Oh, you thought we were done with this? Oh no. Not by a long shot.
To be fair, I did prevaricate for a bit over playing Grim Fandango – for about ten months, to be precise, as I booted it up just after putting up my piece on Curse of Monkey Island in October of last year and noped out of it about 15 minutes later. Part of that is because, after going through 12 adventure games in a little under a year, I was all adventured out; I needed a break from solving obtuse puzzles with an array of comedy items, no matter how pleasant the presentation around it might have been. But mostly it’s because I don’t think the actual experience of playing Grim Fandango in 2022 lives up to its lofty reputation — I thought the world of it back in 1998 when I first played it, but 2015’s remaster highlighted just how badly it had aged despite all of the mod-cons that Double Fine added, and playing through it again with all of those mod-cons turned off is even worse.
(Why turn off all of those fancy remaster features? Well, my goal with this series is to try and experience these games as they would have been on release, but you can’t find an original version of Grim Fandango on any digital store; all you can get is the remaster. The closest I can get is to disable as much of the remaster as I can and play through the game in 4:3 aspect ratio with tank controls.)
Grim Fandango is the story of Manuel Calavera, a travel agent in the Land of the Dead who “sells”1 the freshly-deceased travel packages that will speed them on their way through the afterlife. Manny feels like he’s being intentionally set up with bad clients, and so chapter one has him applying some adventure game logic to get the details of a good one, Meche; in the process he stumbles upon a plot to deprive good souls of their express tickets on the Number Nine train and sell them to the rich and undeserving, and this kickstarts Manny’s own journey across the underworld as he attempts to track down Meche and unravel the plot. The game is split into four chapters, each of which is separated by a year-long interlude where Manny alternately waits for Meche or travels onwards in search of her, and this is both the biggest strength and the greatest weakness of Grim Fandango. I have maintained for years that Grim Fandango is 50% of a great adventure game and 50% sub-Longest Journey-tier trash, but unlike most LucasArts adventures — where they tend to have an incredibly strong opening and then a weaker back half — Grim Fandango’s location-hopping makes it more even in its unevenness, spreading out the shit bits (and god knows there’s a lot of them) so that every single chapter has at least a couple of incredibly tedious moments that make you reconsider what you’re doing with your life.
We’ll get to that, though; what I can’t remotely fault Grim Fandango for is its imagination. Leaving aside the extremely ill-advised jump to 1998-era 3D graphics, in terms of setting and style I think Grim Fandango might be the most unusual adventure game they ever made. It was the brainchild of Tim Schafer, who had a lot of creative freedom thanks to his previous project being the multi-million selling Full Throttle, and blends elements of film noir, Humphrey Bogart films (the entirety of Year Two is an homage to Casablanca), and the Mexican Day of the Dead. The characters are all stylized skeletons based on calaca figurines — a wise choice on a technical level as well as a stylistic one, as this is something that the primitive facial textures and animation can actually cope with — and many of the environments fuse 1930s-era art deco architecture with Aztec imagery. The 1930s influences extend to the technology, too; the computers used by the Department of Death feel like they could have come out of a Fritz Lang movie, and the building “server” is a complicated interchange of pneumatic message tubes. In the course of his job Manny makes a couple of trips to the Land of the Living dressed as the Grim Reaper, and this is portrayed in a supremely unsettling Dadaist scrapbook artstyle. I think Grim Fandango was my first exposure to any of this stuff, and it remains a fresh and unusual world nearly a quarter-century later.
We can’t go any further without addressing the most obvious departure Grim Fandango makes to LucasArts’ tried and tested approach to adventure games, though. The 2D point-and-click SCUMM engine that their last twelve games were built on top of has been consigned to history, and in its place is a decidedly dubious substitute: GrimE, which draws 3D characters and objects on top of 2D animated backgrounds that have been pre-rendered from CGI, much like the Playstation Final Fantasies. Because this is 1998 Grim Fandango’s characters are all made up of around a hundred polygons each and don’t have much detail outside of the faces, but I’ll admit to being selectively impressed by those CGI backgrounds on the revisit; thanks to Myst there was a prevailing trend at the time for adventure games to use pre rendered backdrops of a similar style and they almost all looked absolutely terrible. Grim Fandango doesn’t, though. I remember thinking it looked tremendous at the time, and while history has shown GrimE to be a dead-end there are certain parts of Grim Fandango that still look pretty good today, like the first half of El Marrow and almost all of Rubacava. I was struck by the background detail in several scenes, like the mural above Manny’s head when he’s talking to Charlie in the Calavera Cafe and the engravings on the walls of the Department of Death. There’s a surprising amount of good art here — I know, this is LucasArts, that’s the one thing that shouldn’t be surprising, but I’m inherently prejudiced against CGI adventure games now and I forgot that once upon a time somebody managed to make one look good in places.
