Thimbleweed Park : They're not in a video game... until they are. (4500 words)
Edit: I've discovered elements that contradict several points I make in this article but I'm not correcting it because I didn't write it to be right from one end to the other in the first place. I'm obviously developping several ideas that have no way of being checked. The purpose is to explore ideas in order to move closer to the truth instead of believing in Chuck's version word for word.
I don’t know where to start really. Thimbleweed Park is so convoluted that it’s really hard not to look ridiculous when trying to understand how its story could possibly make sense.
Many players totally disliked the ending in which the characters discover that they are in a video game whereas others defended it. I must say that I found myself in the position of knowing that I could have enjoyed such an ending but that the specific way it was done felt either clumsy or very suspicious. To put it simply: it didn’t work.
That’s an important point to make. While playing the game, many of us had guessed that the last part of the story was going to be very strange: everyone is a robot or entirely mind-controlled, or just several characters, or we’re inside Chuck’s or Delores’ video game etc… the game spontaneously makes you expect something that is going to hurt your feelings by destroying a meaningful aspect of the story. The problem here is that once the revelation is made nothing has a meaning anymore. Many players complained about the fact that the whole plot was pointless because of its conclusion.
1.The rushed endings
Personally, I never truly believed in the ending. It too plain doesn’t work. And also, the writers showcase so much talent and intelligence during the whole game that the ending would represent a strange abysmal drop in terms of quality if it had to be taken entirely literally.
Let’s just take an example. Ray has been telling you that her “strange tool” will find a use around the end of the game. She was given this piece of technology in order to be able to steal the AI of Pillowtron 3000 and eventually uses it to open the final door behind which lies the supercomputer.
What does she get in the end ? A puzzle dependency chart. Her superiors are satisfied and transfer a small fortune on her bank account. This is not a rushed ending, this is not clumsy writing, this is a suspicious turn of events which suggests that something iffy is going on.
Forget about the “we’re in a video game” thing one second and think about the kind of victory this would represent for Pillowtron 3000 to have Ray mistake a ridiculous puzzle dependency chart for the secret of its revolutionary AI.
The other endings are no different from this: they are all suspiciously rushed, inappropriate and underwhelming as if written by someone else.
Ransom wanted to find one of his doll prototypes. We wanted to see this doll, where is it ? Instead he is handed out a “sorry for being a jerk” card… that he gives to Madame Morena ? No, to Sandy -whom he never insulted as far as we know- so that he can go back in his flashback and be less of an asshole during his last show… or remain one. When did he express any desire to be a nicer guy ?
The characters' goals are regurlarly thrown straight at your face. How strange then that our heroes should reach them in such a dissatisfying way.
Do we think he should be ? During the competition at the comic con, is he really the most dislikeable person ? Of course, Ransom should be allowed to evolve, but not like that. We were ready to see him find a way to be forgiven by Madame Morena and eventually be able to remove his make-up, and maybe get his wife back or a woman etc… also, what happened to “no free will because videogame” if he clearly has the choice between being harsh or nice ? As for agent Reyes, the young man who wants to clear his father’s name, what’s the point of having an article published about the story in the newspaper of a ghost town ? Next to another one in which Natalie attributes the Pulitzer prize to herself arbitrarily ? Just a few hours before the end of the world ? Wouldn’t it be more logical for Reyes to go back to his mother with the proof of his father’s innocence ?
To me, if all these endings are so poor it’s because they’re not the real ones. At some point (most certainly in the last room of the factory but it could be before), Chuck/Pillowtron 3000 has managed to send Delores inside a simulation of Thimbleweed Park, similar to The Matrix for example. He undoubtedly does it at the end of the game with the “test version."
He’s written an unsatisfactory ending for each character which allows him to neutralise their influence over Delores. Reyes wanted to clean his father’s name but knowing the latter died because of Pillowtron, the agent could have shifted to wanting to destroy the AI. Chuck won’t allow these questions to be raised. Ray wants the AI so it obviously is a problem. Ransom wants to explore the factory to find a doll so no, he’ll have to be satisfied with another ending. Same thing when it comes to Franklin. He’s learnt to stand up for himself but as soon as he starts talking to Delores he goes back to his “you know… you know…” He could have been the one to stop her, instead he tells her to do whatever she feels like.
