A Grim Fandango

An EPIC tale of CRIME and CORRUPTION in the LAND OF THE DEAD.

I will never forget that tagline on my boxed version of Grim Fandango[1] back in early 1999. I was first exposed to this strange, noir-like world on a demo disc from a gaming magazine whose name I cannot remember. Back then I had never heard of Casablanca, or even noir in general, so my impression of this game has changed over the years. My initial reaction was one of awe and amazement, one that has lasted for years. Grim Fandango has been a major creative source for me, and I have always tried to mimic the artistic direction that is apparent in this game, from the inspiration of mythological roots, to the dark noir storytelling, to characters that feel so alive that they have to be real. Manny Calavera has been not just a character from a game, but a memory of an old friend from a time I’m not sure ever existed.

And after all these years, the game is coming back from the dead… and I’m not sure what I feel about that.

Growing up, I was a big adventure game fan. To me, that was what gaming was about. It was about these strange stories where I followed a protagonist with a cursor and lead them to their conclusion. My favourite adventure games are Night Long, Monkey Island 1 & 2, Full Throttle, and probably any game created by LucasArts. As an adult, I’ve played all the popular games, from FPS, to racing, to strategy, but I can never seem to get that feeling I had when I would sit down in front of a computer for hours trying to piece together Guybrush Threepwood’s destiny. I believe a big part of this has to do with the differences of child and adult. At least that is what I told myself, but then I bought The Wolf Among Us (TWAU). For the first time in maybe eight years I felt that magic again. It reminded me of the old adventure games, but with the added features you would expect from modern gaming. As a comparison, Broken Age, made from the same man responsible for many of the great LucasArts games in the ’90s, left me feeling bored, uninspired, and regretting the time I spent on it. I don’t know what makes a game great, or even good, but recent games from TellTale are hitting it on the mark (including the Walking Dead series I picked up thanks to Drakkos’ high praise).

I believe adventure games aren’t dead. I believe we haven’t even seen the capabilities of this genre yet, and if we can continue supporting these types of games we can get something amazing. It’s not perfect yet, not by a long shot, and maybe it will never be. I would love to see these sorts of games adopt the ‘choose your own adventure’ model, akin to how TWAU and The Walking Dead function, because that is what is going to make this work in the current market. There is a game concept I call ‘the illusion of choice’ that when done right has the potential to be a powerful tool for game developers. Most of the newer TellTale games adopt this, I believe, because the endings don’t actually change, but how you get there does. After all, it shouldn’t be about how something ends, but how we get there. Raymond Chandler believed the best mysteries are the ones you would read if the end was missing (quote: The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing, Raymond Chandler). It’s the scenes that tell the stories, and if you’ve got style, and if you put everything you can into each scene, then it doesn’t actually matter how it all ends. That’s not to say the ending can be a cop-out; but if you are faithful to the story, your characters, and especially your world, then its conclusion shouldn’t be the reason you play it. It should be a scene like the scenes before it, but one that completes the events of the narrative, and not be defined by them. To quote Manny Calavera, You know, sweetheart, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: nobody knows what’s gonna happen at the end of the line, so you might as well enjoy the trip.

Grim Fandango Remastered should be what all fans of the adventure game genre have been waiting for, right? I mean, it’s an updated version of one of the greatest adventure games of all time. When I first heard the announcement that it was coming out again, I was excited. It will be out in a few days and I haven’t even pre-ordered yet, and I’m not sure if I will. Maybe it has to do with the fact I’ve played it so much that I’m no longer surprised. Maybe it’s to do with the remastered version not really being all that remastered – a few lighting effects, some updated textures – or if it’s because I sense it is just trying to cash in on an old name. I’m still not sure, and I’m not sure if it actually matters. There has been a revival of adventure games in recent years, and this can’t be anything but good, although many adventure games are absolute tripe. Maybe it is because story, ambiance, and characters are absolute necessaries of this genre, just like a novel, and developers make the mistake of thinking this genre is ‘easy’ because they do not rely on intense graphics or code. In my opinion, many of the game developers do not quite understand the point of these sorts of games. As a developer on Epitaph, my go-to for character and world building comes directly from my experiences with the classics of this genre. I don’t know if I would even be here if it weren’t for games like Grim Fandango. As a writer, I don’t know if I would be writing the same way, or have the same attitude to story research. I owe a lot to ’90s storytelling in games, and I still continue to be inspired by them. I honestly hope I will be inspired by future games. I don’t want adventure games to live in the past, in the land of the dead, but here and now, in the world of the living. To leave them in the past would be a terrible injustice to narratives and video games.

I hope to see Grim Fandango Remastered release to a great response, and I’m excited to think there is a new generation of gamers who have never played it and will now get the opportunity. It’s not a perfect game, and even with the updates it’s still very much a game rooted in its time. I would like to leave this with another quote from Manny Calavera. Here’s to you, Grim Fandango.

This deck of cards is a little frayed around the edges, but then again so am I and I’ve got fewer suits.” – Manny Calavera.

[1] Originally released 30th October 1998.

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