Only in places, though. For every El Marrow, there’s a Petrified Forest; for every Rubacava there’s whatever the fuck is happening in Year Three of this game. The standout areas of the game are bright and colourful, or at least moody and colourful — I think Rubacava leverages a lot of what LucasArts learned drawing night-time environments in their other games. However, I have real difficulty believing that, when Tim Schafer and the designers and the artists sat down to storyboard Grim Fandango, that original vision contained the incredible amounts of brown that ended up in the final product. There are parts of this game that have aged very well, and there are parts of it that show every single one of the twenty-four years that has passed since Grim Fandango came out, and I have real difficulty reconciling the two. Certainly I’d blocked the bad parts from my memory until I played the Remaster back in 2015; up until that point when I thought of Grim Fandango what I mostly remembered was Rubacava, which was understandable since it’s undeniably the game’s high point. After it, the thing that mostly comes to mind is screwing around with large brown industrial machinery on a large brown drilling rig on a large brown island, because that’s what Year Three is and it drove me up the wall.
But while Grim Fandango might not be the looker it was back in 1998, and while I think it’s a massive downgrade from the absurdly good art of Curse, I don’t actually actually have that much of a problem with the new graphical style introduced by the GrimE engine — at least, not in comparison to the controls introduced by the GrimE engine, which are an unmitigated disaster and the number one reason why I find Grim Fandango so painful to play today. Jettisoning the hand-drawn 2D graphics of SCUMM is at least understandable given the lacklustre sales of Curse, but what I don’t understand is why LucasArts simultaneously tossed nearly a decade of iterative interface improvements into the garbage and replaced them with… well, in most cases absolutely nothing.
Outside of the menus Grim Fandango is controlled entirely with the keyboard, so instead of just clicking on somewhere to walk to it, or interact with it, you instead have to manually pilot Manny over to the location of interest using the arrow keys; forward and back make him go forwards and backwards, while left and right make him swivel verrrrrry slowly in the given direction until he’s acquired his target. These painfully antiquated tank controls are one of the most infamous things about Grim Fandango2, as well they should be given that their fundamental imprecision makes everything take twice as long as it used to in a SCUMM game. But that’s only the tip of this iceberg of shit; you can’t click on things to examine them any more or even wave your cursor around to see what is in the current area. Instead you have to walk Manny up next to something that might be interesting, wait for him to turn its head in its general direction — which indicates he’s picked it up on his radar — and then press the USE key. Of course, since there are no tooltips indicating what exactly Manny is currently looking at he could just as easily end up initiating a conversation with the NPC standing next to the item you wanted him to use; getting him to home in on the right item is a pure exercise in frustration at times. And given just how awful some of the LucasArts inventory systems have been, it’s really saying something that I think the inventory in Grim Fandango is the worst one they’ve ever done. Pushing the inventory key gives you a close up of Manny’s jacket as he pulls various items out of it; left and right scrolls through the inventory, but the catch is that you can only see one item at a time, so if you need a certain item and it’s not the first thing Manny proffers you need to pick a scrolling direction at random and hope it’s closer to the thing you need. Often you end up picking the wrong one and scrolling through the entire inventory. Thankfully Grim Fandango has less of an item proliferation problem than other LucasArts adventures — you’ll never be carrying around more than six or seven at a time — so it never takes that long to get to the thing you want, but it’s still unnecessary wasted time that really adds up over the course of the game.
The worst thing about the controls, though, is that they make Grim Fandango’s puzzles ten times more annoying than they really should be. One thing that I’ve learned as part of this series is that LucasArts have put out some truly dire adventure games alongside the ones that are deservedly remembered as all-time classics, so I’m under no illusions about Grim Fandango’s puzzle quality; they do lean rather too far towards the “oblique bullshit” end of the spectrum for my taste, but one thing LucasArts didn’t forget how to do was using incidental character dialogue as an informal hint system as to what the solutions might be. The worst ones are the ones where you’re interacting with some big machine to do something (strangely enough these are also clustered in Year Three with the anchor and crane puzzles) as here the objective is never obvious, never mind the solution, and you end up just randomly trying things via trial and error until you get something interesting to happen, but nevertheless there is a logical line running through most of Grim Fandango’s puzzles, even if it’s a fuzzy one at times. Thanks to this the puzzles are firmly middle-of-the-road by LucasArts standards (and shining paragons of logic compared to everyone else) — or they would be, if the tools the game gave you to help you solve them weren’t so abjectly unfit for purpose. But because you’re constantly fighting the game, wasting so much time fine-tuning Manny’s positioning, or in the inventory, or accidentally selecting the wrong item and getting stuck listening to some canned dialogue, Grim Fandango ends up being the most painful LucasArts adventure game to actually play since Fate of Atlantis.