My point is, if at the end of the game Delores is truly inside a simulation and the characters have all become videogame characters except herself (I don’t know what she is at this point, some sort of mental projection of herself ?), the largest part of the game happens in the “real world.” The final fourth wall is a fake. It’s a manipulation. But Thimbleweed Park was “real” up to that point.
2.How could the ending be fake when we have all the proofs that it’s true ?
I am actually very unsettled by how far the game goes when it comes to playing with us (which is quite ironical).
First thing, if you want to tell the story of videogame characters who discover what they are, you do not make them realise it, you make them discover it. For example you tell the story of hackers who enter the code of their own game by chance and start modifying it, or the story of a very quiet city in which random things start to happen because someone has found a way to modify its core code, or the story of an electrician who discovers that everything is just electricity etc…
What you do not tell is the story of a megalomaniacal asshole who can already control everything (He’s got money, power, pillow factory, tube factory, cameras, mind-control, killing robots, humanoid robots, clones, super AI, world simulator, capacity to upload a human being into a computer) and could already transform his city into a giant adventure game if he felt like it. Such a set up would make the revelation that they all live in a videogame and that it has absolutely nothing to do with him sound like a big fat lie... which it is, in the case of Thimbleweed Park.
Now, how do I begin to explain the mindf***k that is the scene in which Chuck/Pillowtron 3000 explains everything to Delores ?
It’s very simple.
Chuck wants Delores, the supergeek girl who already talks as if she were in an adventure game, to believe that she is. We’ll see why later.
But Ron Gilbert loves to confuse his players and instead of showing what Chuck could put into place in order to manipulate the girl, he makes him fourth wall constantly.
So, it’s at the same time a fourth wall joke and a tragic manipulation.
For example, when Chuck/Pillowtron 3000 talks about the number of houses in Thimbleweed Park, or of names in the phonebook, or of answers Delores can choose from, what he says can be disqualified as an alienation of normality: Delores and Chuck are computer games characters, they cannot be astonished by the properties of their own world. It’s their world. Chuck is only describing their normality. His remarks are as relevant as if I told you “Look ! You only have two arms, you must be a videogame character !”
So, if the peculiarities he points at would be incoherent in our world, it shouldn’t be in theirs. Because the things he is pointing at aren’t “truly” strange then it means that he is only confusing a young girl who is already really lost. He is using his power over her and making her doubt everything that she considers true or real. That’s the approach of the guru of a sect.
We’ve seen every single character fourth wall since the beginning of the game (talking of cutscenes, unfinished artwork, saves) but we never concluded from their remarks that they knew they were video games characters and that it influenced their internal logic. Chuck’s remarks can be taken on the exact same level.
You can obviously take these points literally and decide that ok, he is telling the truth. But you can reject them as fourth wall jokes which are at the same time signifiers of Chuck’s manipulation.
Things actually become a lot more interesting when the AI dare take more risks and ask Delores about school or about her mother… because these arguments refer to something else than pseudo-absurd elements of their world.
Nothing suspicious here (Pizza man even recognizes Delores if she tries to pass herself off as someone else).
Obviously, Delores had a mother and went to school, so why wouldn’t she be able to remember them for other reasons than being a videogame character ?
Well, that’s where the real core of the story lies.
3.Suddenly Chuck isn’t the bad guy anymore.
Let’s put things differently. Imagine Ron Gilbert in a bar with Gary Winnick and telling his friend:
R- "Hey Gary ! I’d like to make a videogame which ends with a character making another character believe that they are in a videogame as a form of revenge for something. And to make him believe this, he actually describes all the elements of the actual videogame they're in and might even interact with them."
Most of Chuck’s remarks are a metaphor for “Chuck manages to make Delores question their reality.” They are as absurd as M.Bison telling Ryu: “Haven’t you ever wondered how these health bars can float above us ?”
