As one of my favourite games of all time, I’ve been a massive fan of Tim Schafer’s classic adventure. So when news hit via E3 2014 that it was coming back (and on PlayStation Vita, no less) the little bit of hope inside me that I thought was long dead and buried suddenly found itself punching its way out of its casket to the sound of triumphant mariachi.
Back in 2005 when I was freelancing, I wrote an analysis for (sadly defunct) site, Games Brains, on why this LucasArts gem was so great. So now’s a good time to unearth the article and resuscitate its decayed, skeletal frame…
Life in Death – originally published in Game Brains, 2005
Seven years after its release, Tim Schafer’s classic Grim Fandango is still one of the
finest, funniest, and most poignant games in this world and the next.
by Corey Brotherson
A tatty, blue suited skeleton wearily walks over to survey the inhabitants of his kingdom:
a morgue of two slabs, each with equally skeletal corpses covered in a multicoloured
explosion of horrifyingly beautiful flora.
The undertaker sighs, and turns to his solitary moving companion. “All day long, Manny,
I sort through pure sadness,” he laments. “I find evidence and I piece together stories. But
none of my stories end well – they all end here. And the moral of every story is the same:
we may have years, we may have hours, but sooner of later, we push up flowers.”
There are many moments like this where LucasArts’ 1998 noir adventure Grim Fandango
bares an intangible essence that many current titles lack in their fleshy flash of CGI glory
and rehashed, recycled game ethics. Released during a time where the point-and-click
genre of our beloved pastime was on its last legs and spluttering for a new lease of life, it
ironically took the dead mouth of a skeletal hero called Manuel “Manny” Calavera to
breathe a more than welcome gasp of fresh air into its lungs.
Headed by Tim Schafer, designer of this year’s Psychonauts, Grim Fandango shares little
with its recently released spiritual relative. At least not in gameplay style. The story and
characters show a typical flourish that Schafer is deservedly loved for, but Grim
Fandango is a far more straightforward, A-to-B experience. Rarely relying on your
reactions or reflexes, all the game requires from you is an attentive ear for story and a
brain willing to solve puzzles.
In the game’s afterlife setting of the Land of the Dead, there’s no way to die, so to speak,
given the fact that the inhabitants are already maggot food by conventional standards.
You can be “sprouted,” – being fatally shot can cause you to literally push up flowers and
shuffle off that plane of existence – but in game terms you’re never in any true danger.
Effectively, the game’s progress works like this: you solve a puzzle, watch a cut scene,
engage in witty tree-choice dialogue, and rinse-repeat. The only true death to be
experienced is that of your soul if you have to consult a game guide to save you from a
particularly tricky puzzle. At which point, your insides shrivel up and you spend the rest
of the day crying in the shower, trying to wash away that feeling of dirtiness too big for
any mere plughole.
It’s a simple affair from a gameplay point of view, which only increases the anxiety to
progress by any means necessary. But behind the usual ethos that cheating is the worst
thing to do in a story-based title, there’s an added sting. Manny’s quest is essentially one
of reclaiming his soul. As a ‘travel agent’ he spends his days ferrying client’s spirits from
the Land of the Dead to The Next Spiritual Place, dressed up as a not-quite-convincing
grim reaper. And his long service has yet to be rewarded. On top of that, his friends are
few and love is even less abundant. Our hero’s life is generally an empty skeleton shell
for you to inhabit. The quest to find fulfillment for Manny from all the absent aspects in
his life has to be pure to make it worthwhile or, like Manny, you will feel stained for all
your efforts – unworthy of the final prize. Life may be a bitch and then you die, but karma
just keeps on kicking.
Obviously, purpose and salvation are relatable themes. Where Grim Fandango manages
to up the ante is the way it sneaks up to you with these motifs, casually telling you to look
the other way, then poking you in the eye when you turn back. Its subtle and occasional
slapstick commentary on love, sex, life, death, society, business, friendship and much
more, is a lesson many contemporary game writers can and probably should take note of.
Even now Grim Fandango manages to be one of gaming’s most mature highlights. It
shows emotion and drama without spilling a drop of blood, nudity or even needing a
‘certificate 18’ tag slapped on its packaging. It pretty much shames the current overt and
unsubtle way of expressing ‘adult’ themes in games.
In fact, rather than the ham-fisted throat gouge we’re used to, the LucasArts’ title works
via a slow revelation: this was a game that had taken the text-based adventure to its
contemporary zenith and added something which, ironically, most of its characters
literally didn’t possess.
A living, beating heart.
It’s telling that the game’s genius comes not from its gameplay but from this sense of
heart and even – *gasp* – soul. It has a voice. And if you listen closely, you can hear it
speak in a smooth, perfected Mexican accent. It says:
“What the hell are you listening to your machine for, loco cabron? Get back to playing
the game! Cuaaa!”
So where does this powerful sense of engagement come from? After all, there are no
battles as such, no leveling up of your character, no risk-reward system, none of the
instant gratification of twitch gaming. No, the heart and soul of Grim Fandango comes
from its willingness to get personal with you. Not just as a gamer, but as a person. Manny
represents everything we may like and loathe about ourselves. He’s insecure, but witty
and charismatic. Occasionally selfish, yet deeply giving when it counts. He strives to be
better than he is. But as the game progresses thematically, it doesn’t preach. It rarely tells
when it can show. It’s emotional without being cliché. It’s everything many games aren’t,
yet often has more in common with an interactive novel than most conventional titles
You may just be moving him around and pressing the odd button, but you’re Manny’s
nervous system. His flesh. His conscience. His eyes and ears. When he tells you “this
deck of cards is a little frayed around the edges, but then again so am I and I’ve got fewer
suits,” you smile at his self-deprecation, knowing you wouldn’t want him any other way.
The game knowingly winks to the audience, with Manny sardonically musing to you as
much as himself. It’s not so much a shattering of the game’s reality as it is allowing the
fourth wall to become a little more . . . transparent.
And it’s there the grand joke, the bone dry irony of Grim Fandango reveals itself. The
misleading lack of gameplay is all a ruse. Manny grows organically with you, not just
through good game ideals and design, but – hell, let’s not say this too loud – through good
writing. Not one at the exclusion of the other, but a perfect union that allows both to
function without ever truly alienating either the gamer or the reader in us. Something that
can often get lost in the hungry pursuit of “Better visuals! Longer gameplay hours!
Online modes!” and other hyperbole that PR can typically put on the back of the retail
Grim Fandango works on the simplest levels, but it’s on those bare bones it excels to the
point where many other games after it seemed so much more empty. Obsolete. Lifeless.
If only more games were as Grim.