All good things come to an end. Beginning with the 1986 release of Labyrinth, Lucasfilm/LucasArts released some of the greatest adventure games ever created. Games like The Secret of Monkey Island, Zak McKracken and The Alien Mindbenders, and Maniac Mansion still stand up as brilliant examples of the genre, marked by brilliant writing, a quirky sense of humor. and engaging gameplay. Sadly, the boom couldn’t last forever. By the late 1990s, LucasArts was moving in a different direction and focusing almost entirely on Star Wars games. However, they weren’t completely done with the genre and the company’s penultimate adventure title would prove have a lasting place in video game history: Grim Fandango.
The game was created by Tim Schafer (Psychonauts, Full Throttle, and more) and was billed as a “Dramatic Expose of a Mythical World” and an “Epic Story of Crime and Corruption Spanning Four Incredible Years!” It featured you as Manuel “Manny” Calavera, a travel agent in the Land of the Dead. According to the mythos of the game, when you die you are sent on a journey through the Land of the Dead. For those who lived a good life, the journey goes quickly, but for others the journey lasts four years and must be taken on foot. One particular client, Mercedes “Meche” Colomar, seems perfectly qualified for an express trip, but for some reason is forced to walk. When Calavera begins investigating the reason why, he uncovers a vast conspiracy of criminal enterprise involving underworld boss Hector LeMans. To say more would be to ruin the brilliant storytelling that makes Grim Fandango so special, with twists and turns worthy of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler.
The game’s script is brilliantly complimented by the 3D graphics and extensive use of cutscenes. However, it’s the style of the game that is most memorable, the blend of film noir with Aztec mythology that combines into something weird and wonderful. It seamlessly blends elements of Mexican folk art with Art Deco style architecture. The end result is what an article written just before the game’s release described as, “Casablanca meets Roger Rabbit, but without the bunny suit.”
You can trace the seeds of the game back to an anthropology class Schafer took at the University of California at Berkeley, taught by folklorist Alan Dundes. Talking about it in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Schafer said “We learned about this land where the dark souls go, and where they have to make this four- year journey. Later I learned that they also fight all these obstacles on the way, and I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s a story.’ The idea to make it a crime story came after learning that the dead were often buried with two bags of gold in Mexico. In the same interview, Schafer elaborated, “In the Day of the Dead folklore, people are buried with money so they’ll have it to spend in the next world.And often it is hidden in the lining of the coffins so other souls won’t steal it. That idea that greed and avarice still take place in the next world fascinated me, and became a key plot element for the game.”
Adding to the game’s brilliance is a gorgeously orchestrated soundtrack composed by Peter McConnell, mixing elements of jazz, South American folk, and strings from the Russian, Celtic and Indian musical traditions. The score was so brilliant that Square Enix Music Online stated, “the compositions and performances are so good that listening to this album on a stand-alone basis can make people feel like they’re in a bar back then…” and the soundtrack has long been considered one of the best ever created for video games.
While it’s regrettable that the world of LucasArts adventure games had to come to an end (Escape from Monkey Island released in 2000 would be their last venture into the genre), at least the company ended in style. Grim Fandango is an absolute masterpiece which succeeds on every level.