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‘Grim Fandango’ at 20: The Year the Grim Reaper Came for Adventure Games

Once upon a time, the adventure genre was a hallmark of video game culture. Slowly but surely, it began to fade. But not before the gloriously macabre ‘Grim Fandango’ came along.

LucasArts/Ringer illustration

Art may largely be a matter of taste, but one conclusion is close to inarguable: 1998 was the best year ever for video games, producing an unparalleled lineup of revolutionary releases that left indelible legacies and spawned series and subcultures that persist today. Throughout the year, The Ringer’s gaming enthusiasts will be paying tribute to the legendary titles turning 20 in 2018 by replaying them for the umpteenth time or playing them for the first time, talking to the people who made them, and analyzing both what made them great and how they made later games greater. Our series continues today with Grim Fandango, LucasArts’ adventure classic.

A few weeks ago, I found myself trying to explain “adventure” games to a present-day adolescent. His Fortnite character’s bunny skin had reminded me of Max from the popular Sam & Max series of adventure games. As the 13-year-old tuned out my ramblings and deftly descended upon Loot Lake, it occured to me that no one but us “olds” had likely ever played a traditional adventure game. And that means that this kid has probably never even heard of one of my favorite games of all time: Grim Fandango.

From the mid-’80s through the mid-’90s, adventure was one of the biggest genres in gaming. Typically slower paced and narrative-driven with an emphasis on characters and puzzle solving, adventure games were often unforgiving. They rarely made an effort to nudge a perplexed player in the right direction. The brain-racking challenges of adventure games were a big part of the genre’s allure. During its heyday, top developers Sierra and LucasArts were releasing new blockbuster adventure games as quickly as they could develop them. Until The Sims came along in 2000, the best-selling PC game of all time was Myst, which was largely responsible for the CD-ROM age in personal computing. Today, traditional adventure-game releases are few and far between. They’re quietly released with minimal commercial impact and yet still rigorously consumed by a devoted niche of gamers.

In 1998, the same year that landmark games such as Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time shaped the future of gaming, a LucasArts adventure game named Grim Fandango served as a dazzling swan song for a stagnating genre. Grim Fandango was the last truly great entry in the Age of Adventure Games.

Grim Fandango was the brainchild of Tim Schafer, who arrived at LucasArts as a programmer in 1989 and quickly ascended to the role of project leader/writer/director within just a few years. Schafer was instrumental in the development of several seminal LucasArts adventure games such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. These vivid and meticulously animated games injected some much-needed humor and personality into the genre. Schafer’s first chance to conceptualize and lead the development of an original game resulted in the biker gang caper Full Throttle, which became a huge commercial success for LucasArts in 1995. So when it came time to make a new game, LucasArts allowed Schafer to run with his idea for a Day of the Dead–themed game—an idea he had originally pitched alongside Full Throttle. If it wasn’t for the success of Full Throttle, LucasArts might not have been willing to give him the green light on a game as eccentric as Grim Fandango.

The setting of Grim Fandango is the Land of the Dead, essentially a layover between our world and our ultimate destination: the Land of Eternal Rest. For the altruistic and good-hearted, the journey through the Land of the Dead could be as brief as a four-minute ride aboard the Number Nine train. But less than stellar humans face the long and perilous journey on foot with nothing more than a fancy walking stick. The game’s protagonist, Manny Calavera, is stuck in the Land of the Dead working a job as a travel agent to pay off “the powers that be.” When a well-qualified client named Meche is mysteriously ineligible for quick passage to the Land of Eternal Rest, Manny begins to uncover a wide-reaching web of corruption that leads him all over the Land of the Dead.

Schafer’s expansive story would have been challenging to produce even if LucasArts had decided to use its tried-and-true SCUMM game engine, but Grim Fandango was to be the company’s first adventure game rendered in three dimensions. To make the jump from 2D to 3D, the company used pre-rendered 2D sets as backgrounds while the 3D characters and objects were rendered in real time. Functionally, this idea is somewhat akin to walking on top of a piece of 3D sidewalk art. They designed the environments in 2D, and the characters moved through rendered snapshots.

