On this day in 1987 Maniac Mansion was released for the Commodore 64, to be later ported to the up and coming Nintendo Entertainment System for gamers on the cutting edge of 8-bit technology. Yet from the classic point-and-clicks and graphical adventures that delighted fans throughout their heyday in the mid-90s, to the modern adventures returning today, adventure games have come a long way in those thirty years.
Compared to a time when gamers were forced to rely on dial-up hint lines, game store guides, and plain old tenacity to get them through the stickiest of puzzles, it’s a far cry from today’s teeming online communities where every in-game challenge is a mere forum post or walk-through video away from being solved. Games like The Dig, King’s Quest, and Myst existed for an audience quite unlike what we know today and one which saw the demise of adventure games as they had been known.
By the late 90s, the adventure game genre was headed through an industry collapse with the two biggest hitters Sierra and LucasArts forced to end graphic adventure development. A saturated market and soaring costs meant the end of an era, with adventure games to be overtaken by popular shooters that focused on the challenge of combat rather than the maddening frustration of puzzles. However, in recent years, we have seen a renaissance of point and clicks. Gaming classics such as Grim Fandango, Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle have been given modern remasters, 2014 saw Tim Schafer at Double Fine attempt to recapture the adventure game audience with the release of Broken Age, whilst 2015 even saw the return of King’s Quest with The Odd Gentlemen’s series reboot restyled for a modern format.
Yet the crowning piece of this return to adventure games has been this year’s return of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, who created and worked on the original Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, and Monkey Island, now launching Thimbleweed Park: a modern adventure game, and a tribute to the original SCUMM engine.
Maniac Mansion’s Script Creation Utility (or, SCUMM) was first created as an engine that would allow future designers to create game locations, dialogue, and items without having to write code for each stage. A revolutionary tool for creating adventure games, SCUMM went on to not only be used to develop Maniac Mansion but a whole host of classics from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis to The Dig, each riffing off Maniac Mansion‘s original ‘Pick up’ ‘Give’ ‘Walk to’ command interface that evolved from a long history of fiddly text parser adventures.
Thimbleweed Park, through a sledgehammer approach to subtlety in referencing its progenitors, is inseparable from the nostalgic history of Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle. So to celebrate thirty years since Maniac Mansion, and the return of so many adventure game classics, we’ll be taking a look at how Thimbleweed Park and Maniac Mansion show how adventure games have changed, and how their players have changed as well. Looking back at Maniac Mansion reveals some drastic changes to the way adventure games are now made, as well as some nostalgic continuities that have lasted the test of time.
1. Permadeath and Fail-States
As two humans dressed, of course, as pigeons tell you in the beginning of Thimbleweed Park, you needn’t worry about saving your game. “The game was expertly designed to have no dead-ends or death” as, after Monkey Island, designers realized “that death and dead ends weren’t making the game more enjoyable” so death and fail-states were removed to make sure the player would be free to explore. It’s somewhat relieving for players who might have been used to King’s Quest style death-screens, where the game mocks you for so much as stepping into shallow water. Yet much worse are the kind of fail-states that riddled Maniac Mansion, where players could have reached a point where actually finishing the game was utterly impossible, yet have no idea that that was the case. Wasting items like paint-remover or accidentally exposing undeveloped film to the light could trap you in a dead-end in Maniac Mansion without anyone being the wiser, so it’s frankly a massive comfort to know that adventure games have recognized and attempted to do away with such insidious traps.
2. The Return of the Hint Hotline
Back in the good old days if you got stuck in a video game there would be very few ways to find a solution. Yet unlike today, beyond brute-forcing a puzzle or buying a guide-book, some games had dedicated hint hotlines that could be called up from a home telephone and provide you with a clue to get you through your problem. Though it may sound ridiculous, Monkey Island 2 even had an in-game reference to this system where players can find a phone-box tree in the middle of the jungle from which Guybrush Threepwood can call up the LucasArts hint line. Thimbleweed Park is no exception when it comes to nostalgic meta-references, and as such, the game also has a dedicated in-game helpline for players to call when stuck. It’s a world away from online gaming forums, endless article guides, and gameplay tips, yet Thimbleweed Park also improves on adventure games’ all-too-common failure with signaling.
3. To Do lists and Clear Signalling
As well as hint-lines, Thimbleweed Park brings in a ‘To Do’ list and frequent signaling from characters as they recap aloud the tasks they’ll need to complete. Some players might find it smothering to have their goals so blatantly repeated, but it’s a boon for gamers who can only find a couple hours each night to play through a story in brief snatches. Modern gamers perhaps do not have the patience that they once did, isolated from play-throughs and treated to fewer releases throughout the year. Thimbleweed Park needs to make sure the player can pick up from where they left off, and won’t give up in frustration simply because they’ve forgotten what they were doing. It’s a world away from Maniac Mansion where we are treated to a brief scene of a meteor crashing before being thrown into the game and forced to assume from the dialogue both that our girlfriend has been kidnapped and we are here to rescue her, which is about as much guidance as we can hope to receive.
4. The Pixel Hunt
Last of all, art styles have come a long way since we were cramming adventures into 8-bit processors, with the most recent King’s Quest showing that the same gameplay quirks can be brought to life and feel at home even with modern 3D environments. Yet one issue adventure games have always struggled with is the pixel hunt: having missed an important item, or even an entire area, that unfortunately blended into the background when you first passed it by, players end up having to trawl through every corner of the screen to find that one hidden pixel that will let you pick up an object or exit via a new path. Unintentionally hidden objects can mean the end of a play-through if it means the player misses a crucial item, so games have developed all sorts of tricks to ensure that vital interactables will be noticed. That said, Thimbleweed Park can’t help but poke fun at the fastidious madness that possesses players willing to hunt through every screen for a hidden secret, so the game is scattered with dead pixels that can be picked up and kept as a wonderfully useless collection in your inventory. It’s a nice throwback that reminds us just how simple, how difficult, and how ridiculous games used to be, as well as just how far we’ve come.
Games have come a long way since Syd, Wendy, Bernard, Michael, Razor, and Jeff headed into Maniac Mansion to save Dave’s girlfriend Sandy, but our nostalgia for difficult games is far from over. The way games like Thimbleweed Park are designed, and the ways we play them, have radically changed, but it seems that players always have been, and always will be, up for a new adventure.