22nd January 2014

Retro Corner: Grim Fandango

Bruce Tang recalls one of the most unusual and memorable games of his past.

In 1998, LucasArts created a brilliantly dark yet comic game that has since amassed a huge cult-following. Based on the Aztec belief of the afterlife and is set in the land of the dead, Grim Fandango stars Manny Calevera, a travel agent in the Department of Death who must help newly dead souls travel on a dangerous four year journey to the Ninth Underworld. Manny must find extremely moral souls in order to pay off his own debts from previous lives, all so that he himself can move on. The most pure of souls earn a shorter and more pleasurable journey on the Number Nine, a train which traverses the Land of the Dead in only four days. Manny, however, discovers a deep conspiracy when his most recent virtuous client, Mercedes Colomar, is denied a train ticket and must travel on foot.

This game successfully parodies the film-noir formula with an incredibly rich and inventive world and story. The writing is sharp and witty – every character I met had specific quirks which made them instantly recognisable and memorable even after all these years. It also made the game more convincing and much more engaging, almost hypnotic. As sad as it is to admit, my childhood was spent in that world, I was that emotionally invested in the story.

What also made this game both amazing yet incredibly frustrating was the inventiveness of the puzzles. Often they would be incredibly complex and difficult, with many parts to solving them. One puzzle had Manny become a sailor by faking the death of a shipmate using a name tag, liquor and a turkey baster. Picking up every item and combining them can get tedious, but the pay-off is more than satisfying. I really liked the game because it was unlike any other I knew at the time. It felt nice having a break from explosion heavy games with a lot of action. Instead, Grim Fandango had intrigue and mystery, enough to keep me coming back instead of ‘rage-quitting’.

Fortunately, adventure games like Grim Fandango are making a comeback. More and more games now have greater focus on the story, such as the Walking Dead and Beyond 2 Souls. Titles like Grim Fandango show that games have the ability to captivate gamers with story alone and even pull on the old heartstrings. You’ll find yourself wishing that the game never ends.

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