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27 May 2015

Grim Fandango and hitting the nostalgia brick wall

It’s still an intelligent, heart-warming puzzle game, but replaying the re-mastered version of Grim Fandango sadly wasn’t everything Phil Hartup had hoped for.

By Phil Hartup

My struggles with Grim Fandango go back a long time, back into a forgotten time known to historians as the late 1990s. It was a simpler time – games had yet to become franchises, there was a remix of For An Angel for every day of the week and Tony Blair still smelled like a new car rather than triangulation and brimstone. There I was, minding my own business, when a friend loaned me this adventure game, told me it was amazing, and I got started on a short path that ended with me completely not getting what all the fuss was about and going to play Half Life instead.

My problem with Grim Fandango at the time was that the game did not particularly grab me. I had no frame of reference with the noir setting and no patience for games that didn’t involve some sort of action and excitement. Years later, hearing other opinions on the greatness of the game I resigned myself to the belief that it wasn’t the fault of the game that I didn’t like it, that I was just a savage for not appreciating it. And perhaps I was.

Fast forward to 2015, Grim Fandango returns with a new re-mastered edition, and I wondered if maybe, just maybe, an older, wiser Phil, unburdened by the raging hormones and impetuousness of youth can get to grips with the old classic.

There are a couple of elements about Grim Fandango that immediately strike me picking up the game today. Firstly unlike so many other games from the era which have been dipped into for inspiration by subsequent titles, the originality of Grim Fandango is comparatively intact. This is remarkable in no small part because the setting itself is imaginative you’d think people would have been all over it, stripping it down for parts like the last Boeing in the bone yard. The second element is its comedic tone, which again is something which few games have shot for, at least in this way. Comedy games have tended towards shock humour like the Postal or GTA series, crass, juvenile satire of the Family Guy and South Park style. As much as Grim Fandango has been praised for its humour over the years, its style has largely vanished from games, perhaps because it is easier to make jokes about weeing on people than introducing Marxism to giant bees.

The tone and the setting are what make Grim Fandango more than anything else. The game takes place in a kind of Aztec afterlife, populated by demons and the dead, but this world is manifested as being very much like a mid-twentieth century film noir. There are frustrated blue collar demons and miserable white collar souls working in crummy offices at jobs they hate and a pervading sense of corruption and hopelessness. The tone of the game prevents this from becoming too dark, despite the film noir traditions the setting invokes. The demons are big and brightly coloured, like they just ambled out of a Jim Henson movie, the lost souls are cheerful cartoon skeleton people and the game doesn’t take anything too seriously, even being murdered in the world of Grim Fandango just means getting turned into a little patch of flowers. To this day it remains an intelligent, heart-warming puzzle game.

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But playing it again I find myself still oddly rebuffed by the experience, gripped by the looming realisation that it really wasn’t me, it was the game all along. For all the critical acclaim and reverence heaped upon the game it has flaws, big ones, and it would take rosier tinted glasses than I have to see past them.

The first of these is the pacing. Now pacing is a tricky thing to get right in a puzzle game, by its very nature you can’t force the pace of a puzzle game because you’re meant to be thinking about things, the game has to essentially let you dictate the speed of play as you solve the puzzles. However the actual process of solving the puzzles in Grim Fandango tends to involve a lot of running around from place to place, picking up items, trying to use them in relation to things on the screen, and so on. You are doing a lot, but getting very little out of it. The world of Grim Fandango looks interesting enough, but there’s not nearly enough in it to make traipsing from A to B to C and back again because you didn’t grab enough of a particular object fun. You don’t run far, you don’t spend a long time in transit, but, for myself, I felt every wasted second of it.

The second flaw is that, due to the high production values of the game at the time it was made, very little energy could be diverted towards things that don’t advance the story. This means that there are few red herrings or things in the world that are not of immediate value to the game. You can’t get enough of a grip on the world around you to feel at home, which feels wasteful of such a fascinating setting. This is a game that in its day really pushed the boat out, but today feels quite bare and kind of lifeless, and not in a particularly good way.

Grim Fandango is a fascinating chunk of game history for many reasons and it should be played and studied and remembered, representing as it does one of the high points of its genre. But that said if you’re actually going to play it, for real, no guides, no walkthroughs, no nothing, you’re probably not going to have as much fun as you might expect.

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