Gaming Obscura: Grim Fandango

Gaming Obscura is a series that looks at forgotten or otherwise obscure games you may not remember. This week we kind of cheat a bit, and look at the classic adventure Grim Fandango.

Published: February 5, 2015 12:00 PM /


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Is it just me, or have Adventure games made a comeback in recent years?

Once on the receiving end of the death-throes of obscurity, within the past decade, many adventure-styled titles have begun a resurgence in popularity. Games such as The Walking Dead, Gemini Rue, and Broken Age are all under the umbrella of a genre renaissance for adventure titles that has begun in 2009.

What makes these games so good though? For a long time, adventure games have been reviled for their mediocre writing or acting, obtuse puzzle design, or stale gaming mechanics.

As Ben “Yahtzhee” Croshaw once said, “Most of your average adventure game experience was spent carting a truckload of miscellaneous knick-knacks around, patiently rubbing them all one by one against everything else, in the hope of hopping on the train of logic unique to the game's designer.”

This is not an exaggeration. Many adventure games, from the bloated Discworld to the painfully obtuse Zack McCraken, tend to follow this formula in unison, sometimes annoyingly so. Even in adventure game classics such as Phantasmagoria and Kings Quest, this type of puzzle logic persists, albeit less annoyingly so, to the point of being a derivative cliché to the genre itself; it is almost expected to have strange puzzles forced into the game that would logically make next to no sense.

So how are new adventure game titles avoiding this pitfall? A number of techniques, from episodic-styled games to clever writing and visuals, to deliberately attempting to avoid the paradigms put forth nearly a generation ago with classics such as Kings Quest.

Even new mechanics, such as quick time events, in-game hints, and moral choices leading to multiple outcomes have breathed life into the genre, not to mention some of the best games ever made to carry the adventure moniker have been given new life as well. Last year, Gabriel Knight: The Sins of the Fathers was re-released with a special 20th-anniversary edition, showing that even older adventure games still have some power to be major players in a growing gaming market.

Thankfully one of the most famous adventure titles ever released on the PC has gotten a special remastered edition, being re-released for the first time in almost seventeen years. A popular game known for its imaginative worlds, memorable characters, clever writing, and neo-noir sensibilities. That title is Grim Fandango, and is perhaps the most famous game you never heard of, until now.

Yes, I am cheating a bit here. Grim Fandango is loved and well known by many. The problem is, those that do know of it’s existence are a very niche audience, the adventure game enthusiasts that are likely fueling the current renaissance. Developed by Tim Schafer for LucasArts back in the mid-1990s, Grim Fandango is one of Schafer’s most critically acclaimed solo efforts. The game was met with rave reviews status back in 1998, including some game of the year nods.

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It is not hard to see why. Imagery invoking the classical noir style permeates the game's art direction completely. Seeing the undead protagonist, Manny Calavera, Play it Bogart in how he takes a drag, overlooking a blue-black skyline on the rooftop of his swanky café is just one of the many iconic images you take away from the world Schafer and his team built.

That kind of imagery is what has cemented the legacy of Grim Fandango. The world has an art-deco design mixed with a Dia de Los Muertos sensibility, it is the underworld as it would look in a dimestore novel. A dark world with dark intent.

Much of this game design came from Schafer’s fascination with ancient folklore, particularly the Aztec beliefs of the afterlife. As a college student, Schafer studied under folklorist Alan Dundes at the University of California at Berkley.

Schafer was fascinated by the Aztec concepts of death, “We learned about this land where the dark souls go, and where they have to make this four-year journey," Said Schafer in an interview back in 1998. "Later I learned that they also fight all these obstacles on the way, and I thought, 'That's it. That's a story.”

Schafer also found inspiration from classic noir movies, such as Casablanca and Chinatown, and found the concept of a corrupt, crime-ridden afterlife to be a favorite jumping-off point for the game.

"In the Day of the Dead folklore, people are buried with money so they'll have it to spend in the next world," said Shafer." And often it is hidden in the lining of the coffins so other souls won't steal it. That idea that greed and avarice still take place in the next world fascinated me, and became a key plot element for the game."

It also helps that Schafer’s patented, self-aware sensibilities reflect in the game as well. The characters of Glottis or Chepito come to mind as the perfect, overt comic relief foil for the sarcastic cynic that Manny is presented as. In fact, the crazy fifty-plus characters inhabiting the 120 different scenes in the game is what gives Grim Fandango it’s the charm, it is a fun adventure just to see who, and what, is going to happen next.

Much of the praise for Grim Fandango comes from the overall artistic design. The artwork was headed by Peter Chan, who created the calaca-like characters populating Grim Fandango. Everything was rendered in full 3-D thanks to a new programming script, Lua, which would later be used for gaming classics such as Baldur’s Gate.

All of this was accented with full motion cut scenes during certain points in the plot. To also present less of a game vibe, Grim Fandango is completely HUD-less. Manny would tilt his head towards important objects, which would be the prompt that something can be interacted with in some form.

Grim Fandango is no doubt a great game, despite the shortcomings it does have. Like all adventure games in the day, the emphasis on using objects in conjunction with each other to solve puzzles is still present here. Thankfully the action is broken up into four distinct years, so carrying over items for a one-time use throughout the game is minimal.

There are also puzzles involving what you say to certain characters, as well as some timing puzzles that offer a break from the standard milieu of the genre. In fact, in 2008 Shafer released the puzzle design document of Grim Fandango to show the non-linear style of logic that the game attempted to use.

While not perfect, Grim Fandango is the last great adventure game classic. It showcased all the best traits of what an adventure game can be, right down the littlest details and the jazzy 1940’s era soundtrack. It is no wonder it is still a popular game, even nearly seventeen years later, for the diehard fans of the genre. Sadly, Grim Fandango, while a critical success, was not a financial one.

It is often cited as one of the last big adventure games ever made and is the last major adventure game from the now-defunct LucasArts, which during the early 1990s was a major player in the genre.

Perhaps now is the time for Grim Fandango to truly shine. With the recent success of Telltale Games and Wadjet Eye games, plus Double Fine, Schafer’s current developmental studio often dipped back into the genre with titles such as Stacking or Broken Age, Grim Fandango returning now is perhaps the breath of fresh air those old bones need. If nothing else, it is a game worth the look for it’s imaginative world, high-quality acting and production values, and offbeat black comedy.

Adventure games are back in style, and Grim Fandango may finally get the financial success it deserved nearly seventeen years ago.

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