LucasArts Retro – Grim Fandango & Wrap-up

The Land of the Dead

Welcome Retro PC Adventure Gaming Afficionados to the last episode of the LucasArts Retro series. I have a very special edition for you today – we'll be talking about Grim Fandango, what was LucasArts' swan song. This game represented the last of the great LucasArts adventure games, marking the end of an era and the end of a specific art style. While previous games employed either the traditional art style of something akin to Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango didn't do a simple palate swap, but rather re-invented the wheel with a 3D adventure game engine, something that was quite the marvel at the time. The game had great visuals, and even greater gameplay, but suffered a little in terms of gameplay with the leap from 2D to 3D.

Let's start off by talking about the story. To me, Tim Schafer and his crew outdid themselves with Grim Fandango with the sheer creativity that it took to come up with the story (same thing with Psychonauts). In Grim Fandango, you assume the role of Manny Calavera (arguably the most interesting character ever devised by LucasArts). Manny works in the DoD (Department of the Dead) in the land of the dead, and is a dead person. However, in-game, he is represented by a skeleton who wears a suit – the overall look comes off like a Dia de Los Muertos poster come to life, for this reason, all the skeletons tend to talk with a slight Spanish accent.

To lay out the principles of the game, Schafer took pieces of underworld lore and pieced them together in a very inventive way. The skeletons (like Manny) are essentially stuck in a limbo of sorts, where the only way out is to pay for the sins they've committed in life. In Manny's case, he has to spend 4 years in the Land of the Dead, or manage to score a ticket on the No. 9 Train, a bullet train that takes the dead people straight to the ninth underworld, the land of eternal rest (a slight departure from Dante's take on it). As you start the game, it becomes obvious that Manny hates his job at the DoD, where he has to process the recently deceased to discover whether or not they deserve a ticket on the No. 9. However, as time passes on, Manny discovers Mercedes Colomar, a real-life saint who saved children, helped orphans, and so on. When Manny places her name in the computer, he discovers that she did not get a ticket on the No. 9. This leads him to believe that something is awry in the DoD, and sure enough, the story of Grim Fandango takes you through the entire corruption that is sweeping through the land of the dead.

The main reason that Grim Fandango works as a game is that Manny, as a narrator, is introspective, lending a film noir atmosphere to an already amazing game. This atmosphere manifests itself through the structures in the Land of the Dead, huge buildings, and an art style that few games have ever matched. Throughout the game, Manny is exposed to the shady dealings of the DoD and frantically searches for Mercedes after having shamefully told her that she couldn't get a ticket for the train.

Grim Fandango would be nothing without its amazing characters – each one more odd and psychologically imbalanced than the next – corrupt crime lords that are vaguely reminiscent of an age long past, your driver looks like a gigantic orange beast who is obsessed with speed and modding cars, and clever allegories are scattered throughout. This gives the whole experience a rather fitting cast to play with, causing the game's quality to rise as a whole.

Regretabbly, much in the same way Outlaws has, Grim Fandango hasn't aged as well as one would hope. Trying to install it on my Vista machine was a snap (thanks to some recently updated drivers), but about 6 months ago, it was impossible to run the game on a modern machine. For those of you with quad-core CPUs (like me) you'll need to use CPU-Killer to disable some of those cores, so as not to overpower the game. The gameplay, while unwieldy, still works well – I however, had a glitch at a certain point in the game that did not allow me to finish the game.

At the end of the day, the question isn't whether or not you want a streamlined experience, but rather, what KIND of experience you want. Grim Fandango tells an incredible tale of lust, corruption, and love in the Land of the Dead, and while its technical hiccups may prevent some people from enjoying the experience fully, it still deserves to be remembered as a masterpiece for its time.

The Future

With the release of Grim Fandango, LucasArts realized that the market was no longer a prime place for releasing adventure games. the reasons were quite simple if we look at the year that Grim Fandango was released. The year was 1998 and things in the PC gaming scene were taking a rapid turn towards being three-dimensional. The most popular games being released were platformers and FPSs, both of which employed new 3D engines to render life-like worlds, something that the adventure game never aimed for. In the adventure genre, as you have seen throughout this series, the most important part of the game was the story, first and foremost. By 1998, the PC game industry was no longer interested in telling stories, and with the exception of games like Ocarina of Time (N64), consoles were also moving in the same direction.

There was no adventure game niche that was neatly carved when the brave new world of 3D was introduced to the videogame. While people became enamored with platformers and the like because of their vast 3D worlds that were rendered in real time, the adventure game took the backseat, and if you'd like to continue the car analogy, eventually got thrown out the back through the trunk. LucasArts now found themselves in a very peculiar predicament – would they try to mold their creations like so much play-dough into the new 3D mold, or would they simply create new franchises for a new generation? If you know your history, you'll know that LucasArts eventually just dropped all their adventure games and began to focus on exclusive Star Wars games, as well as new franchises that didn't work too well.

It was at around this same time, after the release of Grim Fandango, that Tim Schafer left LucasArts – a move that turned out to be wise. Schafer started his own company, DoubleFine Productions, in 2000. Their first product was a new type of action-adventure-platformer hybrid and in the minds of many is ushering in a new generation of adventure games – adventure games that don't attempt to hide their heritage in the 2D games of the past, and are mostly comedies.

Schafer's first independent game, which was a critical success and an extreme case of a "sleeper" hit, was titled Psychonauts. In the game, you are a kid called Raz that attends a "Psychic Summer Camp" after fleeing from the circus. In this summer camp, children with psychic abilities are trained in the ways of the Psychonauts, an elite group of secret agents that use psychic powers to conduct CIA-like activities. Ultimately, the Psychonauts find that Raz has amazing abilities and begin to train him when people at the camp begin to lose their brains. With the children losing their brains, and the psychonauts out on a mission, Raz is tasked with solving the mysteries behind what's happening at the camp.

Ultimately, Psychonauts' story is its most crucial aspect, but unlike other adventure games, the real meat and potatoes of the game lies in the ability Raz has to enter other people's minds using a "Psycho-portal" (a small door that gets attached to the victim's forehead). In these mind-entering segments, Schafer stretched his creative muscles – creating unique worlds where each character's personality comes to life. For instance, the mind of a conspiracy theorist plays out like a huge conspiracy theory involving a milkman and agents from the government.

If all this seems a little too weird for you – I still highly recommend the game. While it may be an acquired taste, by the time you're about 3 hours into the game, the weird-ness factor is no longer even a concern, you become invested in the story and eagerly await what mind you get to explore next. Two of the "mind-levels" that Schafer created were particularly inspired – one is a level where you play through the mind of a man who is a descendant of Napoleon, in his mind, he is playing a game akin to Carcassone with Napoleon Bonaparte. In another mind, using a set of incredible colors (reminiscent of Grim Fandango), Schafer paints the mind of a Spanish painter obsessed with a bull and a pair of lovers.

Overall, Psychonauts shows that Schafer hasn't lost his touch. Sprinkled throughout the game are references to movies, TV, other games, and the amazing tongue-in-cheek humor that has made him a superstar amongst adventure gamers. If you haven't picked up Psychonauts, you can get it for PC, or if you have an Xbox 360, just boot up to the Xbox Originals in the Marketplace – it's worth the 15 bucks, I guarantee you.

That will wrap it up for our LucasArts series – keep an eye out for Brutal Legend, Schafer's next project which is set to be released in March of 2009. It looks to be every bit as good as Psychonauts, and involves rock-and-roll culture, as you play a roadie who is charged with rescuing a heavy metal fantasy world.