Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #6: Grim Fandango

In PC on October 17, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Title: Grim Fandango

Format: PC

Released: 30th October, 1998

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I’m going to be straight up with you, dear reader; I have no strong memories attached to Grim Fandango. No conveniently parallel life-stories to compare and contrast. Not a pithily contrived lesson in sight. Sorry about that. I have, however, one reason for writing about it today, and it’s actually the best one there is: Grim Fandango is a gorgeous, shining, pinnacle of the medium. I’ll probably still wring a tenuous message out of it, though. Don’t you worry about that.

If there’s one gaming genre closest to my heart, it’s the adventure game. This beautiful creature is rarely spotted these days, having been brutally cross-bred with numerous gaming styles to varying degrees of success – be it to the cumbersome QTE (Quick-Time-Event) in the case of the atmospheric Heavy Rain (the good) – or to the risk-reducing franchise such as Back To The Future: The Game (the not-so-good).

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Despite various failed attempts to resurrect the genre, which fell out of public favour in the late 90s, it is still one of which I remain immensely fond. There is a certain slow-burning appeal to its dialogue-and-puzzle-filled, sedentary pace, and I recall many an enjoyable holiday exploring the wonderful, bizarre, atmospheric worlds of such titles as Beneath A Steel Sky and Broken Sword.

However, despite the place these games have in my heart, there is one company whom I will always love: the mighty LucasArts. Sure, they made a lot of of shit Star Wars cash-ins (and some good ones, too), but their contribution to the world of adventure games will never fade.
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Maniac Mansion. Day Of The Tentacle. Indiana Jones & The Fate Of Atlantis. Sam & Max Hit The Road. Full Throttle. Monkey-freakin’-Island. The list of genre-defining adventure games released from the Lucasarts’ stable in the late 80s and all through the 90s is nothing short of staggering. Beautifully realised graphics, hilarious characters, absorbing stories, intelligent puzzles. Brave new worlds.

And the king of them all? Grim Fandango. I was 13 when it came out, and the name still sends a shiver of excitement down my spine. The art style alone (Film Noire meets Dia de los Muertos via Aztec visions of the afterlife) is such stuff as dreams are made on, and the characterisation, voice acting, plotting and sense of place are second to none. A detective/romance story populated with demons and skeletons whose job it is to uncover the deep-seated corruption preventing good souls from entering the afterlife? Er, ok. And also: YES.

You want to know how to build a world? Play Grim Fandango. There’s simply nothing like it. Just like Super Mario 64 the year before, Grim Fandango was a gateway into a fully realised, breathtakingly exciting virtual land. Yet instead of the uplifting joy of Nintendo’s offering, here was a darkly atmospheric, frequently off-the-wall noir thriller with a cast of broken loveables, from the silky smooth tones of afterlife salesman Manuel Calavera to the spider-like bulk of corrupt gangster Hector LeMans.

By the time System Shock 2 came out the next year, I was 14, and fully into the swing of creative writing; in no small part due to my English teacher, Miss Bufton, who was really creatively nurturing and on whom I had a massive crush. One of my earliest (and proudest) moments was when I wrote what I felt was a rather excellent short story called “Daydreams and Detentions”, which featured a child bonding with a teacher after constantly getting in trouble (based totally on me, apart from getting in trouble; I was far too scared of being told off) for having daydreams in class. I opened the story with a sci-fi horror daydream ripped completely from System Shock 2, from the annelids (the xenomorphic menace from SS2) and The Von Braun (the spaceship from it) and everything else inbetween.

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But even before penning such epic tales, Grim Fandango showed me early lessons in structure; each of the game’s four acts takes place on consecutive years, always on the same day – 2nd November (The Day Of The Dead, of course) – where we rejoin Manny Calavera in his latest situation. The game also showcased beautifully the value of a coherent and fully-realised world, as well as a simple lesson in influences; take them from everywhere, (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Aztec Civilisation) mash them together and make the resultant product your own. “I didn’t steal from anyone; I stole from everyone”. (One of the writers of Alien. I don’t know which one. Deal with it.)

In striving to impress Miss Bufton, I used to nick ideas wholesale, yet I never knowingly stole from Grim Fandango, even though I was in love with it more than almost any other game. I can’t be sure why, but it felt so apart from anything else I’d ever experienced, it was somehow beyond plagiarism. I loved it because although it was funny, it wasn’t afraid to be serious. Despite being set in the The Land Of The Dead, the souls inhabiting the game could indeed die a second time, often by a grim process called “sprouting”, where injection of toxin causes flowers to grow throughout the victims’ skeletal bodies, rendering them a lifeless, petal-filled pile of inanimate bone. Watching a beloved character pleading for their life as their eye sockets fill with lush orchids, so often a symbol of life and death, is an oddly unnerving experience, and allowed for horror and loss without gore.

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Many Lucasarts games stay strong in the mind, but none had Grim Fandango’s sense of style and poise. The 3D graphics were beautiful for their time, and such is the quality of the art design that they remain appealing to this day. But, as is the case time and time again with the games on this blog, it’s worlds that create memories. El Marrow, Rubacava, The End Of The World – how great to create these fantastical places from ideas to sumptuous concept art to in-game environments, and to then allow people to explore them, and then create a game to entertain them whilst they are there.

This article has rambled and touched upon many issues without ever finding its feet. For that I apologise. Grim Fandango is a game I have played numerous times in my life, but sticks in my memory only for the quality of the experience. All the lessons I have talked about in this article are retrospective; the 13-year old me was not sitting there going “oh, this’ll come in handy for writing an Edinburgh show when I’m 25”, but realising their import is part of this ongoing process in which I’m engaged for working out and justifying why I spent, and still spend, so much of my life playing video games.

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It’s something which still baffles me, yet every time I sit down in front of a TV, controler in hand, the outside world melts away and I’m fused into the machine, ready to challenge, conquer and explore the endless variety of worlds out there. I guess all I have to say about Grim Fandango is that is remains one of the finest, if not the finest gaming worlds ever designed. The puzzles are good, if outclassed by Day Of The Tentacle. The dialogue is classy, but not as funny as Sam & Max, or Monkey Island. But The Land Of The Dead is an exotic, beautifully-conceived place which, ironically, couldn’t feel more alive.

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Go check it out sometime. I think you’ll like it there. Tell Manny he’s still the king.

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  1. […] to address the whole span of gaming history, from Space Invaders up to Robot Unicorn Attack via Grim Fandango and Team Fortress 2. The book features new writing by award-winning writers alongside newer poets. […]

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