Getting It Right: Grim Fandango

Putting the things you loved when you were younger on a pedestal is as unavoidable a side effect of growing old as nose hair and weak joints. Will I ever taste breakfast cereal sweeter than the 2003 run of Ang Lee’s Hulk marshmallow cereal? Will I ever own a pug as lovable and derpy as Ralph, my 9th grade buddy? Will there ever be another adventure game as good as Grim Fandango?

This line of thinking is unhealthy, I’m afraid. To believe the best days of our beloved hobby are behind us is a level of cynicism I can’t accept. All good things come from good ideas, and good ideas can always be applied to create even better things. Instead of celebrating the best of the best, I’d like to use this space to analyze what made them work so well. If developers and publishers take note of past games’ successes, we could build something great and new out of the bones of classics.

As this series progresses, I hope we discover common threads among great games that can help guide our judgment in play, criticism, and creation. And what better place to start than with one of the ’90s last great adventure games!

Grim Fandango
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts
Released: October 30, 1998

In a nutshell: Before Tim Schafer departed from LucasArts, he left behind one last classic adventure unlike anything else he’s done before or since. Released in 1998, Grim Fandango was one of the first 3D adventure games where you controlled the protagonist through keyboard or gamepad instead of mouse (think Resident Evil).

Set in the Land of the Dead, the game tracks one undead travel agent’s sprawling journey across an Aztec-inspired afterlife. Owing much to film noir classics like Chinatown and past LucasArts adventures, Grim Fandango was a mix of something old and new — a singular vision that stands the test of time.

Characters wanting to do good

I like stories about good people trying to live good lives, but I rarely turn to videogames to find one. By and large, videogame characters are voiceless, often literally, and morally ambiguous. In recent years, it has become a trend for videogames to incorporate morally bankrupt protagonists (Call of Duty series, Kane & Lynch) into their plots, posturing as mature storytelling. It leaves me detached from the story and characters, because I just can’t care about an asshole with a gun.

Grim Fandango‘s Manuel “Manny” Calavera is a hero in the truest sense. He’s sympathetic, funny, and bold but has a hidden past of wrongdoings that we know as much about at the beginning as we do by the game’s end, which is to say very little. It’s his character that we get to know throughout this adventure. Like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, we love Manny for his mannerisms and biting quips, forgiving whatever unethical life he left behind before coming to this place.

In the Land of the Dead, the good go to the afterlife in four minutes, the bad go in four years, and the terrible have to work a dead-end job in order to pay off their debts so they can join the other two groups in time. Manny belongs to the later. He works as a grim reaper (“travel agent” to clients), tasked with guiding departed souls into the Land of the Dead and giving them their deserved travel plan. Sometimes they get pushed into a coffin with nothing but a congratulatory coffee mug and packing foam, and sometimes they get sent on a bullet train across the afterlife, though Manny doesn’t ever get these more fortunate clients.

Grim Fandango has two major influences: Aztec culture and film noir. Like all great noir heroes, Manny must make a decision in his journey to save the ones he loves, even though his survival no longer depends on their well being. There comes a pivotal moment when he decides to do good voluntarily. The result is a multifaceted character in an inspiring story about getting your dues in time by being an honorable man, while those paying their way to heaven face their own cruel fate in time.

Unique art style influenced by things outside videogames

The world of today’s videogames seem to have grown up solely on yesterday’s videogames. Like many of us who play them, it results in a woefully uncultured, monotonous entity. After all, there is so much in the world of literature and other arts to experience and be inspired by. Yet, our industry is still one filled with retro graphics from indies who refuse to grow up and dark bulky worlds from studios trying to replicate the ominous, masculine worlds they fondly remember from the days of Nintendo and Genesis.

When you enter the world of Grim Fandango, you realize what can be done once one walks away from this limited perspective. This lush, varied world merges early 20th century art deco, film noir, and Mexican folk art. It all seamlessly fits together and immerses you in a fantasy that you haven’t before seen in games — or film or books, for that matter. The game constantly surprises you with its art direction, character design, and remarkable architecture.

Despite its low polygon models, it holds up very well over a decade later. Since Grim Fandango‘s inhabitants are modeled after Mexican calaca figures, they are brought to life through simple geometry that doesn’t feel dated in the way many other 3D games of the late ’90s do. By culling from various influences outside gaming and bringing them together in a playful way, Grim Fandango made a world of its own that lingers in the player’s mind long after their journey is complete.

Large city hub that you can get lost in

It’s easy to get lost within the wild plains of Skyrim or Xenoblade, but it’s rare that we feel bewildered in a town hub these days. Rubacava, a massive port town within which most of Grim Fandango takes place, is one of gaming’s most memorable cities for this reason. While Manny arrives at a diner at the outskirts of the city at the end of the game’s first act, we aren’t given a fair introduction until the subsequent chapter.

The first time I explored Rubacava, I was dumbfounded by its scope. One path leads to an abandoned lighthouse, another to a pier with its own secrets, and another to a massive casino which leads to a whole new level of the city that has its own smaller casino. At the start of the chapter, the city seems endless. By the end, you feel you have outsmarted every alley and shortcut the city has to offer. In an adventure game, it can be very frustrating to have to deal with such a large possibility of space. With so many areas, characters, and items, problem solving can become a difficult task. Yet, it’s worth the troubles for the sheer spectacle of Rubacava.

What Rubacava and other massive city hubs (Midgar and the Citadel spring to mind) give to the player is a sense of immersion on a grand scale. From the creative architecture to the detailed backgrounds, Rubacava feels alive and bigger than the player. You feel like a small speck in the world that surrounds you — a feeling I rarely get in games these days, despite how far technology has come. I’d much rather have a world as detailed and believable as this, instead of 5,000 extra virtual acres of trees and more of nothing.

