Impressions of Grim Fandango

A highly sought after but rarely achieved goal for game designers is crafting a unique visual, aural, and even interactive style. The most prominent game of recent months that comes to mind is Bioshock, with its under–the–sea, failed utopia, art–deco style permeating every drop of its being. I’ve recently been researching PC adventure games from the 1990s, specifically the ones made by LucasArts. As always happens to me, I’ve now added about six of their adventure games to my ever–growing mental list of games I need to play. Of these adventure games, the one I’m initially most interested in is Grim Fandango, which I’ve just started playing. After a couple hours, its sense of style, unique identity and polish are simply beautiful.

Grim Fandango was one of LucasArts’ last big adventure games, released in 1998. It was a little more graphically advanced than their previous adventures, primarily in that it abandoned the SCUMM engine they had been using for years and switched to 3D character models on a static background. They also abandoned mouse control in favor of pure keyboard, joystick, or gamepad support. But what is most noticeable, and refreshing, is Grim Fandango’s consistent graphical atmosphere.

The world of Grim Fandango is based on the Aztec belief that when someone dies, they must go on a four year journey to their final afterlife destination. So the dead were buried with food, money, and even pets, anything that might be useful on their journey. Once a year, on the Day of the Dead, the spirits are allowed back into the living world, and the living honor the dead through parties, festivals, and skeleton–like dolls called calaveras. In fact, in the game world you play as Manuel “Manny” Calavera. He’s a travel agent selling packages to the dead to shorten their four year journey.

All the characters are modeled after these calavera dolls, which simply resemble skeletons. Imagine a typical skeleton, but wearing 1930’s style clothes and you have the general idea. What I find amazing is how LucasArts gave the characters so much emotion, even though they basically just have four black holes representing eyes, a nose, and a mouth. But that’s all they need. It’s almost a minimalist style of character presentation. It reminds me of the recent Lego Star Wars games, where the characters are simple Lego models that must convey their thoughts solely through facial expressions. Grim Fandango is similar, but elongate the heads and take away some of the facial detail. Extremely talented voice actors also help immerse you in the experience. If more games had such a talented, believable voice cast, we’d all be better off for it. Make sure you don’t switch from voice to text just to speed up the game. I’ve been selecting every dialogue option just to hear the character’s wonderful banter.

Besides the unique characters, the game takes place in a 1930s art–deco world a full decade before Bioshock. The beautiful colors, art direction, and furnishings really complement the noir–style detective story you’re presented with. From what I’ve read about it, the game takes place over four years, each time on the Day of the Dead. So I’m expecting plenty of lively environments beyond the initial city. Manny also occasionally has to go into the world of the living to do some reaping to get his clients. The living world is charmingly presented as a Picasso–style cubist painting, complete with blocky, disproportionate human features. I’ve never seen anything like it in a game before.

The only disappointment so far is technical: the dialogue during cutscenes isn’t playing correctly on my computer. It sounds like the dialogue plays twice, but slightly out of synch. On the other hand, my girlfriend has expressed what could be a brief interest in this game. She’s mostly intrigued because it’s an adventure game, and she remembers a brief foray into Monkey Island as a child. Hopefully, I’ll post more impressions when I finish the game, but so far it looks very promising.

EDIT: After a brief search online, I found and implemented a solution to the cutscene problem. I guess there are frequent problems with running older games on modern, faster computers.

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