I've always been a fan of adventure games. Even with the mindbogglingly less than intuitive puzzles, the long dialogue trees, the horrible voice acting, the less than stunning graphics, and their David Hasslehoff-esque popularity in Germany, adventure games have always been my shining example of what games should be. The reason I place adventure games on this high pedestal is for one reason: story. Story is the sole focus of an adventure game, whether it is to make you chuckle as you see Guybrush shove a porcelain vase into his pants in Monkey Island, or to discover the secret history of the Knights Templar and stop an occult ritual in Broken Sword, the bottom line of an adventure game is to tell a well constructed story that engages you.
Roger Ebert has gone on record as stating that vdeo games can never be art in his post aptly titled "Video games can never be art". I tend to agree with him in some respects, as I believe that most games are not art. Just as Gigli was a calculated cash grab, most games are predominantly motivated by a need to sell as many copies as possible. Once in a while, a movie comes along like The Godfather, a deep look into the rise and fall of both an empire and a man, a game with a compelling story and great execution comes along and imprints itself in the minds of those lucky enough to see it. The game I am speaking of is Grim Fandango.
Grim Fandango is the story of Manuel Calavera, who is the personification of death itself, and your brand new travel agent.
I am not the first person to declare Grim Fandango an artistic masterpiece, as it has been showered with praise since it's creation, and even becoming a permanent installation in the Musem of Modern Art. However, by almost all the benchmarks, Grim Fandango is a horrible game. The controls are horrible, requiring you to use the arrow keys to move and a plethora of hot keys for inventory management, most of which do similar actions. It is riddled with game play problems and bugs, even after being patched, including ultra sensitive movement, door and elevator problems, It sold poorly, selling 95,000 copies in from 1998 to 2003 in North America and somewhere between 100,000 to 500,000 worldwide.
Even with such horrible defects, it is beautiful. The characters are stylized after Mexican Día de los Muertos calaca figures in a world modeled after the Aztec afterlife filled with Art Deco buildings with a noir story of corruption, redemption, and betrayal in a story spanning four years.
The story reeks of Dashell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. The story of life after death, life after life after death, and why a scythe is better than a pocket knife. It reeks of style, substance, and charm. Even now, fifteen years after its release, Grim Fandango still has an active fanbase. ResidualVM, a splitoff from the ScummVM community, the virtualization software that allows you to run an unbelievable number of old games on modern hardware.
ResidualVM recently released version 0.1.0 after over nine years in development and they have managed to make the game more playable than ever before, even removing bugs and glitches that were never patched. Even more ambitious are the Improving Grim Project™ and Grim Fandango Deluxe, both projects by ResidualVM forum members to increase the playability and the graphics of the game.
The fact that this game is still well liked after so long, much less has people spendng years to improve it, speaks volumes about its effect on people. That impact is enough for me to justify that Grim Fandango qualifies as art.
NOTE: A bittersweet irony emerged to me as I was researching (okay, I was searching Rotten Tomatoes for movies that Roger Ebert had given 4 stars to horrible movies) and I came across this little factoid. Roger Ebert gave Tron, a movie about a video game, 4 stars but would most likely dismiss Grim Fandango, a game that is heavily inspired by some of his favorite movies.