Thimbleweed Park Interview W/ Ron Gilbert

Just a few weeks ago at PAX West i had the privilege to interview one of my gaming idols: Video game legend, Ron Gilbert. We talked about his most recent game, Thimbleweed Park, and it’s upcoming release for the Nintendo Switch. If you haven’t played it yet, do it! We thought it was a fantastic game!

Kris: So we’ve been big fans of your work for a long time one of my favorite earlier gaming memories is playing Day of the Tentacle which I know you’re a writer on.

Ron: Actually I wasn’t a writer on Day of the Tentacle…

Kris: Oh you weren’t a writer?

Ron: I wasn’t a writer, no. I think, I think, like, Moby Games has that wrong. Yeah, I was not a writer.

Kris: Okay, so were you like a creative…

Ron: I was, you know, obviously Gary and I did the original maniac mansion and then it’s, like, right at the beginning, I think… Gary and I said, “Hey, do it about time travel!” and that was like, that was it.

Kris: So, Tim Schafer gave you the…

Ron: Well, Dave [Winnick]

Kris: I didn’t know that, now I’ve learned something! But where I was going with that, too, is I remember playing Maniac Mansion, inside of Day of the Tentacle, and it being kind of hard for me at the time but still like being blown away by how creepy everything was and really loving it. So, one of my question is, “What got you into creating video games back thirty years ago, or however long it’s been?” Now, probably more than that.

Ron: Yeah, more than that, cause I started doing games when I was in junior high school, and what really got me into it was my dad was a physicist and so he had access to these like very early microcomputers before anyone could even dream of having them at home and I was really enthralled with them and I wanted to learn how to program, and I think when you’re a kid it’s like, you want to learn, you make games… you don’t make accounting software.

Kris: “Right?”

Ron: “…you get a game so I just started, you know, doing that and I would, you know, I’d go down to like the local pizza place and I’d play the arcade game then come home and I tried to replicate them on my computer so that’s just how I got started doing it.”

Kris: “Yeah, very smart too to think, like, let me go here and play this and then try to recreate it, that’s awesome. So out of all the years you’ve been making games all the different games you’ve made, what would you say is one of your favorite projects? Would it be Thimbleweed Park?

Ron: I think my favorite games to work on were actually the adventure games that we did for kids at Humongous Entertainment.

Kris: Yeah, Spy Fox?

Ron: Yeah, Spy Fox and Putt Putt and Pajama Sam. I think in some ways those were like the most fulfilling games to make because, you know, they were real, true adventure games and, you know, just going after that kid audience, I mean kids just just devoured those games.

Kris: I remember playing them, as a kid, and actually I was at that age where I may have been a little too old. Like, I didn’t need the “Welcome” aspects of it, but I still enjoyed it.”

Ron: Yeah

Kris: It was still fun, it wasn’t dumbed down because I was a kid.

Ron: Yeah, that was very important to us. They’re kinda simplified, but they’re not dumbed down.

Kris: That was fantastic. Because nowadays it seems like a lot of games that are made for kids are just dumbed down, it’s just so boring like “This is what you do…”

Ron: Just tap, tap, tap.

Kris: It makes me sad, cause in the 90s a lot of the games I grew up on… weren’t. Like, even Nintendo and stuff, sure they made it family friendly but they weren’t easy.

Ron: Yeah, exactly, they were actually very hard.

Kris: So that makes sense. I’m sure for many kids, myself included, we grew up on those, they even came out on the Wii, like 10 or 11 years ago.

Ron: I think I think more people, far more people have played, you know, Putt Putt, Pajama Sam than have ever played Monkey Island. I mean, we sold literally millions of copies of those things, yeah, and so I mean I have no doubt that more people play that but it’s like I’m known for Monkey Island even though far more people play these other things, y’know?

Kris: I guess I can see that and now as adults that’s what we think about more. Ron Gilbert. Monkey Island. It makes sense though, that it would hold such a fondness for you. But, I mean, moving on to Thimbleweed Park. What made you decide that that was your next project after all the other stuff you worked on?

