My overview of the video game classics continues with the LucasArts adventure game, Grim Fandango. In many ways Grim Fandango can be seen as the high point of point-and-click adventures. The genre, at least as a commercially viable entity, has since retreated into the more uncomfortably geeky corners of gaming world—the gaming world's parent's basement as it were. Rather than calling these adventure games, these keepers of the flame prefer the term interactive fiction. The hardest of the hardcore scoff at the notion of representational graphics cluttering up the ASCII purity of a command prompt. However, even these holdouts can't deny the artistic vision and narrative brilliance of Grim Fandango.
If it wasn't for the fact that the game requires a user to click and solve puzzles, Grim Fandango has the makings of a Pixar-type animated feature. We all know the tried and true Pixar formula. Take a group of non-human things: ants, toys, cars, fish, etc. Anthropomorphize them, and show us the secret workings of their society when the people aren't around. In the case of Grim Fandango, we get to see the secret life of Mexican Day of the Dead statuettes.
Grim Fandango's Land of the Dead a fully realized fictional world, with its own set of rules and customs. The art direction is a combination of Mexican folk art and forties noir cinema. A host of these cinematic clichés get turned inside-out, and are transformed to work within the game world. The end result is an engrossing story that is fresh and unmatched in the repertoire of video game storytelling.
There came a point during play when I stopped caring about the puzzles, and was tempted to download walk-throughs just to get on with the narrative. Eventually, I did have to cheat a few times, due more to my ineptitude rather than my impatience. In addition, I did have a few adventure game hair-pulling-out moments during the course of playing the game—Grim Fandango does have its fair share of glitches. Most notably for me, there's a point in the game, very near the end, when, in order to pick up an object, the usual hit the enter key action does not work, you need to use the more specific pick-up item key (which I never used the whole game up until that point). There are also times when you are picking up objects just because you can, and you know there is a puzzle waiting for them somewhere. The metal detector comes to mind.
But, like I said, the story is enough to overshadow these shortcomings. I can think of a few great games that while I was playing, I felt like I was part of a story—Half Life 2 comes to mind—but, in hindsight, I couldn't begin to tell you what the narrative was. Let's see, something about a gravity gun and helicopters and physics puzzles. In Half Life or just about any first-person shooter you, as a player, are far more immersed in the world than you are in an adventure game. I mean this in the sense that your mind is tricked into believing you are within that virtual space. But in Grim Fandango, I never felt that I actually was Manny Calivera. Rather, I acted as his guide. I don't, in any way, see this as a bad thing. The designers took the time to develop (in the narrative sense), not only the main character who the player controls, but the dozens of side characters. You understand Manny's motivations and so you begin to have a vested interest in his survival and eventual triumph regardless of whether or not you feel truly immersed in the environment.
Grim Fandango is a computer game fully worthy of its legendary status. LucasArts really needs to get back in the adventure game business. The Nintendo DS is ripe for this type of game experience, oh, and PC users would like it too!