With bony hands I hold my partner,
on soulless feet we cross the floor.
The music stops as if to answer,
an empty knocking at the door.
It seems his skin was sweet as mango
when last I held him to my breast.
But now, we dance this grim fandango,
and will for years until we rest.
Once upon a time there was this guy called Tim Schafer. You might know him from such epic point and click adventure games such as Day of The Tentacle, The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2 or Full Throttle. Well, one day he1 decided to ruin the point and click, in fact the entire adventure genre for everyone by creating a non-point and click adventure game. And that game was called Grim Fandango. And it was a glorious piece of art.
I've never been too fond of the idea of keyboard/controller-based adventure games with a fixed camera. Despite my previous experience with Escape From Monkey Island, I decided to give Grim Fandango a try about six years ago, mostly due to the many praises I had heard in relation to it. Then, six years later, I decided to give it another try and delve even deeper into its universe.
Grim Fandango is, in short, a very successful combination of "noir" and comedy. It's noir more than in the traditional sense, by having a hint of black comedy embedded in its core. It is, I quote the '40ish cover, "an epic tale of crime and corruption in the land of the dead", telling the story of a Grim Reaper called Manuel "Manny" Calavera who's living his life, well, his afterlife, in the dead people's world, trying to get through his mid-afterlife crisis like any guy who's been dead for too long now does.
The game goes through four years of Manny's adventure, the same period it takes to get to the Ninth Underworld2 by foot. People who have been "good" get a ticket to a train called The Number Nine, which takes them directly to the Ninth Underworld. One of the eligible clients, whom Manny steals from his pompous workmate Domino Hurley, is Mercedes Colomar, the typical innocent lady. She is pretty much the driver of Grim Fandango's rather thick plot, which you are familiar with if you've played the game. If you haven't then you should be really playing the game right now instead of reading this.
Comic relief is provided in more than one way, either subtly or obviously. First off, everyone and their dog is a skeleton, forming a rough sketch of their souls, including skin ridges or funny-looking haircuts. Besides everyone and their dog, the game is populated with demons used for "menial" tasks such as driving or taking care of the server3, the most notable being Manny's sidekick Glottis.
The graphics are not bad at all, but the aspect where the GrimE engine really shines is the ability to present scenes and angles in a very movie-like fashion. The action itself is presented from a few fixed points of view; this can rapidly become frustrating, as it's often hard to make the character focus on a specific object and interact with it. However, the cut-scenes look no less than amazing, more so that the voice actors did a pretty good job.
Last but not least, the game's soundtrack is mostly big band jazz with some South American intermissions and influences, exactly what you'd expect from a noir-infused universe. Since I've been listening to it for about last six months (and counting), I can only say that it's anything but boring.
I'll end the post with a quote:
All day long, Manny, I sort through pure sadness. I find evidence, and I piece together stories. But none of my stories end well -- they all end here. And the moral of every story is the same: we may have years, we may have hours, but sooner of later, we push up flowers.
Ok, maybe not as much him as the blazingly idiotic team behind him. It was, y'know, experimentation, trying to reach new markets, all that mumbo-jumbo that companies with too much money on their hands pull out of their hats. Unfortunately LucasArts have had many more years to show this to the public.↩
The Underworld is most probably inspired from the Aztec Mythology, namely from Mictlan. Unfortunately, at the time of writing searching the Web for "Ninth Underworld" reveals a long list of crap which is supposedly related in some way or another to the Mayan Calendar.↩