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Interview: Ron Gilbert on Thimbleweed Park and Classic Adventure Games

Ron Gilbert, the mind behind unforgettable games like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, is developing a new retro-style point-and-click adventure game, Thimbleweed Park. He discusses what it takes to remain true to the classics, bringing point-and-click adventure to the Xbox One, the virtues of having a rubber chicken pulley. 

Tell us about Thimbleweed Park.

Thimbleweed Park is a Kickstarter we did back in November. It's a throwback to the classic adventure games of the late 80s and early 90s, like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island. We're designing the game with a lot of that in mind - the design, humor, sensibility and gameplay. So, it's a very old-school game, with nice big pixels, with a classic feel.

What inspired you to develop this kind of retro-adventure game now?

There are a couple of reasons. One, it was more personal. I love that kind of art. I love the bigger pixels and the challenge of doing interesting things with the art. The other thing is, I really liked adventure games from back in the day. There are some very good adventure games today, but I think they're very different from the ones back then. A lot of people love those old adventure games and continue to play them. Not just the LucasArts stuff like Monkey Island, but King's Quest and so on. So I wanted to make a game that really was like those old games. That's what Gary and I wanted to do with the Kickstarter.

What is the most challenging part of developing a retro-style point-and-click adventure game?

Well, adventure games are difficult in general because you have two basic things. You have this story that's going on, and then you have puzzles. What makes an adventure game really good is when the story and the puzzles are so interwoven that they're almost indistinguishable.

One of the things I don't like about adventure games is hitting arbitrary puzzles. You don't understand why the puzzle is there, and why you're doing this thing. It's a puzzle for the sake of having an interesting puzzle, when it should be woven into the story. So, I think one of the most challenging things about making adventure games in general - weaving those two things together correctly.

There certainly isn't anything technologically challenging about this game [Thimbleweed Park] in particular. It's pixel art, so we don't have issues with processor speed or graphics cards. But I think one of the design issues is that we want a game that is very authentic to those old adventure games. But we also cannot alienate a modern audience. So, we're striking a balance between being true what those old games were like, while sanding off the sharp edges, so someone who doesn't have the nostalgia will still have a very good and engaging adventure game.

Will there be a lot of hotspot pixel hunting?

Probably not. I think back then, that was just bad adventure game design. It was something that happened that probably shouldn't have. There's a lot of stuff like that we're not going to do. Things like dead ends and death in adventure games are things that I've really tried to do away with from Monkey Island on. We're going to try to get the adventure game refined down, and pixel hunting is certainly not a fun thing. It wasn't fun back then, and it's not fun now. So, things like that will not be in the game.

How does removing death sequences make adventure games better?

I think it makes it better because you're not constantly worried about saving your game. When you're worried about saving, you're kind of meta-gaming. You're being pulled out of the game and constantly worrying about whether you have a good save point, and whether you should try something risky. Then you have to bring up the save menu and load up a save game. To me, that wrecks the immersiveness of the story. That's why I've felt from Maniac Mansion on that death shouldn't be a part of it. I think not having death creates a more immersive experience for players.

How different is it to develop a game like Thimbleweed Park today, compared to the Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island days?

It's a lot easier in many aspects, just because of the tools that we have. We have things like Photoshop and version control now. We had no version control system with Maniac Mansion or Monkey Island. So, when two programmers worked on something, you hand merged your code line-by-line in an editor. Now we have version control, Photoshop, and backups among a lot of other things.

Also, for all intents and purposes, we have an infinite amount of memory. The graphics of Thimbleweed Park are simple enough so that I do not have to worry about memory. You had disk loading back in the day. With Maniac Mansion, you had to swap disks. We had to spent a lot of time spreading the assets over two sides of the disk to reduce disk flipping. There's a lot of stuff like that we don't have to deal with today, which is really nice.

How do the problems with developing a crowdfunded game compare working with a publisher like LucasArts?

