Slaughtering a Sacred Cow, Revisiting ‘Grim Fandango’

Grim Fandango has been called "the greatest adventure game of all time". At one point, that may have been the case.

“The greatest adventure game of all time.”

I’m generally dubious about statements like this. They lack nuance, information, and are fundamentally authoritarian in their evaluation of a work. It just gets worse when such phraseology is used in the sphere of video games, a sphere that is well known for it’s penchant for hyperbole in all things. “Greatest” is a descriptor of such common standing in video game discourse it means little more than, “I had positive feelings about this for a time.” For such statements of high praise, often very little thought and appraisal goes into the subjects that they are attached to.

In 1998, that label was attached to Grim Fandango. It was a label that hung on the game long after the game itself became inaccessible to most of the gaming public, thanks to low availability and an engine that didn’t play nice with modern operating systems and processors. Yet, 1998 is an infamous year in gaming as it was packed to the gills with classics and influential titles that resonate to this day. To stand out from a crowd that included the likes of Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, Ocarina of Time, StarCraft, Pokemon, and more means there has to be something to all of those statements. Now, thanks to the recent release of Grim Fandango Remastered, I can finally see for myself if this descriptor is true.

Let’s slaughter us a sacred cow.

From the get go, I understand what everyone saw in this game and continues to see in it. Grim Fandango has style. Nobody can deny that. The game’s Mexican Day of the Dead milieu acts as the bedrock upon which the trappings of 40s noir, 60s art deco, and 80s style capitalistic greed all can intersect and play. As a result, Grim Fandango is a phenomenal success of imagination and creativity. It’s not just the look that grabs the player, it’s all of these collected elements that create a world that is believable and interestingly textured. The dialogue is incredibly funny and the game’s story is well acted. The cast is pleasantly colorful. Grim Fandango gets a lot right and is sincere and endearing enough to have lasted in the collective gaming consciousness all this time.

If anything, the reputation of Grim Fandango has only grown over these last 17 years. And that is despite most people not having had access to the game. Praise leads to praise. The greatness of Grim Fandango was constructed over that time through a litany of think pieces, blog posts, and forum conversations and through the adoration of its fans and then sold to larger public as truth. Okay, that sounds slightly more sinister than it actually is. That’s how all art is appraised. It’s how a canon is created and how the culture at large is formed. I’m only dubious in this case because there has been no opportunity for reexamination. Now I can see for myself.

It has been called “the greatest adventure game of all time.” At one point, that may have been the case.

I have two problems with Grim Fandango, and they both end up being rather central to the whole experience. The first isn’t solely the fault of Grim Fandango. It is a point-and-click adventure game. Not only that, though, it is a late 90s point-and-click adventure game. I hate when I end up going to walkthroughs for adventure games. It always smacks of failure on my part. It doesn’t do the game itself any favors when it forces the player to do so either. Grim Fandango sent me to a walkthrough more times than I care to admit. Some of the puzzles that I ended up looking up were things that I probably could have solved on my own given more time, a lot more time clicking on every single thing in the environments in the game trying to cobble together the rationale behind a puzzle. This was an era when puzzles were the reason for playing these games, not a facilitator of expression for the greater whole.

It’s even worse when you step back and realize that a lot of these puzzles have no story-related reason for being in the game at all. They are artificial gates erected to give the audience what it expects from the genre. They add little if anything to the work with regards to character, worldbuilding, or the game’s themes. The best example of padding is when Glottis rips out his own heart and throws it into the woods. Then you walk over one screen to retrieve it and put it back in Glottis’s body. It’s admittedly a simple puzzle, but why is it there? To prolong the game an extra five minutes? So many of the puzzles and sometimes entire puzzle threads are like this.