Ron: Well, Thimbleweed Park, you know came about because Gary Winnick and I, you know, we did Maniac Mansion together. We’re just sitting around we’re talking about the charm that those little games have. You know a lot of modern adventure games are good and I enjoy them but they’re missing that weird charm that those games had and so we were just talking about what is that charm? What made those charming and then thinking about well, you know, what if we made one of those games again, kind of like we made them back then, could we figure out what that charm was?

Kris: Yeah

Ron: and that’s where it kind of all started and, you know, of course Kickstarter is a great place to go for that kind of stuff and you know we’ve gotten a lot of money so I think there were a lot of other people that were also interested in that.

Kris: I would agree, I know, as I mentioned Monkey Island… not Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle was one of the first games I ever played. I grew up on Space Quest and eventually it evolved. Space Quest was like my first point and click game. And one of the first games I ever played with one of my best friends. And then that evolved into, we played Monkey Island, we played Codename: Iceman, and, y’know, we played all these other point and click games. But it seemed like the genre had died in the 2000s especially. But the last couple years it’s kinda seen a resurgence. And Thimbleweed Park is like that perfect throwback to that time…

Ron: Oh yeah, very much.

Kris: Because those games didn’t take themselves too seriously, but yet they were serious and fun, and I feel like Thimbleweed Park is that.

Ron: Oh yeah, very much so, it is a very, very serious story, kind of. But that’s true even on Monkey Island, and if you look at the story of Monkey Island, it’s a very serious story, it’s just that it’s just kind of comedically told and there’s these comedic elements that ride on it.

Kris: It made it easy to stomach as a kid, I guess. You know you can look at the darkness, but it’s so funny! So, having used Kickstarter for Thimbleweed Park, is that something you’d do again in the future?

Ron: Maybe. You know, I think that Kickstarter… I mean Kickstarter is not like a solution to all your problems and so, you know if you get money from say a publisher, you know there’s a lot of upsides to that… there’s a lot of downsides to that. And when you get money from Kickstarter there’s a lot of upsides to that… lot of downsides to that. If you pay for the game yourself out of your own bank account lotta upside to that, a lot of downside to that

Kris: A lot of give and take.

Ron: yeah, and so you kind of gotta to decide and I think, you know, whether I would use Kickstarter again would probably depend a lot on what the game was I was building. Yeah, is it the kind of, you know, story that I can tell to Kickstarter backers to kind of get them excited?

Kris: That makes sense. So I know your first console that Thimbleweed Park was released on was Steam, PC, Xbox – what pushed you in that route first and then Sony and Nintendo later?

Ron: I think the thing that pushed us to Xbox first was, you know, we had went around to Sony and we went to Xbox and we talked to them and Microsoft just seemed really, really excited about it and they were really willing to really promote the game when it came out and a lot of stuff so it really was was just kind of their excitement for the game that’s kind of what kind of pushed us to them first but we’re out on Sony now, we’ll be out on the switch next month.

Kris: I appreciate hearing that too, about any of the “Big 3” when they’re actually easy to work wit, and they want your game there.

Ron: It makes it a lot easier.

Kris: Yeah, I can imagine.  So skip over Sony a little bit and go to Nintendo. Has it been easy working on the switch? Porting it over?

Ron: Yeah, from a hardware standpoint the switch is like really easy for us. then we’re using a custom engine, you know, we’re not using unity or anything and so getting all that over to Switch was really not that hard at all and we had started the iOS version and so I had written all of the code to deal with touch controls.

Kris: Nice!

Ron: So getting all that over to the Switch was all fairly easy.

Kris: That’s kewl, yeah I know I’m excited to play it on the Switch so I can play it everywhere I go. That’s what I love about my Switch now is how easy and accessible it is.

Ron: I don’t think my Switch has been in its dock more than, like, 10 minutes since I bought it.

Kris: Right? I put it in my dock at night, and then charge it and take it – it’s with me right now.

Ron: Yeah, just to charge it.

Kris: Another thing about the new Thimbleweed Park you can tell playing the game there was a heavy influence from shows like that X-Files and Twin Peaks,what other influences? That is correct, right? Those are a couple of the influences?

Ron: Yeah, mostly Twin Peaks. Yeah, I mean the fact that, you know, Agent Ray and Reyes look like Mulder and  Scully that was actually kind of a shock to us.

Kris: Oh really, so it wasn’t planned?

