Old dog, new tricks: Adventure game icon Ron Gilbert on going back in time with Thimbleweed Park

Old dog, new tricks: Adventure game icon Ron Gilbert on going back in time with Thimbleweed Park
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

July 7th 2016 at 12:05PM

Legendary games developer Ron Gilbert tells us why he’s thankful for Photoshop and unlimited memory as he wraps up development on the crowdfunded retro adventure title

What technology is behind Thimbleweed Park? How does it differ from the SCUMM tech behind your early games like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island?

The engine I’m using is one I wrote myself, it’s all custom-made.

It’s definitely inspired by what I did with SCUMM. There was a lot about that system I really liked – the way you programmed and interacted with it – and I never really found that with any of the other engines I’ve used.

When we decided to do Thimbleweed, writing our own engine was absolutely something I knew I wanted to do. Plus, I really like to programme – that’s a fun part of the whole process.

While it does a lot of the same stuff SCUMM does, it’s much more advanced. Thimbleweed is an 8-bit game, but we’ve moved way beyond that. There’s a lot of interesting parallaxing, multiple layers to the world, shaders and lighting at work. So we’re taking that 8-bit aesthetic and really treating it as an artistic expression rather than a technical constraint. 

Back in the ‘80s, we did 8-bit art because that’s all we really could do. Now, we can do a lot more than that, but we really like that aesthetic, so we were trying to work out how we could do it while also moving it into the future.

The 8-bit aesthetic is very much back in fashion. Is it easier to do an 8-bit game, or does it require more skill/imagination regarding design?

Both. It’s certainly easier than doing a fully-fledged 3D game; you can cut some interesting corners with 8-bit. 

As 2D art becomes more realistic, you expect things to animate differently; when a character reaches out for something, you actually expect to touch the object because the animation is so good and high-res. When you go to the 8-bit style, you kinda get away without doing a lot of that stuff because it feels like everything is an icon, not an actual object. That’s where a lot of indies find the 8-bit art a little bit simpler. 

The reason it can actually be quite a challenge is that you really run the risk that your game will look like it was made 20 years ago. But to do really good 8-bit art, it’s more than just trying to replicate the retro stuff. What you have to do is figure out how to advance that aesthetic. There’s a lot of techniques for drawing 8-bit art. 

The artist working on Thimbleweed Park, Mark Ferrari, did the original backgrounds for The Secret of Monkey Island. As an artist, he’s grown in the 25 years since then, so he’s doing so much more with the lighting and perspectives of the worlds, and how things move and touch each other. That’s what we’re trying to do with Thimbleweed. As you move around, there’s a lot of parallax that happens between the different layers of stuff. There’s no way we could have done this back with the SCUMM system, but now we can. We throw a lot of horsepower at different things.

"The key to doing a good retro game is to not make all the mistakes we made back then."

Ron Gilbert

What’s been the biggest improvement in development since you worked on Maniac Mansion?

Photoshop. Tools. When we were doing Maniac Mansion, Gary [Winnick] was drawing all that work on the Commodore 64 using the joystick. Monkey Island was a little easier because we were using DPaint, but that didn’t have layers or all this other stuff. So being able to draw all of the art in a tool like Photoshop has saved months and months of time.

We also have full digital sound now. I have no desire to go back to the boops and beeps of PC speakers. While we had voice in later games, it’s great to have that from the start for this project. It’s fun to do.

The other thing is we spent a lot of time on those games dealing with technical limitations like the amount of memory or processor we had. We could only animate three objects at a time on the screen because that was all the CPU bandwidth we had. Nowadays, for a game like this, I basically have infinite memory. I never have to worry about something like memory or processor speed; we can do anything we want, throw as much stuff on the screen as we want. Better tools and infinite memory has made all of this so much more fun to do.

There’s a lot of developers trying to make retro-style games, particularly harking back to the hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s. How do you ensure something like Thimbleweed stands up as a great game, and not something that relies solely on nostalgia?

The key to doing a really good retro game is to not make all the mistakes we made back then. It’s about being able to have people play the game without rose-tinted glasses because we have fixed all the issues that meant you would have needed those glasses to enjoy the game. 

That’s a lot of what we tried to do with Thimbleweed Park: it is that 8-bit aesthetic but we’ve thrown a lot of technology at things, like shaders as you walk in and out of the lights, which makes it a lot more visually interesting. We’ve also fixed a lot of the stupid things about playing point-and-click adventures, the things that we would do in games back then because that’s just the way it was but that modern gamers don’t have tolerance for. 

We’ve changed the pacing, for example. Thimbleweed’s pacing is very different to how the classic adventures were because, back then, you started the game and we just pushed you into the pool and said: ‘Hey, have fun.’ It was sink or swim. You can’t do that these days. 

We’re not doing tutorials or pop-ups or anything like that, but we do start you in a very small area of the game and teach you bit-by-bit: this is how you pick up an object, this is how you use it. We slowly let the game get a little bigger and gently expose the player to the world, letting them get used to it. That’s what you need to do with retro games nowadays.

Monkey Island 2 felt quite slow because you had to travel back and forth to the various islands. There are rumours all that backtracking was to make the game feel longer.

I think we were that evil back then.

How have you avoided being ‘evil’ this time around? How have you made a lengthy adventure without resorting to too much backtracking?

Well, the puzzles need to be logical. To me, a perfect hard puzzle is one that takes you a while to solve but when you do, you go: ‘Of course, I should have thought of that.’ That means I’ve given you all the clues you need, but it took you a while to piece them together. Bad adventure games are where the designers haven’t given you those clues. They expect you to randomly use all the verbs and objects until you randomly stumble upon the problem. 

With modern players, it’s about being clear and giving them focus so that when they’re exploring the world they always know roughly where they should be heading. You don’t force them to go there, you don’t put them on rails and drive them there, but you make sure they always know where they should be going. 

When you’re using inventory objects, make sure it’s real-world uses for that stuff. You don’t use the whiskey bottle with the camera and find it suddenly solves your problem. That sort of thing used to frustrate people. We try to make sure that when you’re using verbs with objects, or objects with other things in the world, it needs to always make logical sense. You may not have thought of it immediately, but it makes sense when you do.

It’s okay to make players work for something, but it’s not okay to make them do busywork. If you’re requiring them to take various steps just so that they’ve gone through that many steps, you’ve failed. If you can eliminate the busywork leading to something without dumbing it down, you’ve got a tight game with strong puzzles and a well-paced story.

"Better tools and infinite memory has made all of this so much more fun to do."

Ron Gilbert

Point-and-click relies as much on its story as its puzzles. How much time has gone into writing Thimbleweed Park?

We’ve spent a lot of time on the story and the writing. With stories and adventure games, it comes back to that emphasis on direction. You can use the story to focus players on what they should be doing and the path they should be going down. The puzzles become the mechanics of moving down that path.

Modern games are a little bit heavy-handed with story, a little too focused. I want a bit of freedom so I can push around the edges of stuff. You’ll definitely get that in Thimbleweed, but you won’t get the feeling of being totally lost because there’s so much to do, so many people to talk to and so many different aspects to the story that you don’t really know what to pay attention to. 

Does having multiple playable characters help with that?

Yes, and it helps with the puzzle-solving, because if you’re stuck on something you can switch over and play someone else for a while. It gives players options when they’re stuck. You never want an adventure game to have a single puzzle that needs to be solved at any given moment because if someone is stuck on it, there’s nothing else for them to do in the game. You want to take a multi-layered approach, and multiple characters are a good way to do that.

Finally, how many easter eggs have you hidden in Thimbleweed?

More than you can count. Actually, sometimes we had to pull back on that.