Thimbleweed Park, a great new adventure game by some of the key talent behind Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, sets up several mysteries that are never quite resolved. Does that matter? Director Ron Gilbert argues not.
Thimbleweed Park starts off with a dead man in a river, and while you might think the game would revolve around the mystery of who killed him, the answer to that question is never actually made clear. (It’s hinted that the sheriff did it, but never said outright.)
It’s also never made clear who’s watching you through the cameras you’ll see in occasional cut-scenes (maybe the Pillowtron?), who kidnaps Ray or Reyes in the alley behind the diner, or who placed Reyes under a sheet in the mortuary. (Thimbleweed Park also never explains why the store clerk claims to have a BetaMax player in the first act but then later, when you get a BetaMax tape, the game tells you that there are no BetaMax players in the town. We’ll chock that up to a design mistake.)
The final plot twist — that Thimbleweed Park is just an adventure game! — handwaves all these mysteries in a way that, while funny, can also feel unsatisfying to people who spent the whole game wondering what was going on.
So what’s the deal? On the most recent Thimbleweed Park podcast, Ron Gilbert and crew took questions from fans of the game, including one about the kidnapping. Here’s what he said:
It’s all done for a reason, right? As I read through the blog and I read through Steam comments and stuff, people are throwing out all these story flaws with the game, and I don’t think they’re story flaws. It was all done [with] a reason, and a purpose.
It’s not so much a secret, but it’s just that you need to — I look at a lot of the stuff that people are calling story flaws, and I think people need to step back and look at the stuff more as metaphors for things. And I think it makes a lot more sense when you do that a little bit.
So I don’t think we’re ever gonna reveal the meaning to these scenes, ’cause I don’t know that some of these scenes actually have concrete meanings. I think people really want hard answers, they want to know well exactly what happened with this scene? A lot of times they don’t have hard answers, they just have interesting metaphorical answers.
Designer Gary Winnick added that his explanation for the second kidnapping is that if you leave Reyes alone for a while, he “just gets really bored and goes and takes a nap on the coroner’s table”. And Gilbert continued:
I think if you take everything too literally, it’s not gonna make sense. I think for anybody who wants to understand the meaning for all these things, the only thing I would say is step back a little bit. Stop looking for really pat answers, and stop looking for these very physical answers to stuff, and look at the things that happen more as metaphors for things. Then I think it will probably start to make more sense.
I’m not so sure I buy that. A game like Thimbleweed Park uses mysteries to keep the player invested, encouraging him or her to keep going in order to see what will happen next. To end the game without resolving those mysteries, and then to argue that they were meant to be metaphorical, feels like a copout to me. Like the end of Lost. But I’m curious: Those of you who have played Thimbleweed Park, what do you think?