Ron: Yeah, because no it’s like we, you know, create those characters and we put the Kickstarter up and I swear like the second comment on the Kickstarter page was “Oh, they look like Mulder and Scully” and I went “oh shit” it’s like  I did not even think of that, you know, and so yeah I mean I didn’t really even watch the X-Files, you know. I mean I’ve seen some episodes and stuff but I was never really a fan so I would say far more influences has been Twin Peaks and David Lynch.

Kris: Yeah, it has that vibe. David Lynch is […?]

Ron: Yeah, he is. Have you ever seen Eraserhead?

Kris: I haven’t.

Ron: You HAVE to go watch Eraserhead.

Kris: I’ll do that.

Ron: It is the bizarrest thing…

Kris: I can only imagine, because Twin Peaks and I watched Mulholland Drive, and I’ve never been so confused than after watching Mulholland Drive. I’m still confused by it. Would you say, what other influences did you draw from?

Ron: Well… when I when when we were putting this putting the Kickstarter together and first like plotting everything out I was also watching True Detective right and so there’s the whole… there was, at least the first season there was a really kinda nice… there was an animosity between the two leading characters.

Kris: I haven’t seen the show but I’m familiar with it.

Ron: Yeah there’s a lot of animosity between them. There was a lot of mistrust between them and, you know, we wanted a lot of that to come out in the way Ray and Reyes kinda see each other. Whereas Mulder and Scully, I mean they’re friends right?

Kris: Well they slept together.

Ron: You know one of them’s a skeptic, one of them, whatever. I mean they’re friends, right? And we wanted there to be a little more animosity and also, uh, Stephen King was a big influence because you he does a really good job of writing these very kinda creepy stories that all take place in these small towns where there’s a whole lot kind of going underneath you know everything. I think those are really our three big influences.

Kris: And you can see that! True Detective I haven’t watched to truly get that.

Ron: Watch season one, ignore season two.

Kris: That’s the one with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey?

Ron: Yeah

Kris: I’ve heard its good and the second season isn’t good – i’ll have to watch it. Now that you’re pretty much finished with Thimbleweed Park, I know you’re finishing with the porting, are you going to make another Thimbleweed Park?

Ron: Yeah, I don’t know, I don’t tend to think about my next project until I’m totally done with my current one and had some time off, so as soon as these two ports are done, I’m gonna go, like, actually what I’m gonna do as soon as these ports are done and I’ve had a little vacation I’m gonna like download the Unreal Engine and because I’ve never played with it and I’m gonna spend like a month just understanding the Unreal Engine.

Kris: yeah?

Ron: I mean nothing may come of it but I just, I want to understand it. So that’s kind of my vacation in a way.

Kris: And as a programmer I’m assuming that that’s fun in itself.

Ron: Yeah, it is, yeah. It’s been more fun than laying on a beach.

Kris: Yeah, I agree, I mean I don’t program but anytime I’m playing with anything electronic I have more fun than laying on a beach. So I hear you. One final question for you: Who was your favorite character to create in Thimbleweed Park?

Ron: Probably Ransome the Clown.

Kris: ‘Cause he’s the best!

Ron: Yeah, he’s kind of an asshole.

Kris: He’s fantastic. He’s what you want a clown to be. An ass, and not a creepy happy clown!

Ron: I think the thing with Ransome that I really want to do with him is I wanted to make sure he had no redeeming qualities, right? And you’d look at, like in the Simpsons you know there’s Krusty the Clown and he’s kind of a jerk, but you can tell he’s got a heart.

Kris: He has redeemable qualities.

Ron: Yeah, he does! I want to make sure that Ransome is just an asshole. Period. That’s all he was.

Kris: And you’ve succeeded.

Ron: (laughter) Well, thank you, I think, I think thank you.

Kris: No, it is a success! Because he’s laughable, in a good way, in a bad way-good way. Well I appreciate your time – very much, it really is an honor to meet you. I know, not just myself but a lot of us grew up on your work and this is why I like doing this is the hopes to meet people who created my childhood and my adulthood.

Ron: Right.

Krispy
From as early as he can remember, Krispy has been a gamer. From the Super Mario Bros 3 on NES to Destiny on PS4 he has been running, jumping, and button smashing across worlds on most major consoles. A few of his favorite games are Super Metroid, Earthbound, and the Uncharted series.

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