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.
A really pleasant and unexpected addition – thanks to the wonderful people at Leeds West Academy for the opportunity.
It barely feels like a month since I was writing for this blog in January 2013. Somehow, a whole year as crept by and I’ve barely had time to update The Writer’s Block. I even had a title change all planned for it. That slipped through the net, too. At least, for now.
And, as always, things have been happening. Gratefully, my profile has continued to grow, and another story is on the verge of being published while several others are either being edited or written. And plans are afoot.
So, a quick update, as seen on my Facebook profile (so apologies if Facebook pulls this into a feed and you’ve already read it):
Andrew Girdwood has very kindly selected me as ‘one to watch’ in the comic book industry in Forbidden Planet’s Best of 2013 round up: http://www.forbiddenplanet.co.uk/blog/2013/best-of-the-year-2013-andrew-girdwood/
And I’ll be doing a guest teacher spot on fiction/writing on Friday 10th January at a good friend’s junior school. Should be interesting, to say the least… wish me luck.
Our massive Victorian era steampunk thriller, Clockwork Watch, is on the verge of revealing some of its secrets, starting with the first part of the story – graphic novel, The Arrival.
The Arrival follows the journey of an influential Sikh family who have moved to England to help The Queen develop clockwork servants.
But how will this brave transplanted family deal with a world struggling with technological and social change amidst an atmosphere of prejudice and intolerance?
And what effect will this and the introduction of the new clockwork servants have on Britain – and a little boy who has been ripped away from his friends?
If you donated to the project on IndiGoGo last year, you may well see yourself in this tale of society going through a brutal, history altering change. And your involvement won’t end there…
We’re now taking pre-orders for this first graphic novel, which will be followed by a very special surprise on 6 May 2012…
To pre-order The Arrival or read more information on Clockwork Watch, please head over here: http://clockworkwatch.com/
Script editing, script writing and other new factors (PlayStation Vita, namely) have kept me away for a while, sorry – but I promise I’ll be back with some rather nice news, very, very soon… stay tuned…
Clockwork Watch is ticking along nicely…
With Jennie drawing up concept artwork every week and concept creator and writer Yomi preparing an onslaught of news to unleash, our romantic Steampunk thriller Clockwork Watch is on the verge of revealing more of itself in the coming weeks. An IndieGoGo page is being set up for the first chapter of the story, The Arrival, with more news to come on how exactly Clockwork Watch will unfold.
Here’s a quick look at some of Jen’s lovely work so far:
You can find plenty more here: http://jenspiration-now.blogspot.com/search/label/Clockwork%20Watch
The official site is being worked on, but in the meantime you can stay up to date via the official Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/ClockworkWatch
Don’t think I’ve forgotten about Magic of Myths in all of this recent excitement…
1 Berwick Street
London W1F 0DR
There you’ll find Magic of Myths sitting on their independents shelf. Be quick if you want a copy, as there’s not many left. A massive thanks to Gosh! London for supporting the book.
Keep reading the official Magic of Myths site for more information on where you can pick up a copy, and all the latest news on the miniseries. And if you want to buy a copy via mail, you can put in an order over at Indy Planet [http://indyplanet.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=5310].
Grab a copy and let us know what you think!
So, I mentioned before two big forthcoming projects – the first being Stolen, set in the Unseen Shadows universe.
Now it’s time for the second.
I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been signed up to write a graphic novel adaptation of a MASSIVE transmedia project by filmmaker Yomi Ayeni, called Clockwork Watch. The general concept behind Clockwork Watch is the creation of a huge world that spans across film, comics, theatre, games, Augmented Reality and more. The overarching story is a romantic thriller set in the world of Steampunk, where a scientist falls in love with his research subject – a beautiful robot. However, their love affair and her life are threatened by the values of the Victorian era they are living in, and a man with a lifelong grudge.
The first step in this new world is the graphic novel, The Arrival, which is being adapted by myself and my talented oft-artist partner-in-crime, Jennie Gyllblad. So we’re creating the entry point for Clockwork Watch – a colossal honour in itself.
Like Stolen, this project has been bubbling behind the scenes for months now, so it’s great to finally have it in the open. There are even more things happening that we can’t talk about quite yet, but we can show off some of Jennie’s lovely artwork so far…
You can see more here: http://jenspiration-now.blogspot.com/search/label/Clockwork%20Watch
Lots of very exciting announcements to come – and one so huge, you may not believe it. I know I’m still trying to take it in…
A bit behind the curve here due to so much work and gamescom at the moment, so apologies for the lateness of this one.
In case you’ve not seen, one of my latest and biggest projects to date – Stolen, a thief thriller story set in the Unseen Shadows universe – has nabbed an artist. Stand up and take a bow, Cormac Hughes! This talented young man dropped this rather nice sample in mine, and project head/author Barry Nugent’s inbox and we were duly impressed:
So now it’s full steam ahead. Lettering will be handled by the superb Paul Mclaren. More news as it comes – and don’t forget to check out the official Unseen Shadows site for all the latest Unseen Shadows info, including an excellent sounding radio play. There’s tons to come…
Sometimes, things just work out.
Case in point: remember the secret projects I referred to in the last blog post? Well, the cat is out of the bag for one of them.
On Monday 18th July 2011, I was announced as the writer for a spin-off comic book in the Unseen Shadows universe. You can find out more here. No release date or main details yet, but we’ll let you know more soon.
It means I’ll be writing a full length story using one of the main characters from Barry Nugent’s popular supernatural adventure novel, Fallen Heroes, which you can check out here: http://unseenshadows.com/novels/unseen-shadows-book-1-fallen-heroes/. This is a book which became a bestseller on Amazon last year, which is a hell of an achievement, and worthily so – it’s a fantastic story which mixes horror, adventure, crime and drama, wrapped up in some lovely prose and superb set pieces. Waterstones said this about Fallen Heroes:
“It reads like a TV series, with cliff hangers at the end of most chapters, and larger than life characters with big egos and quick wits. The book as a whole draws on many popular culture references & influences, and is easily compared to ‘Sin City’, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Heroes’ or ‘Buffy’ – there really is something for everyone and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone that enjoys reading or watching Sci-Fi/Fantasy.” Waterstones
So you can imagine my joy when Barry accepted my pitch for the character of The Hand, a wise-cracking thief who plays a massive part in Fallen Heroes. Barry enjoyed Magic of Myths and was generous enough to provide the foreword for it, but I can’t say I expected things to move like this. And to add an extra element of trepidation into the blender, Barry had already amassed a very talented and proven creative team for the other spin-offs. So my story has a lot to live up to with such esteemed company.
Pressure? Me? Pah! 😉
After months in the works, it’s great that this is now in the open and moving. And while there’s a lot of work to do, as the Joker famously once said: “I’m a lot happier.”
I’ll leave you with a bit of blurb from my story, titled ‘Stolen‘:
Stealth, skills and style – the life of Ben Ashodi, AKA The Hand, is one hell of a ride. A talented escape artist and professional thief for hire, The Hand teeters on a precarious high wire, balanced between a career of criminality and a strong sense of morals.
Although when responsibility over his past actions catch up with him, it soon becomes clear there are some things even this master escapologist cannot get away from…