Aside from creating an entirely new game engine, making the jump to 3D also brought a new hurdle for Schafer’s team to clear: 3D cutscenes. The compact disc (AltaVista it, kids) allowed games to hold hundreds (!!!) of megabytes, and with all that added space, the gaming world of the 1990s became more “cinematic,” dropping cutscenes into everything. Almost every story-driven game in the ’90s made you put the controller down for minutes at a time while the characters advanced the story without your input. Games were becoming films made by people who were not filmmakers. Cutscenes were essential to game storytelling at the time. There is a cutscenes and dialogue video of Metal Gear Solid (also released in 1998) that lasts three hour and 15 minutes—roughly one-third of the game’s average playtime. With Grim Fandango being the company’s first foray into 3D adventure, it was no small feat for LucasArts to produce over 40 wonderful minutes of fully animated 3D cutscenes.

But perhaps the biggest reason that Grim Fandango is so memorable is the myriad of disparate cultural influences that shape the sights, sounds, and ethos of the game. Dialogue, camera angles, lighting, architecture, and character design all draw heavily from film noir of the 1940s and ’50s. Those American, French, and German influences that characterize noir were then blended with Mexican and Aztec folklore, traditions, and design. Manny Calavera wears a suit that could have been lifted straight out of The Maltese Falcon while he resembles a Mexican calaca (a skeleton figure made for the Day of the Dead).

The blending of cultures in Grim Fandango is best exemplified by the game’s original soundtrack, which blends the jazz and swing music of the film noir era with more traditional South American strings as well as an orchestral score. Composed by LucasArts’ own Peter McConnell, Grim Fandango’s soundtrack is commonly celebrated as one of the best video game soundtracks of all time. Great adventure games such as Grim Fandango feature worlds so cohesive and rich with detail that they’re transportive for the player, and McConnell’s soundtrack is the glue that binds the game’s elements.

From the moment the player meets Manny Calavera, decked out in Grim Reaper attire and angling for a sale, until the surprisingly moving conclusion, Grim Fandango oozes personality. Like Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango features a tremendous amount of dialogue. By 1998, voice acting was commonplace in games but often atrocious. Just two years prior, the entire gaming world had suffered through the astoundingly painful voice acting of Resident Evil. For Grim Fandango, LucasArts employed qualified, legitimate actors for their snappy dialogue, investing in a common strength of the adventure genre: the characters.

So revered are the sounds of Grim Fandango, that a script reading/concert was held at this year’s E3 to celebrate the game’s 20-year anniversary. Composer Peter McConnell played selections from the soundtrack and the original voice actors—with the added support of superfan Jack Black—took the stage to reprise their roles.

Upon release, the effervescent Grim Fandango—the Land of the Dead that Tim Schafer’s team lovingly brought to life—garnered glowing reviews and numerous industry awards including GameSpot’s PC Game of the Year. And yet, despite being universally and effusively praised, Grim Fandango’s sales were a major step backward from Full Throttle. Although ultimately profitable, Grim Fandango massively underperformed. After Grim Fandango, LucasArts released one more adventure game—Escape From Monkey Island—and then never made another ever again. Adventure games as a whole quickly faded from relevance.

The biggest mystery of Grim Fandango was not “Who sabotaged the journey of good people on their way to the Land of Eternal Rest?” but rather “Why didn’t people buy one of the best games of the year?”

For all of Grim Fandango’s glaring successes, at its core, it functioned within the well-established framework of the genre. The main character still walked around an environment, examined it, found objects, and figured out how to use those objects to gain access to the next environment. Transitioning the adventure genre into 3D did modernize the controls, but those controls were already antiquated by the time of the game’s release. Manny Calavera had the “tank” controls of 1996’s Resident Evil. You’d press up or down to move him forward or backward, and left or right to rotate him. Less than a month after Grim Fandango’s release, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s control scheme set a new bar for movement of a character within a 3D space. In Metal Gear Solid you could hide in a box, emerge from the box, tap on a wall, sneak around a corner, and shoot multiple enemies in the time it took to find and withdraw an item from Manny Calavera’s inventory. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, and Xenogears all made significant innovations within their respective genres. But they all had something else in common. They all excelled at what was once the hallmark of the genre: storytelling.

Modern control schemes and more robust game design have all but killed off the traditional adventure game, but only after absorbing the most valuable elements of the genre. The storytelling, humor, characters, and world-building of Grim Fandango and other adventure games have undoubtedly influenced games of many other genres. Recent indie games like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch are in many ways spiritual successors to the old adventure games. They both control like a first person shooter but are narrative- and character-driven works with purpose and humor. Your objective isn’t to kill anyone or anything but instead to live and breathe in a rich environment, exploring at your own pace and treasuring your discoveries. There will always be a place for people who want to play those games.

And in Fortnite, that place is on the ground, underneath the kid who just shotgunned you to death and won’t stop Milly Rocking on your corpse.

Maybe you just had to be there.