The beauty of the afterlife is that we have no way of knowing whether it exists, what itís like and whether itís worth seeing. Grim Fandangoís version is the Land of the Dead, a world of art deco styling with a heavy sense of noir in the air. And if this is the afterlife weíre destined for, itís definitely worth sampling. We have a Petrified Forest with airborne spiders and a mystical eternal resting place, a city on the edge of the world and a network of corruption and deceit. Nothing in this world is quite as it seems. Take the denizens of the Land of the Dead, who are all skeletons with faces resembling papier-m‚chť. There are even skeletal pigeons that mingle on rooftops and a street festival that casts the walking dead in Mexican attire. And lest we forget, Grim Reapers with scythes bringing the newly deceased into this strange world.
Still, this being a Tim Schafer game, the Grim Reapers are really salesman trying to flog travel packages to their new clients. Itís a mark of Schaferís genius that he can turn an age-old clichť of reapers and death into something innately human. And the entire game, despite the bizarre setting, feels strangely believable. The stark styling aside, Grim Fandango is a very human story. It touches on corruption, love and the need for redemption. Its cast, led by protagonist Manny Calavera, is beautifully realised. Youíll invest your time in the heroís shoes because, despite his appearance, he seems as real as you or I.
Thereís plenty to snigger at too. Schafer has long been known for his comic-timing and offbeat humour. At one point, Manny comments: ďMy scytheÖ I like to keep it next to where my heart used to be.Ē Itís not so much what he says rather than the way he says it that makes Fandangoís dialogue shine. Because if thereís one thing that you can take away from the game, itís that deadpan humour and a heavy dose of cynicism endure long after your body has died.
Grim Fandango should be no stranger to long-time followers of the industry. It was, quite simply, a critical success. Bestowed with numerous awards, journalists recognized that it was a shining example of storytelling done well, the first adventure game since the early ’90s to really nail the crux of the genre. Sadly, the glowing praise didnít translate into sales and it was a commercial failure, largely due to a little known game called Half-Life appearing around the same time.
A genius at work
Although better known for BrŁtal Legend today, Schafer first worked at LucasArts (known as Lucasfilm in those days) where he lent his talents to the early Monkey Island games and later became project lead of Full Throttle. It was clearly this experience that set up him for the creation of Grim Fandango. In 2000 he went on to create his own studio, Double Fine.
More than ten years on, has time been kind to this gem? Visually, not so much. If truth be told it isnít a particularly good looking game anymore. In fact, it isnít nice looking at all. Rendered in full 3D it shuns the typical point-and click in favour of a keyboard control system that, though cumbersome at first, works quite well. But itís the jagged textures and low resolution that jar most. This is a game predating the new millennium and it shows. Yet, the art deco touches and bizarre oddities that litter the Land of the Dead are as endearing as they were back in 1998. Moreover, the story hasnít lost an ounce of its charm, and herein lies its longevity.
Manny, once the king salesman at the Department of Death, has fallen on hard times. He has a debt he needs to pay off and when he stumbles upon a star client, heís sure he has his ticket to freedom. You see, the Land of the Dead is only the stop-off point in a much longer journey. Upon dying, your body is scythed and youíre brought into this world of papier-m‚chť faces: but the final stop is the Ninth Underworld where eternal rest beckons. On foot, itís a four year trek, but saints back in the Land of the Living (the real world) get a ticket on the Number Nine, an express train that completes the journey in four minutes.
Mannyís ticket out of his humdrum routine lies with Mercedes Colomar (Meche for short). Yet, for reasons heís not able to fathom, Mecheís clean past is of no consequence. Heís forced to send her away on foot and finds himself stuck in the same old rut. Unsurprisingly, there are answers to be had. Slowly picking your way through the labyrinth of puzzles, youíll uncover the truth. A grand scheme is at work, one that has Mannyís freedom at stake.
The story takes place over four years and the scope of the game is impressive. Each year unfolds in a distinct location. El Marrow introduces the sights: festivities are at large as the dead are celebrated. A disgruntled clown fashions intricate animals out of balloons, Glottis the crazed mechanic shows off his hot-rod, and the mood is quirky, oft-comical. From here, the game takes a darker turn. Successfully navigating the foreboding stretch of the Petrified Forest is a palpable relief, for flying spiders and flaming beavers hinder your progress.
“Successfully navigating the foreboding stretch of the Petrified Forest is a palpable relief”However, itís in the second year, in the city of Rubacava, that Grim Fandango really hits its stride. Here the film noir inspirations take a front seat. The lighting is low-key, the atmosphere is thick. Manny traverses a city of the night. There are gambling spots, a morgue and even a tattoo parlour. Itís a change of pace that perfectly suits the story. It shifts the tone of the game, ups the stakes. Meche is nearby, but not quite within Mannyís grasp. Itís also in Rubacava that Grim Fandango seems most at home. Not only is it the longest stretch of the game but itís also the most moody and atmospheric. While year three and four are good, Rubacava is the best setting, and also home to the best puzzles.
Ah, the puzzles. The game cleverly forgoes pixel-hunting by having Manny turn his head when he walks past an object of interest. Itís a subtle, yet brilliant design choice that alleviates the frustration of waving your mouse aimlessly across the screen in search of a clue. Unlike some other adventure games from yesteryear, youíre never killed off either. While Manny is, admittedly, already dead, itís nice to know that you can experiment with the world without fear of a game-over screen. For an adventure game itís also very fair. Thereís almost always a puzzle you can undertake. If youíre stuck itís because youíre overlooking something. The riddles are often ingenious, running the gamut of both straightforward and maddeningly difficult. Those that resort to a walkthrough are doing so through fault of their own, rather than that of the designerís. In essence, Grim Fandango sets the standard all adventure games should strive for: puzzles that, while taxing, are never unfair.
Though youíll occasionally curse Manny for getting caught in doorways and being a cumbersome fellow to control, his off-hand comments and general outlook on the world win through. Much can be gleaned from other characters too, and youíll spend a good deal of your time in one conversation or another. The voice-acting is superb. Rubacava resident Carla has a lazy southern drawl, Glottis sounds appropriately manic and MannyÖ well heís best of all.
And thatís just the thing. Manny makes the story. Heís as likeable as protagonists get. Though never laugh-out loud funny, his demeanour is so endearing that youíll fight for him until the end. Stretching a good twenty hours or so of gameplay Ė far shorter if you cheat, of course Ė Grim Fandango is an unforgettable ride. Itís a story that will live with you long after the credits roll. Whether you finish it a dozen times or more, itís guaranteed that youíll still find something new to laugh about when you jump back in. There are so many touches and intricate details to admire that you only wish Schafer had the inner workings of his brain on display for all to see.
Ten out of ten