There is a central conflict in gaming that more and more games have addressed: The simple and perplexing problem that traditional narrative becomes less engaging when more interactivity is allowed. The conflict between story and gameplay. Grim Fandango represents that central conflict. It is a game that is aesthetically astonishing, with a sharp and engaging script, that is mostly un-fun to play.
You, the player that is, are Manuel Calavera. You are dead. You were not good enough in your past life to get a straight ticket to heaven. So, you are stuck in the Land of the Dead, a travel agent for souls on their way to the Ninth Underworld. When you become the agent of a virtuous woman who is unable to obtain a ticket to heaven, you set off to stop the corruption in death and free yourself from its clutches.
There are many inspired narrative choices here. The central propulsion of the plot is typical of gaming (i.e. get the girl/ stop the bad guy), but the particulars are rooted in the mechanics of the world itself. As Manuel moves through the game-space you get a picture of a world that is both unusual and familiar.
This is most effectively illustrated by Grim Fandango‘s most ambitious section: its second act (of four). It consists of a port town on the way to the ninth underworld. Through the cafes, docks, tattoo parlor, and casino/race track, that make up the city, the common feeling is apathy. These are people who have given up at reaching any further level of death and are content to gamble and drink away. This colors Manuel’s determination to go forward, the town’s petty squabbles and their political uprisings in a new light. It makes the places feel real and nuanced. It reminds us of our experiences with dead-end places, while feeling surreal because of the context(i.e. All of these deadbeats are actually dead.) Through a simple frame of narrative and a richly evocative world, the game’s story becomes more than the sum of its parts.
It even has profound things to say about “the undiscovered country.” Making the Land of the Dead filled with bureaucracy, corruption and apathy fills the narrative with our own fears and hopes about death. It is a world defined by both beauty and terror, by boredom and excitement. It is, in short, a life. That is as interesting a statement made about death as any.
The humor contributes to the game’s themes. It is very funny, but in a sharp and real way. The jokes are driven by character. It is never pandering or cheap, but it lays on its particular brand of humor with class and tact, as well as a splattering of dark humor. This is helped tremendously by the wonderful voice work, particularly Tony Plana as Manuel. He dances between a Bogartian scoundrel and a noble hero with grace.
Grim Fandango’s visuals cement the strong world building. The game is gorgeous. It is not gorgeous in the “great graphics” way of polygon counts and lighting effects, but aesthetically gorgeous. A combination of art deco, day of the dead, and aztec imagery fuels an inventive and beautiful style. It is proof that a game with aesthetic flair and artistic merit can visually outlast even the most technically impressive games.
All of this means that Grim Fandango is an excellent space, but that space holds a game. Even though the game’s world is beautiful and inventive, the game within it is opaque and drudging. The problem comes in with the most usual of adventure game tropes: the puzzle.
In most puzzle games, the tools and goals are in front of you. The solution is found in using those tools properly. Adventure games are usually not so consistent. There are very few common tropes or mechanics between puzzles in adventure games. Because you obtain the tools you need to complete puzzles by exploring the world, each puzzle is self-contained. The current problem may not require a similar line of thinking from the last one. It will probably involve an entirely different set of items. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it can lead to mind bogglingly strange puzzles. This is exactly Grim Fandango’s problem.
The majority of Grim Fandango’s puzzles are illogical. Because the exact objective of the puzzle can be unclear, it can be difficult to determine what the game wants you to do, much less how it wants you to do it. This leads to tedium and busy work. Rather than figuring out the puzzle through your wit and wisdom, you find all the items that can be picked up and try to combine or use them on everything until you see a result. There’s a puzzle early in the game that requires you to obtain a message meant for another character. You do this by jamming the messenger system with balloons filled with packing material, and placing a hole-punched playing card into the tube of the other agent to get the message. In any of these steps it would be easy to miss the hole punch or the balloons or even realize that you can put the packing material in them. The puzzle is extremely difficult to solve from just the pieces alone.
The problem is not that the game’s puzzles are hard; it is that the puzzles are arbitrary. Truly satisfying and difficult games are clear. You know exactly what you have done wrong, why, and how you can change to succeed. The solution may not always be clear, but the problem and the tools always are. When you succeed at a difficult section in a better game, you feel triumphant. You have beaten something beyond you. When you succeed in Grim Fandango, you feel as if the game has broken you down. The nonsensical puzzles do lead to amusing moments of whimsy. However, this does not compensate for boredom and frustration in a game that is clearly smart enough to know better.
Nevertheless, Grim Fandango is a weird gem. Many games are fun, but contain paper thin stories or bland, corporate aesthetics (Call of Duty being the easy example of this). It is refreshing to play a mainstream game with a sharply written story and a strong aesthetic that is not much fun. It is so contrary to most video game trends that it is delightful and strange. Grim Fandango may not be a great game, but it remains a curious and wonderful artifact of a medium struggling against itself.
“Long Live Grim Fandango” by Jon Irwin: A fascinating piece about the inception, creation and aftermath of the game.
“Who Shot Guybrush Threepwood? (The Death of the Adventure Game)” by Innuendo Studios(otherwise known as Ian Danskin): A smart (and brief) video history of adventure games in a broad sense. It gets into some of the conceptual problems that lead to the genre’s decline.