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Grim Fandango, Lucas Arts, 1998

Grim Fandango remains one of the best adventure games ever made due to its own excellence and the sad decline of the genre. The game has top-notch voice acting, jaw-droppingly gorgeous graphics and a surprisingly deep story. Lucas Arts has always had a solid reputation for making adventure games, and Grim Fandango is proof, once again, that the genre belongs to this company. The game is wacky, weird, and wonderful. The puzzles are mostly intuitive but not too difficult. In another surprise, we have computer game characters that do not speak and think like Americans -- Grim Fandango uses Mexican folklore of the Day of the Dead and the afterworld. What other good things can I say about this game? It's also extremely funny and has some of the wittiest puzzles I've ever confronted. And I find that a certain Lucas Arts policy makes me line up to buy their games every time -- they set out to make a game where you don't die. That means there's no need to save and reload because you don't die in what are almost always arbitrary ways in other games. Yes, Grim Fandango has danger, but this policy lets the gamer try all kinds of crazy things. There's generally a silly response, as you have been anticipated by the programmers. This makes a huge difference to me, as I'm easily frustrated by adventure games, and I love being able to do whatever I want.

Manny Calavera, the character controlled by the gamer, is dead. He's living (er... existing) in the Land of the Dead, where dead souls are making the four-year journey to the Ninth Underworld. Manny's a travel agent, helping those who have done good deeds in their lifetime get onboard the Number Nine, the train that takes you to the Ninth Underworld in four minutes instead of four years. Unfortunately for Manny, he has to work here for an unspecified period of time before he can move on. And even more unfortunately for Manny, the Department of Death is riddled with corruption, and when he meets the woman of his dreams, Mercedes Colomar, everything falls apart. He loses his job and he has to venture out to set things right, along with his best friend Glottis. I won't say more about the plot, for two reasons. First of all, the plot has a number of twists and turns, and despite the similarities to film noir, there are some genuine surprises. Secondly, the plot actually makes a difference to how the puzzles get solved, so I don't want to ruin that aspect of the experience. I will say, however, that the plot is quite impressive, and some of those turns are quite dark, which I enjoyed. I wouldn't even rule out murder, betrayal, and one very disturbing showdown.

Characters are another hugely enjoyable aspect of Grim Fandango, and the voice casting contributes most of that. I could probably say that Grim Fandango has better voice casting than any animated film from Hollywood (that it's better than other games goes almost without saying) and not have to qualify my statement. A computer game is not going to have the money to hire any celebrity voices, of course, but a movie like Antz may have had too many celebrity voices for its own good. Here, there are no associations with the voices, and each voice actor can build their own character on their own merits. The main character, Manny, as voiced by Tony Plana is very funny -- but his wit does not get too excessive or annoying at any point -- and a little world weary, but that does not become grating either. Glottis (voiced by Alan Blumenfeld) is probably one of the funniest characters ever created in a computer game. Glottis is an elemental, summoned up for one thing, to drive. And when you let him modify a car, or anything capable of forward motion, look out! I think that between Glottis and Manny, the game creates 90% of its effect. Of course, the last 10% is always the hardest, and all of the background characters are just as interesting.

As I've said, Grim Fandango is quite funny. Everything is fodder for the fun here, from lazy revolutionaries to bored security guards. From giant cat racing to throwing Glottis off of a giant spinning machine (Glottis is indestructible so it's funny, not tragic). The sense of humour even extends to the rating on the box: 13+ Teen, for Alcohol and Tobacco Use. The game got that rating because of the way it is emulating the conventions of film noir, where everyone smoked. Why is that funny? Well, inside the manual, the gamer finds out in a footnote on page 5: "For those who are disturbed by the amount of smoking in Grim Fandango, we offer two reasons: 1) we wanted to be true to the film noir atmosphere, and 2) everybody in the game who smokes is DEAD. Think about it." How many games have a proper manual these days, never mind one that actually carries on some of the jokes of the game!

The art in Grim Fandango is quite unlike any other computer game, and the graphics are simply stunning. In fact, I would hesitate to call anything else in computer games art after playing Grim Fandango. The colour choices, the design choices, everything down to the costumes and lighting and the atmosphere and the architecture! This game has to be seen to be believed. Lucas Arts has a fun demo of Grim Fandango on their website -- if you go ahead and play that, just multiply the gorgeous art there (mostly of the building of the Department of Death) by about 40 other locations, all equally lovely.

Fans of the typical Lucas Arts adventure were somewhat alarmed when it was announced that Grim Fandango was abandoning the typical mouse-based interface. Lucas Arts had used a verb coin, or variation thereof, right up to the recent The Curse of Monkey Island. But Grim Fandango does something new: 3D environments, and you control Manny with the direction arrows on the keypad. I say the direction arrows on the keypad because it's easiest to use default settings, where pressing keypad 5 makes Manny examine an object, pressing keypad 0 looks in the inventory, and so on. There were a few things that the game made your left hand do elsewhere on the keyboard, but the keypad controlled most functions quite easily and effectively. Sometimes it was difficult to navigate Manny through a door or towards a specific location, but on the whole I was quite happy with this innovative interface.

So what's not to like? In some ways, Grim Fandango succumbs to many of the same adventure game problems common to the genre. Talk to everyone, grab everything. I found the game enjoyable but still conventional in its basic mechanics. However, the puzzles were often extremely interesting, and I'll give the example of my favourite puzzle which I mentioned earlier. Terry is a docker, exploited, and down on his luck. He says to Manny a few things like, "Workers control the... the means... the means of... of... Oh, I don't know!" How are you going to help Terry? When I figured it out, I was probably more satisfied than any other point in the game. Unfortunately, like other adventure games, once you're done Grim Fandango, there's not much to do with the game except show off the funny bits to your friends. Grim Fandango probably takes the adventure game to the highest pitch possible (although I probably would have said the same thing about The Curse of Monkey Island), and I'm curious to see what Lucas Arts is going to do next. I would certainly feel intimidated by trying to follow up a genuine masterpiece like Grim Fandango.

The music is fantastic! Each location had its own theme, always appropriate, but I especially enjoyed any theme to do with Glottis. Ride, Glottis, ride!


First posted: January 7, 1999; Last modified: February 24, 2004

Copyright © 1999-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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