One thing that you have to notice is that the revelation that they all are videogame characters means absolution for Chuck. He was not an evil asshole, he was weak and lonely, he was manipulated, he lost control but he reappears to tell Delores the truth and give her a plan which will allow them to “escape” their fate.
Whether Chuck is an evil maniac or a basically good person who made mistakes is one of the central questions in Thimbleweed Park and the character who is brought to ponder it is Delores.
But clearly, Chuck is a negative character and this fact is swallowed by the fourth walling ending thanks to which he has to answer to none of his crimes. We are supposed to believe that he killed Delores’ dad and Boris, and these topics aren’t even tackled again.
When eventually Ransom, Reyes, Ray and Delores reach the core of the factory, Chuck manages to redirect our attention (and theirs) away from him to another matter… and even to become a sort of good guy in the process. He is not a good guy.
The shift from mad scientist to “help me the AI overruled me” is made on a screen. Chuck is supposed to have invented the most powerful AI ever made. There is zero proof that anything that we see of him at the end of the game is him. Actually, there is zero chance that it’s him. Chuck is a human being, not a program. He has a body, he is a body, with a brain and limbs. The thing that talks from a screen to the characters in the factory is nothing. Chuck could very well be in the Bahamas at that moment. Yes, he is supposed to be dead and buried... and his money went to a mysterious company… and Thimbleweed Park is to be plowed under in two days. In other words, he faked his death, found a way of getting his money back and of leaving no trace of his past misdeeds.
But all these questions are irrelevant! They’re in a videogame ! No need to look into these details !
I suppose you are starting to see my point.
4.To the truths !
At this point, you might want to stop reading. If it is now conceivable for you that the final revelation should be a lie in order to manipulate everybody, why carrying on ? You certainly feel like replaying the game and do what this “stupid” ending prevented you from doing: think about all the mysteries of Thimbleweed Park. You don’t want me to spoil you everything you still can discover/think of by yourself with a shock, do you ?
There is a truth to be found in Thimbleweed Park and it’s meaningful and it won’t be swept away by a stupid “we’re all in a video game ! Nothing matters ! Let’s all die !”
Chuck faked his heart attack. The coroner is most certainly a robot anyway, so it’s really not hard for Chuck Edmond to fake his own death. He found a way to get his money back as I said above and never uploaded himself to Pillowtron 3000. The final reset of the game and fade to black corresponds in reality to the explosion of the entire city. Yes, he kills Delores… and Ray and Ransom and everybody. Things that hint at this final destruction are the possibility to destroy the mansion by pushing a single red button. This element introduces the idea of a triggered huge explosion. Then you have the blocks of C4+mind control and also, Chuck’s testament in which he talks about having the city plowed under in two days. And this painting everywhere. Then you just need to have faith in Chuck’s madness.
Notice that Delores advises you to save the game here, when she actually isn't supposed to know she is in a video game... because it's a joke. Also notice that it's the same pattern of hesitation as the final action of the game and that it ends with an explosion.
Why killing Delores ? It’s complicated, but let’s imagine that he hates her for “betraying him” or that the AI (his subconscious ?) manages to convince him to take revenge on his niece. What could be a better revenge than bringing her to believe that she is in a videogame and to commit suicide ? How fucked-up is that ? “You left me to become a video game designer !?! I’ll show you how I design videogames ! Bitch !”
Actually the degree of fucked-upness of this plan flirts with genius because by making Delores find clues everywhere in the city, he seduces her. She feels rewarded and the last words he tells her before killing her is “I’m proud of you !”
But how could Chuck be so mad ?
The thing is, the story starts before Delores. She had a mother and if she cannot think about her it’s not because she is a videogame character, it’s because she suppresses every single memory that is linked to this mother because the truth is too horrible.
