It’s appropriate to roll a movie preview first. Grim Fandango is deeply influenced by classic films. From a structure in multiple acts, to the characters, to the title cards, the story and settings have references and influences coming out of the woodwork. But that’s the only reverence found in the Land of the Dead. The plot unfolds like a free-wheeling conversation that leaps from the Aztec afterlife to Art Deco to film noir to hotrodding to carrier pigeons to beatnik poetry and riffs on all of them with wry criticism, jokes, and fine threads.
Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman, theoretical physicist, and Grim Fandango’s Manny Calavera, travel agent, both debuted in 1998, but the approach to their stories could not be more different. It’s not about flying through levels with a crowbar or a gravity gun. Don’t try to ‘beat’ the game by solving puzzles quickly and sprinting through dialogue trees. The goal moves beyond ‘doing cool things’ and is simply ‘be cool’. There is depth to every conversation, dancing back and forth around the point, parrying alternate perspectives. There are hidden meanings to every quip, stealth insults, and truths hidden in dry observation. This is a game to complete, to catch every reference and callback.
The fun is in the comedy. Sometimes the solutions make jokes, not sense. Run you pigoens, it’s Robert Frost. Often, the joke is on you. A sarcastic reply is the only effect some actions will have. Brute force can solve many puzzles, hilariously if the characters are given a chance to comment. There are subtle differences between ‘Examine’, ‘Pick Up’, and ‘Use Item’. Use them in that order for the best effect. Your mileage will vary between women, locked safes, and the scythe. In classic adventure game style, players cannot die in the land of the dead, though plenty of characters do. So misuse every item. When all you have is a hammer, I don’t want to mess up my blade.
Manny: It’s my boss’ secretary, Eva.
Eva: It’s my boss’ whipping boy, Manny.
Manny: What if we just skipped town tonight? You and me, baby!
Eva: Thanks for the offer, but we’d never make it out of the city alive.
Eva: In one piece, I mean.
Manny: Any messages for me?
Eva: Besides the one about the poisoning?
Eva: I only have one other message for you, Manny… I’m not your secretary! I don’t take your messages! So get it through your thick skull, and stop forwarding your phone to me!
Manny: Alright, but that sounded more like FOUR messages to me. In my heart, though, you’re still my secretary.
The mechanics of the game don’t forbid skipping past dialogue or cutscenes, or shortcutting the pickup step straight into inventory. Players are not forced to try every action if they know the solution. But speedrunning is not in character for the afterlife. The gameplay is not a first-person dream of stardom, action, saving the world. Running in Grim Fandango is like reading children’s abridged novels, or watching The Criterion Collection cut down for TV and chopped up with commercials.
That’s not to say watching someone else play is no fun. Far from it. With no fast-twitch muscles to flex, Grim Fandango is equally cinematic with a controller or movie candy. The puzzles almost demand audience participation. It’s just important in-game to balance the unflinching, hard-boiled script with slow, taciturn style. Walk, no, stroll through the environments, make a dignified entrance, stay cool on her cold shoulder.
Many players had to keep their cool through the reign of Windows XP. The four-year journey of the soul already required a patch for any, quote, ‘very fast machine (Pentium II 400 and faster.)’ Beyond that, thorough adjustment of display and sound drivers could smooth out gameplay, but the cutscenes lagged to photocopier speed while the soundtrack skipped in triplicate. An elevator whoosh fragmented into horror-movie screeching. It suited the mood, but required a restart and refettling to enjoy the cutscenes as intended.
The game is from a different time. The short control list is radically simple compared to touchscreens and gestures. Even with the new point-and-click interface, the only thing to do is select a mysterious item and see what happens. It’s Windows two-click, not iOS. Then and now, there are glitches. I managed to crash the game by misusing a forklift in an elevator. (Worse, I stupidly overwrote previous save and had to start over.) The golden age of LucasArts adventure games is burnished by big game boxes and glossy color paper manuals. On top of that, a large cast and an orchestral score released on CD suggest a golden age that never was.
The game plays like a movie. The reward for progress is more of the movie, not to mention the beautiful mural on the save screen. The attention to detail and sheer number of lines make it impossible to remember everything, especially accidental solutions. Vacationing in the Land of the Dead is as satisfying on the third viewing as the first. Grim Fandango is justifiably shortlisted for an installation in the Museum of Modern Art. And like many great films, there is no sequel. Because everyone is dead.
Remastered trailer and .gif collection from Double Fine Action News
Thanks to Przygodoskop for posting the original trailer and demo playthrough on Youtube.
Concept art via Double Fine Action News