Puzzles are gates to story content, but they are also a part of the work themselves. They are a part of the story and are best when they add to it meaningfully. This wasn’t the goal back in the day. When it happened, it was wonderful. Stealing a client from under your co-worker’s nose, showing a janitor that his wife just left him, so that Manny can begin a year of waiting, showing an old sailor trapped at the bottom of the sea the right path to escape, these are puzzles with a drive behind them. They reveal character and the fundamental underpinnings of the world that they live in. The fact that Grim Fandango does manage to do this quite a bit by adding to the weight of Manny’s emotional and spiritual journey across the Land of the Dead is an achievement unto itself. Yet, so much of these puzzles amount to busy work, busy work that isn’t always as simple and as easy as walking over one screen to pick up a heart.

My other issue with Grim Fandango has more to do with its reputation and that damned label that it’s been saddled with. It is without a doubt, a great work of entertainment. Yet, being called the greatest anything catapults a work into a higher echelon of consideration and evaluation, an echelon we vaguely label “Art.” And I don’t think Grim Fandango rises that high, mainly because I don’t think it sticks the landing.

The game presents all this great internal drama in terms of Manny’s troubles and all this great physical drama in Land of the Dead represented by a corrupt syndicate and a group of revolutionaries. We meet numerous characters on their own journeys and see the world from a variety of perspectives and through a variety of personalities. Maybe this is all spread too thin, but it is great material nonetheless. Grim Fandango does spend quite some time musing about the nature of death and infinity as one would expect from such a setting. I see the pathos of Manny growing as a person over these four years amid all of the corruption of his world, as he is trying to right a wrong. There are themes of letting go and moving on and the ever eternal worry as one looks back on their life and forward into an unknown oblivion.

I took pause at the beginning of Year 4 at seeing a few of Manny’s other worthy travelling companions through to their final destination. Such an event brought about a moment of sublime contemplation. These were good building blocks for a spectacularly artful ending to capitalize on the themes that the game had been building towards this whole time. However, in the end, the story just comes down to experiencing a sense of the poetic justice requisite in a happy ending, as the good guy gets his just rewards by beating the bad guy who gets his just desserts.

Film noir, during its heyday, was dismissed as just crowd pleasing melodrama by the critics of the time. The term film noir didn’t come about until about a decade later when the Cachier du Cinema crowd got a hold of these films and pulled out the gems that had elevated their material beyond their basic similarities to one another. The likes of The Maltese Falcon, Notorious, and The Asphalt Jungle go beyond simple entertainment. They are indeed great entertainment, but they are also great pieces of art as a result of the depth of their themes and the brilliance of their craftsmanship. Yes, the good guys won and the bad guys got their comeuppance in these stories, but there was more going on under the hood.

Grim Fandango, for all it’s originality, seems to run out once you leave the portal to the ninth underworld and head back to El Marrow. From that point on, the game becomes about grappling with the logistics of taking down a crime boss. The game has set up why Hector LeMans is evil and must be taken down, the rationale goes, and so the last fourth of the game can now just be about how that happens. It’s not that the game does anything wrong, just that it doesn’t go the distance. I wish it had just gone that extra few inches and made a statement or revealed a truth or any of the things that great art ends up doing.

I wasn’t expecting a character to give a speech or or to clarify specifically the developers’ intent. Nothing so obvious. Grim Fandango proves that it can handle subtlety when it wants to. A few words here, a close up there, the right framing of the situation. That’s what was missing. The situation of the final confrontation speak volumes by itself. All that it is missing is the right frame to the events. Shoot the bad guy, avenge the fallen, and restore order to the Land of the Dead. Yes, do all that, but then frame it so that it means more than good triumphs over evil, a simple potboiler with a film noir aesthetic. In the end, gone are the musings on death, on holding onto hope, and the game’s narrative of personal growth. Here, in this final scene, it really is just about two men with guns. One good, one evil, may the best man win.

It is a shame that I didn’t see Grim Fandango live up to its much vaunted reputation, especially because it is so skillful at playing with my emotions, getting me to laugh, and causing me to well up with tears in equal measure whenever it needed to do so. Because the material that the game concerns itself with is so important and familiar (despite taking place in the Land of the Dead), a concern about the nature of life and existence, it is a pity that it gets so damn close to something like greatness.

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