And this makes me far less forgiving of Grim Fandango’s general unevenness than I might be otherwise. Every time the game feels like it’s picking up some momentum it gets brought to a screeching halt by a location or a time skip. Some of these are leveraged extremely well — the transition from Year One to Year Two is one of the all-time greats — but mostly they just make Grim Fandango feel weirdly disjointed; the game doesn’t really have time to breathe the way something like Puerto Pollo does in Curse. The move from El Marrow to the Petrified Forest is probably the best example; El Marrow is a decent starting environment that looks great and which doesn’t take the piss too much with its puzzles, and then just as it felt like I was getting into the game and that perhaps my opinion from 2015 was overly harsh it rudely ejected me into the Petrified Forest, which is coloured solely in shades of brown and where I spent most of my time trying to get the unnecessarily-fiddly timing right on a single puzzle3. Then I got to Rubacava, which is the most classically adventure-game bit of Grim Fandango, but because of this it’s where the frustrations with the tank controls really start to surface because there’s a hell of a lot of back and forth around its various locations — and also the forklift puzzle can absolutely do one. And the entirety of Year Three feels like it’s literally treading water to pad out the story before the denouement; there’s a couple of good bits like the safecracking puzzle, but in general I have nothing but contempt for that part of the game.
None of this is to say that Grim Fandango is bad, of course. Even I’m not going to go that far; even if my opinion hadn’t been properly calibrated by playing through games like Zak McKraken, I’d still think that Grim Fandango gets an incredibly long way on style alone. Despite the supreme awkwardness of the GrimE engine the production values are through the roof; the voice-acting is absolutely top notch, the music is a tour de force of jazz and big band fused with mariachi and pan pipes (along with a bunch of other styles I’m not musically erudite enough to recognise), and the script is punchy and clever — albeit not as funny as prior LucasArts adventures. And as much as I’ve ripped into GrimE here it has to be remembered that there wasn’t really anything about it that was massively out of the ordinary for 1998; it’s disappointing that LucasArts couldn’t figure out how to integrate all of their learnings from working with SCUMM for a decade, but my recollection is that it mostly passed without comment at the time, except for the tank controls. It is extremely telling, however, that when Double Fine did the remaster they went to the effort of putting in a classic point-and-click interface (i.e. one modelled on Curse) that makes Grim Fandango a much more tolerable game to play — and even with point-and-click controls, I think Grim Fandango has more than enough annoying bits to it that it falls some considerable way short of greatness.
Pre-rendered static backgrounds was popular around then, and I think in many cases they have aged pretty well, almost always better than the 3d of the era. Thinking also of the infinity engine backgrounds, which also hold up well in my opinion
Now I eagerly await the inevitable return of Civilization retrospective series!
Of course I’m enjoying these LucasArts retrospectives too. Those adventure games were a wierd historical blimp and are only interesting as historical artifacts today, I think. Thank you for playing them so I don’t have to.
I forget (I’ve only played it once, about eight months ago, and don’t want to be bothered starting it up right now to check) — does Grim Fandango allow you to switch to camera-relative instead of character-relative movement like Escape from Monkey Island does? The first time I tried playing Escape I nearly gave up after just a few minutes because the default tank controls were such a pain. Having now played it several times, I’ve come to find that I can manage the keyboard in camera-relative mode, but a controller is still the much better option IMO.
And that inventory. Ugh. At least in Escape you can pop open the “ring” and see all of it at once, even if you do still have to scroll through it sequentially rather than having point-click random access. Something I (and I’m sure many people) like to do in adventure games while I’m stuck on something is open my inventory and ponder all the objects there to see if anything strikes me. I still did that in Grim, but it meant this tedious scrolling back and forth not knowing what direction was better (as you point out). Not handy.
“Bust-All” my ass.
Oddly harsh critique, and also too wordy (I was like “Jesus how long this paragraph will keep going?” – overall “meh”