The classics of any art form come with so much baggage. Heaps of praise and discussion on how seminal the work was for everything that followed. It can be hard to get over the assumptions that other people have created for you. You feel like the best parts have already been summarized. You’d love to read it someday, but today is not that day. And for games, this is even harder, because technology often leaves the classics behind to old hardware that is rare to own or expensive to buy.
That’s why, at this point, nobody needs to tell you Grim Fandango is good. LucasArts’ 1998 adventure game is the perfect combination of what makes a classic. The game came out long ago, in a genre that was never hugely popular, and didn’t sell exceptionally well. Not a lot of people played it then and not a lot of people have played it now.
Since then, the point-and-click genre has been morphed into something that more resembles choose-your-own-adventure books than puzzle-y short films. They’ve lost their mechanical complexity and replaced it with established fiction and branching narratives. Which is less a critique of the genre’s direction, and more an observation of the way pure storytelling is celebrated these days. People like to talk about the RPG-ification of modern games, but really it’s the adventure-game-ification that’s happening. Everything, whether it succeeds or not, is trying to tell stories, just as the team at LucasArts were doing decades ago.
Grim Fandango, which some point to as the end of classic adventure games, represents the crossroads of the genre. Playing it you can see all the possible directions it could have went. It’s got it all. Heaps of imagination, charming characters, clever puzzles, and a well-crafted narrative. It’s also quite lengthy, clocking in at around 8 hours–a rarity for these types of games, which are now usually split into two- to three-hour episodes. You’d worry that something that came before the age of big games full of stuff wouldn’t be able to sustain itself. But the creativity of its smoky, 50’s noire afterlife holds you tight and never lets go.
For Grim Fandango is the interesting scenario of having to worry about life after death. In its macabre, Mexican folklore-inspired world, the charitable dead travel first-class to their final resting place and the less-fortunate work years to earn it. This post-mortem class divide inevitably found those looking to fight it. In The Land of the Dead–one level away from the ninth and final underworld in Aztec mythology–crime hides underneath every organization.
As Manuel Calavera, a frustrated salesman looking for a fast way to heaven, you stumble on the corruption and join underground revolutionaries who seek to end it. Calavera is not the pure-hearted hero games introduce us to all the time. He’s selfish, stubborn, and nosy. Only by his funny cast of friends, his most inner traits are revealed. After all, comedy has a way of getting to the heart of people.
Unfortunately, the most important character that leads Calavera through the game’s four-year span is the weakest. Meche is the poor woman he tries exploit early on and leaves her on a slow trek to the final rest. Calavera falls in love, but we’re not given enough reason for Meche to do the same. She just does and it never quite works as well as the writing wants you to believe.
Calavera’s plump, gearhead sidekick Glottis thankfully does work, almost hogging all the scenes with his outrageous voice that revs like the engines he mods. This character will actually die if he doesn’t trick out some kind of vehicle. It’s just the sort of wacky idea that writer and designer Tim Schafer is known for exploring. It also helps that Glottis is an orange monster with a lovable, yet sharp, smile–a striking contrast to all the rigid, black and white skeletons that inhabit the game.
Grim Fandango is proof that games are the best at realizing fantastic worlds in the most intimate ways. No other medium lets you prod the unfamiliar and see what it spits back. The Land of the Dead oozes a sort of grounded imagination. The dead drive cars, they do paperwork, they lounge in nightclubs. Everything here functions as you’d expect it to, but somehow maintains the surprise of the unexpected. This is further demonstrated through the bold framing of each scene, giving you a sense of what’s beyond the box you’re walking around in. At times, the lines that separate you feel invisible, like you could leave everything behind and just live in this world.
Peter McConnell’s soundtrack doesn’t stick in your head like the pop video you have on repeat. But when it’s on, you’re on. The jazzy score describes the unreality of Grim Fandango more accurately than the writing does. It’s teasing when you’re searching the dark streets, teetering when you’re up high, and rocketing when the game escalates and you’re facing danger. It’s one of those scores that, when separated from its game, will bring back visions of the scenes where you first heard it.
A large part of understanding Grim Fandango is solving its puzzles. The process usually involves learning how something works and breaking the pattern, or combining two things that wouldn’t normally go together. This is adventure games at their core. The puzzle design goes several different ways, most of them good, funny, smart, and ultimately evocative of the fiction, which is always satisfying. But occasionally the tedium of adventure games floods back in and you’re retracing your steps and exhausting every option to try to solve a problem. This will always happen. It sucks when the logic the designer thought you would use to solve it completely runs the opposite way of your own, or, although hard to admit, is just not something you thought of. With older games, this has more potential to happen as design has, in many ways, become more intuitive. It’s hard to fault a game for a few of these, and thankfully, Grim Fandango doesn’t have many.
That all of these things are so well achieved today is a testament to Double Fine’s remastering, not that I had any doubts a company with direct ties to LucasArts would have done a bad job. You can tell it’s articulate because you almost never notice it’s been re-done, that is, unless you press the key to switch it to 1998 mode a lot. The artistic intention, the music, the art, the voice-acting, is left only improved, and that’s all you need.
So there’s no argument here, no shocking revelation that Grim Fandango is not still the classic game people describe it as. With the remaster, it’s now harder to make the excuse not to finally play it. Like any classic work, the obstacles only exist before engaging it. Once you do, you’ll discover why it’s stuck for so many years. You’ll see that true classics are a snapshot, a culmination of immense creative skill that results in something eternal. Grim Fandango is exactly this, and it’s time for you to give it a try.