Concise dialog and action

For a long, long while, I didn’t think I enjoyed adventure games. I played them because I liked the story and worlds contained within, but I often felt fatigued by the time I reached their conclusion. Grim Fandango changed that for me.

A major factor of this is the dialog — there isn’t a lot of it. Now, I’m not afraid of reading, but I do believe in something best described as “story flow.” The goal in storytelling isn’t to immerse the player through realistic conversations — which are long and boring to an outsider, more often than not — it’s to immerse through concise, stylized dialog that sounds good and conveys ideas and emotions succinctly. There is a place for Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers‘ 15-minute conversations on Voodoo mythology, but I value Grim Fandango‘s lively and brief conversations much more. Every line is building the plot or leading to a brilliant punchline, if not both.

The same is true of the game’s puzzles. I recently tried playing Yesterday and was horrified by what I was seeing. Not even five minutes into the game, I had an inventory of nearly 10 items. Even worse, the puzzles required me to combine items without a good sense of understanding. I imagine it was saying, “This is an adventure game. You do this dumb stuff, you know?”

Grim Fandango minimized inventory management and world interaction without forgoing interesting and challenging puzzles. On the contrary, I felt closer to the world and my actions because it seemed far more sensible and focused. Modern adventure games rely too heavily on hint systems when they really should be focusing on maintaining the simplicity and logic that Grim Fandango embodied so well.

Milestones in adventure

We often measure our lives not in the distance traveled but in the faces we see along the way. Grim Fandango understands this and builds a memorable adventure around this observation.

There was once a time when “quest” was not a synonym for “task,” but few young gamers today would believe such a claim. In Grim Fandango, you are always progressing towards a goal that isn’t exclusive to reaching a location, and along the way, you meet new friends and enemies. Okay, so many other games aren’t so different in this respect, but Grim Fandango stands out by giving these characters recurring roles in the narrative’s four-year journey.

I’d hate to spoil the game, so I’ll just focus on one example early on in the story. In the game’s opening cinematic, Manny sends a poor soul on a four-year journey across the Land of the Dead with only a walking stick. By the end of the first act, as you arrive in Rubacava, you bump into this old client. Now he is a janitor at a small diner near the docks, spending his days cleaning the floor as he waits for his old flame from the “fat days” to pass through town.

Grim Fandango is full of moments like this that serve as milestones in Manny’s journey. You find old faces in new states, while new problems infest old places. The afterlife is constantly changing, and its inhabitants have their own journeys that operate outside Manny’s adventure. It can be incredibly jarring to immersion when you find the same people saying the same thing in the same town throughout an entire game, not to mention 40+ hour RPGs! Grim Fandango shows just how effective and immersive doing the opposite can be.

Mysteries unsolved

There is a tendency for games to answer so many questions within the narrative that you can often get lost in the answers. I can’t tell you the intricacies of the plots of many games, but it’s not for a lack of effort. Games often have a defense mechanism to fill their simple plot full of asinine details in a vain attempt at complexity. It not only confuses the player, it also takes away much of the mystery that can help build a game’s world.

As an ode to film noir, Grim Fandango capitalizes on mystery. We come to know the characters through their actions in the afterlife, but their days spent in the Land of the Living remain unknown. It is left to our imagination to fill in the gaps. Was Manny a terrible person or just a poor guy who found himself on a slippery slope? Like many great films and novels, Grim Fandango gives us just enough info to understand these characters while interpreting the details through our own judgement.

I especially love how the game leaves four years of the story untold. The focus of Grim Fandango is Manny’s journey to find and save Meche, a client given a rotten deal due to mysterious reasons, so we don’t need to know about his year as a janitor in Rubacava or his year aboard the SS Lambada. Yet, our mind can wander and imagine what could have taken place during these enormous gaps in the story. It works so well because we are never told we missed something major. Going from janitor to casino owner in a year is quite a career trajectory, but do we really need to know how that transition happened? Not really. That’s what our minds and fan fiction are for.

By respecting the player and keeping the integrity of the story, Grim Fandango sustains the aura of mystery and romance that all classic noirs seek to obtain.

Like many games of its time, such as Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, Grim Fandango marketed itself as a cinematic experience. Its ads in magazines were long, foldout posters with credits scribed on them, mimicking those that aligned cinemas of the time. However, Tim Schafer and the development team at LucasArts had a strong understanding of the limits and strengths of the medium — films, novels, and folk art served as the inspiration, not the blueprint for this project.

So many games today fail at building or don’t even attempt to build a world. After all, it’s a time-consuming process that doesn’t always translate to sales in the marketplace. But art is hard! Great art shouldn’t have obvious precedents; it should come from a place so personal that few can understand the vision until it is fully manifested. The most beneficial inspiration from classics of film and literature has little to do with the world of Grim Fandango, however. It is found in the game’s perfect pacing, smart dialog, and brief, self-contained puzzles.

Telling an epic in videogames often feels like listening to a drunk at a bar who can no longer hear himself speak, imagining he will hit on genius and closure eventually. By focusing on the human … err, skeletal … struggles of Manny and compatriots, Grim Fandango gives both the player and story a constant goal and focus. The end result is one of the most bizarre and captivating noir stories ever told.

[Header image by Argial]

About The Author
Allistair Pinsof
His name is Allistair. He lives in Austin. If he is ever in your city, please come visit him in his minivan. He has have many fresh diapers. No worries!
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