(theory) Delores’ mother was murdered. By Chuck ? I don’t think so. I think Delores’ mother was murdered by Franklin. Yep, the harmless Franklin. And it would be more logical if he murdered her in front of Delores (but I can’t figure how it could have happened). And in a gruesome manner... why is the chainsaw put forward like that ? Why are the walls of the special room covered with blood ?
In Ransom’s flashback, you can see Franklin, Lenore and Delores in the audience. But no mother. Delores’ mother was cheating on Franklin with Chuck and we know that during that show, Ransom insulted absolutely everybody. He most certainly pointed at the fact that Mrs.Edmond wasn't there to accompany her family and that Chuck wasn't there either.
On the same evening probably, Franklin discovered them in the penthouse of the Edmond Hotel and slaughtered her. It might be why the room is now locked and marked with satanic drawings. And there’s blood everywhere. It’s also why that’s the last place were Delores and Franklin meet (even though this last encounter is virtual). And why it is from this room that Franklin can reach Chuck's grave.
So, having killed his wife, I don’t know how Franklin escaped prison and judiciary stuff. But he became that wimp who apologises constantly and more interestingly constantly repeats “you know… you know…” to everybody. Because he wishes very hard that everyone knew, Delores in particular. He is crushed by guilt and all he now wants to do is produce harmless stuffed animals in a factory.
Chuck too is traumatized but in a different manner. It seems that he actually loved Franklin’s wife and losing her leads him to ruthless territories. He dates many women because he is incapable of investing himself in a relationship, but destroys Willie's life when the guy dates one of his ex-girlfriend.
Franklin and Chuck start fighting over Delores’ love. Franklin’s guilt makes him incapable of standing up for himself or of raising his daughter properly. He doesn’t feel deserving of her love or of her trust and thus, Chuck becomes more of a father to her than him. Or at least, he is more influencial. Plus, as Franklin’s killed Chuck’s beloved he won’t dare oppose his brother anymore.
So, Delores grows up in an environment in which she cannot question her father’s weakness or her uncle desperate enthusiasm towards machines, and his bitterness and megalomania etc… otherwise she might unveil the unbearable truth.
If we want to push things further, we can imagine that she experiences difficulties to sort out her "electra complex." Instead of fancying her Dad, she fancies her uncle. He becomes the one she wants to be symbolically acknowledged by sexually and he takes this opportunity to soothe the pain of having lost the one he loved. Chuck replaces Delores’ mother by her daughter.
Delores should ask them why they keep on arguing all the time, but she unconsciously knows that she couldn't take the nightmarish answer.
The sole thing that Franklin manages to do to protect his daughter from this morbid relationship is repeating her that she should follow her dreams, that she should be what she wants to be. He would never be able to say “Chuck is an asshole, he is taking advantage of you. You should stay away from him” because of course, Chuck could simply tell Delores about the murder and also, who is he to say such a thing if he murdered her mother ? More, if Chuck is so important to Delores it’s because Franklin is not capable of giving her the support she should receive from him (or to be a good role model). So she looks for it elsewhere.
Chuck is dependent on Delores’ admiration and the first time his jealousy explodes is when she falls in love with a little boy at school. A little boy who will suddenly disappear without leaving a trace after his father died in the fire of the Pillowfactory: Antonio Reyes. (That which support my idea that Pillowtron is Chuck's unconscious: the AI does what the uncle unconsciously desires).
Anyway. One day, Delores escapes (thank you MMucas Flem) and things slowly start to surface. Franklin is less destroyed by guilt and thus finds strength to do something with his life; something harmless: stuffed toys. As Lenore says, Chuck is broken hearted = He dies of a heart attack. Delores was the sole love bond he had left. Without her, he becomes the mad scientist who wants to destroy the world that he always promised to become. Also, his pretending to die of a heart attack is directed to Delores. He wants to make her feel responsible for his death and thus gain even more influence over her.
To me, it is Delores who kills Franklin. Before Chuck's death, her newly found freedom (away from the city) makes the truth come closer to her consciousness and she experiences a schizophrenic decompensation and comes back to kill her father.
