits. "Now we know how to schedule and budget a game."