By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
Grim Fandango, a comedy of the dead.
t often seems that the world of videogames has become mesmerized by its own blood besplattered reflection. Character and player interact through the dark, mud-streaked curtains of narratives that have been overrun by barbarians preaching aggression. One wonders at the future of a medium that can't help but return to play that ruined tune, hitting the same worn key over and over again. Well, thankfully, there are signs of hope. In a field of daisys there is the occasional spectacular bloom, the black orchid, games which bypass the empty, oft sung, cobwebby pop songs in favor of assembling orchestras capable of handling narratives attempting to reach operatic heights.
Grim Fandango is such a game. Developed and released by LucasArts, Fandango is based on the Mexican tradition of the day of the dead, a celebration of the spirits of ancestors and relatives gone under the earth. The game uses this as a starting point and then takes a wonderful dive into the deep end. We follow the adventures of Manny, a citizen in the society of the dead who works as a travel agent trying to find package deals for other members of the "dearly departed" who wish to move on. This afterlife, however, is far from reverent. Manny is in a constant state of despair over his lack of good clients, people whose well spent lives will qualify them for the luxury trips to the beyond and bring in enough money for him to pay off his own debt. Eventually our hero uncovers a far reaching conspiracy to defraud the dead and undertakes a quest to solve the riddle while at the same time trying to make sense of his own place in this madhouse. Death is a hysterical business in Grim Fandango and it would make the Marx Brothers proud.
The creators of the game opt for a developed narrative rather than a simple "shoot 'em up" storyline. The cinematic sections of the game chart the progression of Manny as he struggles through his death, harassed by an overbearing boss, constantly made a sap out of by a slick fellow agent and chauffeured around by a speed obsessed, slightly demented bear like creature. There is an inspired comic beat to the proceedings.
The visual look of the game deftly contributes to this feel. There is a definite film noir style at work in Grim Fandango, but one that is crossbred with a strain of Saturday morning cartoons. The character design is perfectly realized: skeletons walk about dressed in 1940's fashions, making shady deals and selling each other out. It's part Nickelodeon (at its best) and one Raymond Chandler. Of course this is noir with a comic touch. The decor may scream Maltese Falcon but the character relations recall Duck Soup. Since everyone is a skeleton, the creators had to be inventive in how they establish character...and they do a wonderful job. Individuals are singled out by something as simple as the different pattern of lines on their skulls, by a various number of mustache styles or by slight alterations in the shape of their permanently "smiling" mouths. The incredible thing is that it works. It is a testament to the skill of the creators in generating interest in the cinematic narrative of the game that these small distinctions can add up to entirely different individuals.
Gags abound as Manny is continually baffled by his predicament. As he desperately tries to find a travel deal for a particularly sorry soul Manny finds all of his options rejected. He has one last hope. He turns to the spook and proclaims that he can take the Excelsior line. Cut to the spirit holding a walking stick on which is written Excelsior in gold letters while Manny points out the added feature of compass which will prove quite useful. It's a hysterical moment, one aided by the shocked look of confusion on the customers' face. Yet the creators not only use it to provoke laughs but to further develop the characters. As the client walks away he mutters to himself that at least he has it better than Manny, who is stuck behind until he can solve his problems. If even this dead loser can move on the player can grasp just how desperate Manny must be to rid himself of his position. It's a quiet little way to instill narrative drive in the story. In one particularly charming moment the player encounters another example of the creators disarming sense of humor and how it relates to more thematic issues.
Manny walks into his office dressed in his rather threatening looking grim reaper uniform. It's all part of the job though, we realize, as Manny disrobes and removes a pair of lifts from his feet. The stereotypical image of tall, menacing death is replaced with the comic substitute of a short, slightly overweight "man" who is growing ever weary of his job. The creators, while packing in the jokes, are also taking the time to build a foundation for a character so that the player can have more than just a passing interest in a world built to stimulate more than just a blood lust.
Grim Fandango does not follow the often taken bloody path of videogames. Humor and style are combined to fill out a narrative design based on the idea of the quest. The player has a better chance of coming to care about Manny and his adventures because while the setting may be a comic one, it is a world in which the dead have dreams too. In an age of empty jukebox bubblegum, Grim Fandango is a little opera.
- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.
Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1998 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.