If you’ve been following this site for the past few months, you’re probably already aware that I have a bit of an affinity for old-style adventure games. They were my gaming bread-and-butter growing up, back when I was playing old Humongous Entertainment adventure games on my family’s crappy Compaq. It’d be several years before I’d get into what most of the adventure game community considered (even then) the “classics”, like The Secret of Monkey Island, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, and the like. Even though those games were pretty different in tone than the stuff I played as a kid (really, the only things they had in common were clicking, inventory, and an affinity for the Scumm engine), they still brought back a bit of nostalgia for that era.
Adventure games have an interesting history, if you do some research. They were some of the first videogames, they entered a sort of Golden Age, and then they petered out into the realms of memory, only to be revived by people who had a strong relish for those memories.
Grim Fandango is, in many ways, the last hurrah for that “Golden Age of Adventure Games”. It was the last fully original adventure game IP that LucasArts produced (before shuttering their adventure game division) and the last “true” adventure game that industry legend Tim Schafer produced before leaving the company (due to that shuttering). Playing it and recognizing that context for it brought back a lot of memories for that time period, but at the same time, it’s a melancholy reflection on a genre that I doubt will ever reach that point again.
Historically, Grim Fandango has a pretty significant place in LucasArts’ line of adventure games, for the reasons previously discussed. It wasn’t the last game that their adventure game division produced; that honor goes to Escape From Monkey Island. However, it is, as mentioned before, the last game that Tim Schafer made with the company, as well as the last adventure game he’s made since then. (That’s not counting the games he’s made with adventure game elements, but most of those elements are so light that they bear little resemblance to his previous work, mechanically.) And, if you look at his career, it’s difficult not to view him as the embodiment of that era, since he had such a large part in creating the games that are often viewed as the pinnacles of that era. In much the same way, Grim Fandango is an elegy for “his” genre, his final contribution to the genre that he created, that he knew was in the throes of death.
The game’s plot is somewhat appropriate, since I’m sure he knew that this genre was on the way out. Grim Fandango focuses on the journey of grim reaper/travel agent Manny Calavera in the Land of the Dead, modeled after a combination of the Mayan afterlife structure, the aesthetics of La Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), and the plot and art deco style of film noir. He discovers a conspiracy at his employer, the Department of Death, a government body that ships souls along the four-year journey to the afterlife. Along the way, he meets various other characters, has various successes and failures, before… the conclusion, which I’d rather not spoil.
His journey and its many successes (often viewed at the beginnings or the ends of the individual levels) remind me of the history of the adventure game genre, in a way. It started off kind of lowly and small-time, with only an underground appeal, but then it reached a point of mainstream popularity (welcome to the Calavera Cafe), with rises and falls in popularity and in quality, until petering out into nothingness and leaving all too soon.
Though the game’s ending isn’t that melancholic in terms of plot (hey, I’m trying to keep this somewhat spoiler-free), the fact that so much of the game’s ending (two-thirds) was cut due to time constraints kind of shows the quick, sudden death that the genre had.
Grim Fandango is also slightly… un-traditional, in some elements of the genre, utilizing 3D movement, sprites, and gameplay, rather than the 2D point-and-click interface used by previous LucasArts adventure games and most modern adventure games. (Escape From Monkey Island used the same interface.) It makes sense for the time, and it shows off the excellent pre-rendered environments well. Though it was a bit weird playing it at first; I always thought tank controls were reserved for old survival horror games. Aside from that bit of modernization, however, its structure and puzzles are heavily traditional, though if one looks at the design documents, you can tell that they wanted to eschew linear puzzle structure a good deal, but by that point that wasn’t much of a new idea.
It’s an interesting balance between modernization and tradition, and, much like the plot, this aspect of the game reflects the situation of the time; the genre and its audience were in a time of flux, with 3D becoming the standard and its gameplay becoming much more popular than the “traditional” 2D format. One could, conceivably, attribute this shift to the death of the genre, but I think that resulted more from a shift in audience taste rather than simply 2D versus 3D (PC gaming becoming more and more focused on action gaming and online play rather than solitary experiences, early console-ization of games, etc.), but it’s impossible to say what really caused that drop in sales that resulted in the death of Sierra, LucasArts’ adventure game team, and the mainstream commercial value of the genre itself.
Over the course of my time with Grim Fandango, I started to think more and more about the game’s context, about the time it came out, about how it felt like the end of an era that I was… never really around to experience, aside from those few extremely-kid-focused adventure games I played as a kid. It’s a historical artifact, like many landmarks of gaming, but it’s a much more melancholic sort of landmark than most of the ones we remember.
Grim Fandango is, when you look at those factors, the final true product of that era, the last of decades of development, a marker of a shift in what gamers wanted from their games. Since the whole genre died, there have definitely been people who’ve wanted to resurrect it, pallbearers for the legacy of that era and the people who brought it about. And I truly respect their attempts to bring that era about again, to breathe life into it and give it commercial appeal to more people than the subset of gamers who still carry nostalgia for that dead age, but it’s something that I doubt will ever happen. As hard as they’ve tried, the most they’ve managed to do is create a sort of… effigy of that time, a figure to pray at the altar for, in the hope that some day, some day, things will change. But they won’t. Those that aren’t content with praying for the new time burn the effigy in anger at those who aren’t willing to bring it about.
Appropriately, the effigy in my mind has Tim Schafer’s face on it.
Either way, it’s a dead age, and, as much as I love the products of that era and the people that made it happen, it’s something that I doubt will ever come back. The genre’s gone, but it’s evolved as much as it’s “died”. Games like Psychonauts and Ace Attorney kept the flame burning, combining some adventure game elements (Psychonauts‘ writing and Ace Attorney‘s pixel-hunting and puzzles) with those of newly developing genres (platformers in Psychonauts and visual novels in Ace Attorney). Along with that, there are the “new adventure games”, like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire that… bear little resemblance to their predecessors in terms of gameplay but modernize it to an extreme degree. It’s a strange situation.
That Golden Age is over, but it’s still very much worth experiencing; it’s produced some of the greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever gone through, and it’s extremely important to the history of the medium. Grim Fandango closed the book on it, and it did it well.
“Nobody knows what’s gonna happen at the end of the line, so you might as well enjoy the trip,” as Manny Calavera said.