Also, his "cowardice" puts him in the position of being happy that she leaves as he is less afraid that she might learn the truth that which is horrible. Franklin forgets the identity of his murderer for the same reasons Delores forgot everything about her mother: because the truth is unbearable. And Delores doesn't seem bothered or worried by the disappearance of her Dad because deep inside she knows where he is. (in the fridge in the sewers ?)
So I think that what’s at stake when the story starts is Delores’ final decision to either side by her uncle, or her dad.
Franklin is dead. If there is one thing he owes her, it’s the truth. He has nothing to lose anymore. If he could tell her, he could also explain that he was humiliated and destroyed by his wife's betrayal and that he lost control of himself for example. Delores would hate him but at the same time, she would be able to trust him again and value his niceness, his desire not to dominate, not to control and not to crush.
Whereas as long as Franklin doesn’t say anything, Chuck the megalomaniacal destroyer remains the one with the most influence over Delores. And what does Chuck want from Delores ? Well, he wants to kill her now that she’s showed that she wasn’t completely fascinated by him or submitted to his will.
Thimbleweed Park is the story of this fight between Franklin and Chuck to win Delores. But it’s also Delores’ fight to first find love and then become able to face the truth about her mother’s death.
If anyone could give her the feeling that she matters, she’d find the strength to understand what happened. And that’s what’s so tragic about the story: nobody saves her. The final part where all the characters only have to use one object to end their specific story (and which takes place in a virtual world) represents the failure of each character to see beyond its own direct personal interest. If they had played The Cave, they might have guessed that giving a rest to their self-oriented goals could do good. If Ransom had given Delores his “Sorry for being a jerk card”, she might have remembered what happened the day he insulted her dad. She would have remembered her mother. If agent Ray had done her job properly, she would have discovered who was behind Boris’ murder and given Delores solid reasons to dislike her uncle. Plus, her ultimate object is a price for “best adventure game of the year,” giving this to Delores would be giving her a reason to carry on living. If Antonio Reyes had explained to Delores who he was, she would have remembered the little boy she liked and who had vanished from her life, adding to the feeling she already had that the people who loved her were doomed to disappear.
When I say that all this happens in a virtual world, it is also metaphorical. Delores didn’t find any love. Her Dad says “I love you” but will not raise a finger for her (or anything). Nobody seems ready to take it upon themselves to help her, to give her the existential feeling that she has something to do here. Even the male counterparts that she meets at the comic-con are so self-centered that they don’t even realise they’ve got the perfect girlfriend in front of their eyes and that she craves for their love.
If the fact that it's not Chuck speaking and that it is terribly suspicious isn't clear to you then you might just be another victim of nowadays fascination for technology.
The metaphor relies on the fact that in a world without love, you feel completely imprisoned. Her final reflections about free will and determinism are more a matter of feeling loved or not. She is expressing a feeling of meaninglessness. Reyes, Ransom and Ray all let her enter the final room on her own ! (and the factory too) Nobody gives a shit about what could happen to her. And actually, that’s where everything ends for them as what happens afterwards is a virtual simulation which brings Delores to trigger the destruction of the city. They die because they didn't prevent her from entering this room.
It might seem strange to consider the smiling and funny Delores as a depressed person, but to be able to cry and be sad, you need to believe that you have an importance. You have to wonder if she truly is well-balanced when she is so easily persuaded to put an end to all existence (by resetting the AI and deleting the game). Before ending the word she lightly states "there's still a possibility that Uncle Chuck is insane." Well, maybe you should give this dramatic decision a little more time then ! For example, if you and you're uncle Chuck were videogame characters with no free will, would you be able to actually do anything against it in the first place ? Would you be "allowed" to discover it ?
Truly, what’s happening is incredibly more complex and fascinatingly smart and tragic. Delores possesses all the elements to understand what’s going on, unfortunately the sole person who seems to care about her is her uncle Chuck. Of course he removed her from his will, but because he cared, because he was hurt by her decision to become a game designer (The fact that he should be a selfish asshole doesn’t change a thing to this). The violence of his move indirectly proves that she meant something to him. By giving her the T-Shirt with the design of the PF-001 tube, he suggests that he might still care a bit about her. The urge to find out whether he does is irrepressible to Delores which is tragic as it leads her straight to death.