I think some of the different problems are better to have, and some are worse. Publishers can be difficult to work with, especially when they disagree with your vision of the game. They might want something changed, or the marketing department might decide that something is important, and you have to struggle to make changes. But at the same time, publishers can also be really good resources. They can provide very good feedback, and help with the budgeting and scheduling.

You have a lot more autonomy with crowdfunding, but instead of having a publisher looking over your shoulder, you have 60,000 backers looking over it. While they don't have any official control, it is a community, and you have to manage expectations with communication.

What would you say is the most appealing aspect of point-and-click adventure games?

Like I said earlier, the really good ones did an excellent job of weaving puzzle and story together. I think people like stories. As humans, we just love stories, and adventure games primarily exist to tell a story. I think that's one of those things that's going to be appealing to people as they play Thimbleweed Park - remembering or realizing what was so interesting or unique about those games back then.

What made you decide to bring Thimbleweed Park to Xbox One?

I've always wanted the game to be on console, but not so much as a hardware platform. The thing that interests me about consoles is where the games are played. It's not so much the machine that it's played on. It's that most people typically play them in their living room. They're playing them on a large screen television, sitting on a couch, with their husband or wife nearby. I think that's a really interesting environment to play an adventure game, because to me, adventure games have always been sort of co-op multiplayer games.

I have very fond memories of sitting around a computer with my friends playing old text adventures. Everyone would be shouting out ideas for what to do. Adventure games today can really be played that way. I think getting them into the living room is really neat.

How will the point-and-click style, designed for mouse and keyboard, translate to a console experience?

That's a really good question, and I have no idea. That's just one of those things I have to figure out. As we get the game up and running, we'll start playing with a controller. I want it to still feel like a point-and-click game. You know, back in the day, when we were making Maniac Mansion for the Commodore 64 - the Commodore 64 didn't have a mouse. You plugged an Atari joystick into it. So, in the original Maniac Mansion, you moved the cursor around with the joystick, and that worked quite well.

I've done a few experiments using the controller to move the cursor across the screen, and it works surprisingly well. There's some tuning that has to happen to get the accuracy to work, but to me, that's how I'd like to play. We're still going to do a lot of experimenting to make the controller feel right and still have the game feel authentic.

So, the PC/Mac/Linux version will have controller support?

Yeah, there's no reason not to do it. You're building the code in there, and all of those computers will support controllers.

Will Thimbleweed Park tell a linear story, or will there be decision points and multiple paths?

It's basically a linear story, but there are five characters to switch between. So, it's a little like Maniac Mansion, where you can play one character then switch to another to solve puzzles. Each of these characters have their own sub-story. So, you can play through the main story, then go back and play the sub-stories to conclusion. It's not really branching, but there are six different stories to explore.

Will any of these stories involve a microwave and a hamster?

[Laughs] Well, I don't want to give away any spoilers...

Without spoiling too much, what are some of your favorite Thimbleweed Park item combinations?

I think making balloon animals is fun. Ransome the Clown... is a clown, so he makes balloon animals, and we have some very interesting puzzles involving them.

Item combining is always a tricky thing, because you want to combine things in a way that's clever, but you don't want to be combining random items. A lot of adventure games get flack for combining seemingly random items without the player understanding what they were doing. They [players] just got frustrated and started combining everything in their inventory until the puzzle was accidentally solved.

With combining objects, you really have to look at it and ask, "does combining these two things make logical sense to solve the problem?" It may not be the immediate solution somebody comes to, but it should be the logical solution for doing so.

The Secret of Monkey Island's 25th Anniversary recently passed. Do you have a favorite memory to share?

There are so many memories from making that game that it's hard to pick. I wrote a blog post and talked about the anniversary. But there's just so much that it's hard for me to come up with one thing. Also, 25 years have passed, and all that stuff starts to fade in your head. I find that when I go back and play those games, a lot of memories that I've forgotten come back to me - like, "I remember when Steve Purcell did this," and things like that.

Do you think a rubber chicken with a built-in pulley is something everyone should own?

[Laughs] Well, I own one! Yes, I actually do own one, so...

About when will Thimbleweed Park release?

We're looking at late summer or early fall 2016.

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