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.
“It was like nothing I’d ever played at that time,” says Gone Home game designer Steve Gaynor, who was eight years old when Maniac Mansion was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Gilbert and Winnick’s creation made a lasting impression: Gaynor’s Gone Home, like Maniac Mansion 27 years earlier, would similarly revolve around the exploration of an odd family’s sprawling home. “It was an interconnected, surprising, clockwork world. The intricacy, the smallness, the incredible novelty of its design were a huge influence.”
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.
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