Despite Landmark Status, 'Grim Fandango' Is a Masterpiece Without a Legacy

Free from GOG right now, the LucasArts adventure classic remains the pinnacle of the genre's 90s heyday.

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Dec 13 2017, 4:26pm

screenshots by author

Grim Fandango Remastered is being given away for free on GOG.com until Thursday, and you should grab it.

It’s hard to recommend a game this old without being able to say why it’s important, without being able to say that it represents some seminal moment where a new idea emerged into video games. Grim Fandango was not such a moment. It is very much an artifact of its era, one that I love. But I can’t make a case for it as required reading, because it finds itself at the dead end of its ideas.

During the heyday of graphical adventure games, from the tail end of the text adventure in the 80s through to late 90s, there were two major companies putting out adventure games: LucasArts, which focused on good characterization, entertaining stories, and careful design, and Sierra, which didn’t. The genre, though enormously popular at the time, quickly developed a reputation for obtuse puzzles and perfunctory mechanics.

Story was their main, and some would say only, selling point. LucasArts was always the most design-focused studio working on the genre. They structured their games so that players couldn’t invisibly render the game unwinnable by trying the wrong thing, as was common in Sierra adventures. They built puzzles that could be solved incrementally, cluing-in the player by responding to failed attempts. They mastered the art of leaning into the absurdity of those puzzles, using comedy as a way of highlighting the absurd cartoon logic they relied on. None of this was exclusive to LucasArts’ designs, but even they couldn’t make the basic mechanics of the graphical adventure work 100% of the time. Yes, the puzzles were jokes, but sometimes the player didn’t feel like they were in on the joke.

Grim Fandango was different in many ways. It was less of a cartoon than its predecessors, using 3D characters set against pre-rendered backgrounds. Grim takes place in the Land of the Dead, an interpretation of Mexica traditions filtered through film noir sensibilities. To solve the problem of going from carefully hand-animated characters to blocky late-90s polygons, characters are rendered as stylized calacas, using their blocky and low-detail shapes to give them exaggerated shapes and decorative flourishes. Of the low-poly models of that era, I still think Grim’s skulls were the most expressive ones. Environments are huge and monumental, a cross between aztec temples and art deco skyscrapers; the enormity, the emptiness of death is present everywhere in the game’s sense of scale.

It was a hugely ambitious game, and though it didn’t sell as poorly as gamer folklore would have it, it didn’t pay off its ambition either. A few years later, LucasArts had fired most of the staff that made Grim and the Monkey Island games, many of whom would end up at Tim Schafer’s Double Fine or at Telltale Games.

There was never a Grim Fandango II; and inasmuch as LucasArts alumni went on to transform video games, they didn’t do so by building on Grim. Double Fine would shift into action-adventure games and platformers for years, before returning (mostly unsuccessfully) to point and click with Broken Age. Telltale, populated with LucasArts alumni, made some more Sam & Max games for a while, but their real successes came with The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead, which completely reinvented the genre.

Does it matter, though? Grim is really, profoundly good. Every line of dialogue, every character design, every environment oozes personality. It is so clearly in love with its world and its characters. Grim is full of surreal ideas that blossom into fascinating visuals, from the “marrow” being pumped out of petrified trees to be used as building material, to the guns that fire fast-growing seeds of bone-breaking flowers.

It still includes some puzzles that feel a little too clever for their own good; and today I’m not sure if I’m fully on board with its use of Native imagery alongside Western motifs. But as the grab-bag of ideas that it is, as the love letter to noir and mythology that it is, as the supremely entertaining adventure story as it is? Grim Fandango is fantastic.

That’s the paradox that I have to talk about with this game: We tell the history of video games as a series of leaps from one novelty to another; how, then, can we find a proper place for a game that was exceptional simply because it did everything its predecessors did, only better? Grim is the product of over a decade of refining a design process. I will never not think fondly of its characters and worlds. But the adventure game wouldn’t evolve from what Grim accomplished. Its novel control scheme was even abandoned for the remastered version. Sierra and LucasArts would soon stop making adventure games, and the genre became the province of niche developers, mostly in Europe .

It was clear, by then, that this is what it was: a formula. The formal experimentation of early graphical adventure games had by this point completely calcified. Grim Fandango is very much constructed in that tradition, and so are the adventures that came after it, like The Shivah and The Longest Journey. The merging of ambitious visuals, strong storytelling, and lightweight, narrative-focused mechanics would only blossom again in games like The Wolf Among Us and Firewatch, years later. And that blossoming would start by discarding the puzzle-centric mechanics that had made graphical adventures popular at first.

As such, Grim is the pinnacle of an art well on its way to becoming pure convention. But maybe we undervalue convention, in games. We don’t, after all, throw away all our blues records and Noh plays just because there are established patterns to those artforms. Grim, then, is best appreciated by how far it can take its conventions, rather than how it fails to break out of them.