Games ain’t what they used to be. I don’t mean it quite that way, though.
In this age of mass-produced entertainment it’s easy to fall into a nostalgic spell when talking about the games of youth. People remember the games they play as kids, or young adults, and they look back towards those times fondly. That is a clear part of the impetus that is driving the renaissance of old games and old styles of games, from the space sim to the CRPG to the point-and-click adventure.
Grim Fandango is a remaster of the classic game, a potpourri of noir, Aztec mythology and bildungsroman in which you control Manny Calavera, a denizen of the Land of the Dead working to pay off his debts so that he can go to the ninth underworld, the world of eternal rest. Tim Schafer of Double Fine Productions got hold of the rights after the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney and embarked on a project to restore this old classic of the adventure game genre to the standards of modern day. The game is one of the standout titles of the golden age of the adventure game, with strong art direction, compelling characters, snappy dialogue, and a sturdy narrative arc, which were elements rarely seen in games of its ilk. It was lauded, and, perhaps predictably, sold poorly.
For years the game languished in legal limbo, only available through torrent. When Schafer started developing the remaster the team had to scour the basements of old LucasArts employees to piece together the source code and original game assets, like some kind of involved video-game archaeology dig. But they pushed on and in the end completed this remarkably faithful remaster, taking special care to leave every piece of art, every puzzle, and every line of dialogue unchanged. The only changes they made were to the graphics, as well as to the user interface and player controls. They also added a developer commentary track.
As for myself, I’d never played the original. I’d only become interested in Grim Fandango because it was feted for its strong narrative and convincing worldbuilding. Consequently, I approached the game without nostalgia, with fresh eyes, and modern sensibilities.
I must admit, I have a few problems with Grim Fandango.
One of the biggest issues with adventure games like Grim Fandango is the tension between gameplay and narrative. Adventure games typically employ a “mix-and-match” puzzle mechanic. To wit, the player is supposed to explore the game-world collecting items, talk to people to gain clues as to how to use these items, and then figure out what items can be used on other items to produce the intended results and advance the storyline.
The problem with such puzzles is that they often make no sense. Many are silly and obtuse Rube-Goldberg like set-ups, and require a great deal of trial and error before you happen to stumble on the intended solution (and the game is linear – there is only ever one, highly specific solution). Some puzzles were esoteric to the point where I had to consult an online walkthrough. The inability of players to surmount these obstacles drains the game of narrative tension, taking the player out of the narrative experience. Additionally, the silliness of the puzzles is often at odds with the overarching tone of the plot and detracts from the verisimilitude of the game world. These puzzles also highlight the information gap between player and avatar – your avatar knows exactly what to do with items he picks up, while the player doesn’t. That is a jarring separation between your agency in the game world and that of your character, and it makes the experience feel non-substantial, like you’re just a hapless spectator being manipulated into advancing the plot.
This is not something inevitable with puzzle games. There are games in which the puzzles fit the mood and art direction, and are logical enough to be solvable without external aid – like Broken Age (also by Double Fine) and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. These, I think, were better adventure games in the adventure game sense.
The infuriating nature of many of the puzzles is exacerbated by the clunky control system, a weird combination of keyboard and point and click in which a lot of the items of the game are only accessible by using one of the two control systems. Some places cannot be easily clicked on with a mouse because their trigger zones are so small, and require you to walk your character using a keyboard to find the interactive item or doodad. This is an artifact of the remaster – the original benefited only from the keyboard controls, and as a result, the mouse controls didn’t quite allow the player to interact with everything as seamlessly as with a keyboard, although the keyboard controls were also slow and frustrating to use. I wish the game had drag and drop controls like The Longest Journey – that would have made the trial and error process a lot less painful.
Another issue that makes the annoyance of the puzzles even more aggravating is the bugginess of the remaster. I’ve had almost an hour of gameplay time wiped out because a character bugged out on me and walked around in circles. The lack of an autosave means that manual saves need to be done often – but there didn’t seem to be a quicksave option. Another less-than stellar legacy of the past, and an area the remaster would do well to improve upon.
I’m not particular about graphical fidelity in a game of this type, but the remaster, in this respect, was also incomplete, with only the textures of primary characters and props redone, and with cutscenes and background props remaining at 1998 standards. The transition between game and cutscene was thus somewhat jarring, on occasion.
In short, Grim Fandango is a frustrating game to play, mainly because the remaster did not deal with some of its fundamental problems, or dealt with them in a way that served to aggravate the experience.
But of course, the core of the game is the narrative experience that it accords. So how is the game?
Notwithstanding the fact that the aforementioned gameplay problems often detract from the narrative experience, the game has its moments, and I can definitely see why it was lauded. It has a touch of sophistication and worldliness that was hitherto quite novel to the videogame industry, and had a real sense of lived-in-ness in its world. It benefits from a highly creative premise and the soundtrack, with its bebop tunes, is one of the best in recent memory. There are some moments of real pathos, too. The dialogue is consistently funny and on-point, and it’s actually a joy to listen to everything the characters have to say, rather than skipping dialogue options. There is that sense of accomplishment when you solve some of the more logical puzzles, especially those that have clear logical links to further plot movements. As I said before, however, some of the puzzles detract from that sense of place and the tenor of the plot.
I guess the real question is: was the game’s story and world actually worth the gameplay troubles I had to go through? I’d say, just barely. This game should be played by anyone who has an interest in narrative video games. Just don’t expect the game to be particularly modern or user-friendly. I’d recommend having a good walkthrough on hand, and be liberal in its use. Less pain for everyone involved, that way. And you can actually get into the narrative.
I give this game: 3 out of 5 botany guns