Grim Fandango makes its long awaited, and very much unexpected return to videogames this week in the welcome shape of Grim Fandango Remastered.

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.

They’re dead.

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
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 heart.

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.

Well, the embargo is over and I can finally talk about it – last week I jetted off to Montreal to play Watch_Dogs on PS4. And it was superb.

I’ve got a ton of content coming up for Watch_Dogs on and, so that will explain all as I post my features one by one, but the first is now live on PlayStation.Blog, so take a look:

For the past few years, I’ve been going to gamescom in Germany during the summer to report on the show, as part of my day job at Sony. It’s a fortunate and tiring experience, fun but hard-work. However, this was the first time I’ve been able to do a ‘to camera’ spot rounding-up the Sony Computer Entertainment stands on the show floor.

Many thanks to Pete and Katy for their great camera work, editing… and patience after I repeatedly flubbed my own script (never before has one person had so much difficulty saying “Assassin’s Creed 3 and Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation” in succession). 

Don’t worry, I’ve not abandoned this site – quite the opposite, in fact, as there’s been a fair bit happening that I’ve just simply not had time to put on here yet. But I’ve a few things in the works to keep this site a little more active in the future.

In the meantime, this is me waving, not drowning. There will soon be fresh updates, to tell you about:
– The next big anthology story I’ve been signed up to do for this year along with sensational Butterflies and Moths artist, Jennie Gyllblad 
– The launch of Magic of Myths: season one (with the brilliant and prolific Sergio Calvet) – my first major creator owned project, along with all the plans and promotion that are coming with it
– A couple video appearances I’ve made over the past six months which you’ll likely embarrass me about
– And a few other bits and pieces.
Give me just a little more time/And our love will surely grow…

Ok – I know I said I have a lot of news, and as it turns out I’ve actually got way TOO much to tell in one post. So this is merely part one of the super-large update which I’ve been planning since… well, a long time. You’re… erm… still here… right?

*watches tumbleweed slowly float past a decrepit howling wolf*
Right, down to biz. First bit of good news. Numerous projects of mine have come to light, which, during a particularly difficult time right now, has managed to keep me optimistic enough to stop pushing pencils into my ears and eyes. Last year I wrote a single page story called A Twilight’s Promise. The plan was sketchy, but it was accepted by a small indie publisher who originally intended to collect a massive group of one page stories by various writers and have them drawn by one artist.
And then that whole project fell through.
So, I was left with this one page script which I knocked up in a day or so, easily the most depressing tale I’ve ever written, sitting in the drawer until I could find an artist and home for it.
I found both a couple months ago. And it’s nearly finished.

I’ll tell you more about A Twilight’s Promise when it gets published – by who, where and when I’ll explain in the next update (oh yes, slacker-no-update-boy went there). In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview. Only one panel, because, well, it’s only a four panel story. And even in its half completed state (no speech balloons, dialogue captions or finished artwork quite yet – but what Ariyana has done so far is fantastic) giving away a one page story that will be sold in the near future is a little loonier than I can go for right now. At least wait for the opium to kick in…

A Twilight’s Promise (one panel preview) – drawn by Ariyana Vidya

Good news number two. I don’t usually do this, as it slightly breaks etiquette, but just this once I’m going to. As some of you may know, I write for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe on the official PlayStation site. And while none of the great team that works here have bylines to tell you who has written what, I’m happy to say the site became home to what is, in a strange and slightly ironic way, my first piece of published (in the public domain) prose. It’s a short two part story based on the Sony PlayStation 3 futuristic racing game, WipEout HD. Click on the text links below the images to read them.

Live fast… in the cockpit of WipEout HD – Part one

Live fast… in the cockpit of WipEout HD – Part two
It may not mean much to you if you’re not familiar with the WipEout games, but hopefully it still makes some sort of sense if you’re not.

While I haven’t fulfilled my aim of being a novel author before I turn 30 (short of me actually finishing one of my novels, it getting picked up and then put on the shelf in the next 4 months), it’s nice to think I managed to get something like this and two comic stories (yes, two – more on that next update *cackles*) out the door and publically/officially published all the same, with more to come.

Next update you’ll get another glimpse at what I’ve been up to the past month, planned and published – although eagle-eyed readers may already have spotted the latter…

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