Grim Fandango and the End of An Adventure Era
Sometimes a game just falls into a situation of being in the right place at the wrong time. The spotlight on point-and-click of adventure games has ebbed and waned heavily since since the as the gaming industry has found itself in excess of them and lacking at various points. It just so turns out that LucasArts had the slight misfortune of attempting to bank on such a title as the point-and-click genre was in decline, leading to the release of one of the greatest the genre had to offer going initially criminally underappreciated. Nonetheless, it was in 1998 today that we originally explored the Land of the Dead with the cheeky and clever Grim Fandango.
Director Tim Schafer had conceived and was enamored with the idea of a game themed around the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos even before the release of another LucasArts point-and-click, Full Throttle, back in 1995. However, by the late ‘90s, interest in graphic adventure games seemed to be dying off heavily. Though games like Full Throttle and Sam and Max Hit the Road were critically praised, there was concern about consumer interest in continuation of those series. LucasArts wanted a new intellectual property to not just test the waters, but reinvigorate audience interest in the genre as a whole. Given Tim Schafer’s track record with Full Throttle and prior titles like Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island, LucasArts turned to him and his team once again and it just so turned out he was ready to deliver.
Grim Fandango was both the first LucasArts adventure title to come in 3D rather than the usual sprite and drawn background-based game, as well as the one of the first video games in the entire industry to use Lua programming script rather than the SCUMM engine originally created for Maniac Mansion and used in most LucasArts adventure titles. The strides the team made with Lua programming in video games would go on to be used to create games like Baldur’s Gate. Moreover, the backgrounds in Grim Fandango were pre-rendered to allow developers to turn the scene to achieve a different angle rather than the usual method of redrawing a new background for a new shot.
Grim Fandango tells the story of Manuel “Manny” Calavera, a grim reaper/travel agent of the afterlife tasked with retrieving souls and setting them on their appropriate way depending on the type of life they’ve leads. Folks who made bad life choices are sentenced to walk while the virtuous get a ticket aboard the Number Nine train which gets them to their destination in a fraction of the time. When one of Manny’s clients, the fair Mercedes “Meche” Colomar is swindled out of her Number Nine ticket, Manny resolves to find her and her ticket and make things right.
Schafer wrote the story based around his fascination with the Day of the Dead, but also around ancient Aztec beliefs that the spirit took a four year journey following the body’s death. To add some flavor to the concept, Schafer and his team pursued a noir story in the style of 1930s and ‘40s cinema inspired by the likes of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. In fact, three of the characters in the game were directly based on Signor Ugarte, Captain Louis Renault and Signor Ferrari from Casablanca. This stylish flair mixed with ancient and modern culture made Grim Fandango a fantastic cocktail of great storytelling and visuals.
Initially, Grim Fandango did not quite pull the interest that LucasArts was looking for. It was a fantastic game and garnered critical praise almost universally, but being the one of the best point-and-clicks was not enough to equate to the sales and attention LucasArts was searching for. Its initially low selling release was widely considered to be the end of the golden era of adventure gaming for nearly a decade. That said, those who played the game knew the fantastic worth of its experience. Grim Fandango was given numerous awards for its excellent design and execution and with a faithful cult audience to carry the torch of interest for the game, Grim Fandango got a lovely HD remaster for the PlayStation 4 in 2015. Grim Fandango may have never received the spotlight it deserved, but this is one great game that wouldn’t be buried.