Review: LucasArts' Grim Fandango (1998)

Review Of

Grim Fandango Cover
L. Grim Fandango. San Francisco, CA: LucasArts, 1998.

One of the old saws about GAGs is that Grim Fandango is the final nail in the coffin of the genre. It was hyped widely by critics and some players, but, for whatever reason, failed to sell well (a fact that can perhaps be attributed to the surging interest in FPS and RTS). Having recently (today, in fact) completed this game, I think I can speak to a few other problems that may have caused this otherwise sparkling game to peeve consumers. More to the point, though, I think that with Grim, LucasArts was reaching out to a more sophisticated, older audience--but did so clumsily by hedging the bets with lame childishness probably meant to appeal to kids. I see it mostly as an effort to bring the atmosphere of Tim Burton's movies to the computer screen, but it fails to duplicate Burton's wondrous ability to appeal to audiences of all ages. Burton's worlds are fascinating for their own sake; Grim's are just a means to an end.

There are few players over the age of 18 who won't immediately pick up on the homage here to classic film noir (and the heavy debt to Casablanca). There is also a healthy mix of South American culture (in the form of Day of the Dead themes). The characters are all either dead or demonic, and the game is set in a sort of "in between" worlds ghetto (again, an obvious allusion to Casablanca, which is set in a sort of exile's town where people wait desperately for tickets to get them to countries not under control by the Nazis). Unfortunately, there's no Humphrey Bogart here (whose scenery-chewing persona is what, to my mind, carried that film), and I'm not sure I'd want to play him if there was one. Instead we get a somewhat banal "Manny Calevera," a "travel agent" grim reaper who plods along from puzzle to puzzle without generating much interest from the player. The supporting cast consists of a huge, blubbery demon that spends his free time imitating engine noises, a stenciled "femme fatale," and several rather dull villains. For a company that has always surprised us with memorable and witty characters , Grim is a less-than-pleasant abberation. It pays homage to film noir with the same subtelty and nuance as the movie Cinderella Story pays to the fairytale. To put it bluntly; it tries so hard to be smart that it forgets to be fun.

The puzzles are fairly easy and help advance the story along. The actual number of objects you can pick up and carry with you is severely limited (no more than 5 or so at any time), which makes it far easier to solve puzzles. A general rule to follow here is, if nothing else works, try the scythe. For the most part, the puzzles are fairly intuitive--I experienced several great "Ahh! That's it!" moments and clambered excitedly back to resolve aporias. I did have to consult a hint book, though this was more to help me get over some glitches in the game (Manny is often awkward to manuever, and a few spots require careful nursing to get to the next screen). A few times I solved puzzles without even realizing what I was doing (just clicking "enter" with an object in my hand sometimes did the trick). I managed to get a metal detector and give it to the botanist/coroner without knowing why I was doing so. Only later did I figure out why that action was necessary.

The virtual world of Grim Fandango is actually quite limited, with few locations. This helps the game move quickly, but fails to impress the player with a sense of "place" the way that Cyan does so well with its Myst series. The more interesting places are blocked off and skipped through. For instance, at one point the characters are deep plummet to the bottom of the ocean's depths. However, movement is restricted to a small, lit area (The Longest Journey handled the underwater locations much better). Despite some interesting backgrounds and well-done scenery, much of Grim Fandango feels cramped and claustrophobic--a feeling greatly amplified by the "OMG they didn't!" user interface.

The player controls Manny by the arrow keys and a few other buttons (to shuffle through the inventory). It's awkward to say the least--it's almost painful to watch Manny slowly rotating and plodding around small obstacles like a tank. (Journey to the Center of the Earth, anyone?) I yearned for a simple point-and-click interface. Whatever immersion the arrow-key interface was meant to accomplish failed. It's about as close as LucasArts has gotten to the interface of Sierra games like King's Quest...Scary stuff. Perhaps LucasArts was really trying to appeal to the game-controller crowd. I could see how this control setup would've worked for a gamepad--but LucasArts forgot: PC Gamers don't use gamepads or joystics. We use mice.

There are plenty of reasons why Grim Fandango should be played today, and I doubt seriously it will ever be forgotten. It is flawed in many critical ways, but I couldn't help but be excited by the way the game was pushing the boundaries of the genre. It's almost a sort of "high art" form of Lucas Arts' other genre and media-bending games like Sam and Max and Day of the Tentacle. The only difference is, Grim Fandango sacrifices that rich Lucas Arts humor for the sake of...nothing.

Very nice review, Matt. The c...

Very nice review, Matt. The controls are the thing that kills this game for me-- moving the GAG genre for 3D really hampered it as a whole, frankly. It's very interesting to see how the third Gabriel Knight game works around this (you can choose fixed camera angles or have a free roaming camera which functions just like the camera in 3D Studio Max-- also, you don't directly control your avatar's walking around).
You could also argue that not many gamers ages 18-24 have even seen Casablanca-- I, unfortunately, haven't, despite being 23 and going few a couple of introductory film studies courses. Of course I know the mood of film noir as a genre, but have seen painfully few examples of films-- that most major video rental chains only contain popular movies from the past 20 years or so, but this is getting totally off the subject.
Grim Fandango also takes a while for its true plot to get off the ground. In William Goldman's memoir of his time as a Hollywood screenwriter, he mentions that "the first 10 minutes are the most important in any screenplay." Ironically, he follows this up with mentioning that Paul Newman told him that "the last 10 minutes are the most important of any movie," but it makes me wonder what the ideal sweet spot is for games-- how long does it take for a gamer to play a game before they get disinterested? This varies from player to player and their own familiarity in the genre or subgenre, but it's still an interesting point...

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