Chuck uses Delores’ need for his love as a mean to take his revenge over her and kill her for having tried to live her own life instead of being his toy. Before the story reaches its tragic ending, Chuck proposes to Delores to join him several times. If she had expressed any desire to do so, it's quite probable that the "we live in a videogame" revelation wouldn't have happened. The revelation occurs in place of a punishment.
When Franklin eventually manages to stand up to Xavier, what he tells the bully ghost is exactly what he should tell Chuck.
But two things make his evolution pointless. First, there is no reason why he should suddenly be able to stand up to Xavier except that Delores is in Chuck’s simulation (the player didn't solve any new puzzle related to Franklin's plot). His behaviour is not the result of an evolution. Second, as soon as he talks to Delores he goes back to “you know…” when he should tell her that Chuck shouldn’t be trusted.
Everything that happens in Chuck’s world simulator is only a cruel way to make Delores strongly feel that nobody gives a shit about her. The agent who should incriminate Chuck, or find Franklin’s body. Her first crush who should remember her and tell her she meant something. The clown who triggered the whole tragic story with his insensitive jokes. Her Dad who is still incapable of standing up to his brother in order to protect the daughter he pretends to love.
The end of Thimbleweed Park is Delores committing suicide. That’s why she hesitates so much before pushing the last tube. It’s her instinct of self-preservation trying to break the door to her unconscious and make her realise what’s truly happening. The problem is that, what she would discover through this is worse than death and that nobody is there to support her.
Also, once the city has blown. A server farm is built upon it, and Chuck can carry on his world simulation... and recreate Thimbleweed Park. And its characters. And the metatextual ending that is a lie becomes true. The reboot at the end of the credit, is chuck starting his new simulation.
I only learnt what a server farm was after having written and published this article that is why I only developped this idea now but it makes the destruction of the city all the more explainable. Chuck wants to destroy the city because nobody loves him and he'll recreate a thimbleweed park that suits him more.
Edit: and actually, the characters could be in a videogame from the start, but Thimbleweed Park would tell the story of how they became videogame characters. They still wouldn't be in the video game you and I bought, they would be virtual characters inside a "real world." And the story still takes into account a former reality that is not accessible anymore. They used to be human beings but Chuck transformed them into videogame characters.
And his interest in that is that Delores eventually destroys the world out of trust in him. It is some sort of love declaration. And he makes her repeat it endlessly. (I didn't know when I played the game but the song he sings " Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I'm half crazy, all for the love of you. " is an allusion to 2001 a Space Odyssey in which HAL 3000, the futuristic AI, puts an end to humanity I believe (I've never seen the movie).
I know this interpretation might seem far-fetched but I’m only trying to sketch a general perception of the story.
I’m saying Franklin killed his wife because she was cheating on him with Chuck. But it could very well be Chuck who killed her for some reasons and made Franklin feel responsible for it. I’m only trying to reconstruct a possible scenario inspired by elements that I find intriguing and meaningful.
There is also the strange fate of Ransom, the guy who keeps on pointing at people's stupid admiration for Chuck and his tube technology during his last show and then sees his wife leave him and his house burn just afterwards. It's not a coincidence.
The fact that madame Morena and Leonard should disappear at the end of the game and that most buildings are closed is very intriguing. To me, it’s because Delores is in Chuck’s simulator and he didn’t bother recreating Thimbleweed Park in its entirety.
I’m not exactly convinced that it’s Delores who kills Franklin but it’s someone whom he knows and like. There aren’t many characters in the game and his “Oh ! it’s you !” points at Delores. We reject the possibility only because it seems unconceivable, but the theory I’ve developed in these lines makes it conceivable. And it feels all the more possible as it is the most inconceivable.
At some point in this text I pointed out how the endings with one object resemble The Cave which Ron Gilbert wrote too. This is also an indicator that these endings are virtual.