It’s funny the things that become important to us through our lives. Family, of course, and friends are the biggest things. There are objects we collect that carry meaning, and the passions we develop. If you talked to me 15 years ago and asked me what I was most passionate about, I’d probably have said “adventure games.” I would have started droning on about Guybrush Threepwood and the Island of Mêlée, or Sam and Max, or Purple Tentacle. Or I might’ve told you about what was the almost-greatest video game ever made, featuring Manny Calavera and his four-year Journey of the Soul.
At E3 on Monday, Sony announced that they would be getting an exclusive release of a newly remastered version of the old computer game, Grim Fandango. I saw a tweet about the announcement and thought surely it had to be a joke. I scrambled to do a Twitter search for “grim fandango” and discovered a slew of tweets confirming the news. My jaw hit the floor. One of my longtime dreams was coming true at last. One of the greatest games of all time would be available again for the public to finally embrace.
As a kid I was something of a loner, which is probably a common thing among nerdy kids who lack charisma and social skills. I had few close friends, and through my later years in elementary school I mostly found things to do by myself. Adventure games for the computer were my escape. I spent countless hours playing and replaying computer games like The Secret of Monkey Island, Broken Sword, Space Quest and Sam & Max: Hit the Road. These games offered me what so many other media could not: Immersion. Even my beloved movies couldn’t compete. They weren’t the usual action-based games, either. I was never very good at those kinds of games — I was one of those sad nerds who so lacked hand-eye coordination that even Super Mario Bros. was a massive challenge. Adventure games had real stories, with characters, witty dialogue and even emotional resonance in some cases. Being most popular from the mid-80s to the late-90s, the majority of adventure games had 2D graphics, with very pixelated graphics in the older ones, and design styles reminiscent of hand-drawn animated films in the later ones. Beating them wasn’t a matter of speed or skill, but of thoughtfulness. It took hours and hours of story-based puzzle solving, and in some cases (*cough*Riven*cough*) the puzzles were so difficult that even my extreme devotion couldn’t overcome them. And still I played them, seemingly endlessly. I would lose myself in them almost completely.
I’ve realized in the years since that my tendency to bury myself in adventure games stemmed from a desire to shut out the rest of the world. Actually, not ALL the rest of the world. It was my home life I needed to quiet. My parents split up almost 14 years ago, but the years leading up to it were painful to witness, and the years immediately after were no picnic either. Yelling and shouting and crying and sometimes throwing things were a constant when my parents were around each other. I would close my door, sit at the computer and load up a game, often playing for several hours until things settled down, and then continuing to play well into the night. Why stay in a world of horrible adult squabbles when I could join the adventures of pirates, time-travelers and more? Those games were as much a coping mechanism as they were an easy way to occupy my time instead of making friends.
Among them, the LucasArts adventure game Grim Fandango has always held a special place. The game, created by genius video game designer Tim Schafer and released in 1998, tells the story of Manny Calavera, a travel agent for the dead, who gets caught up in an epic journey spanning several years throughout which he tries to save the soul of a woman he loves, Mercedes Colomar. It’s based on the culture and imagery surrounding the Mexican Day of the Dead. The story, style and mood draw from that heavily, while incorporating elements of film noir and directly stealing from Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and On the Waterfront. It also features an extended Robert Frost joke! The miracle of the game is that it does all those influences justice, creating a world and a story with wit, beauty and real pathos. A rarity for most games today, let alone a game from 1998.
In a perfect universe, Grim Fandango would have been one of the very greatest achievements in video games, selling millions of copies, and proving clearly that art could be found in the medium. Sadly, the game didn’t sell nearly as well as it should have, leading LucasArts to give up on the adventure game genre, signaling the potential death of the genre as a whole. Even more unfortunate was that the game was too advanced conceptually for technology available at the time. The choice had been made to render the game with 3D graphics, rather than the 2D style of previous LucasArts adventures. The shift was hardly smooth. While the Land of the Dead designs are beautiful in their way, and certainly distinctive, they still don’t look very good technically speaking. Compare the concept art for the game to the end result and you’ll see it leaves a lot to be desired.
The game also shifted away from the then standard point-and-click interface to keyboard controls that were clunky at best and sometimes almost impossible to get a handle on without extreme frustration. Then there are the stories of a whole section of the game that got cut out due to schedule demands. Grim Fandango is an almost-masterpiece. It has all the pieces, and most of the game is almost there, but the flaws are impossible to ignore.
When I was a kid, alone in my room playing adventure games, Grim Fandango represented a holy grail. It was the most “adult” of the games; the most intriguingly conceived and emotionally complex. It was the game that made me feel like all my time spent playing these adventures might have some meaning and could help me grow as a person, silly as that might sound. This game that should’ve been the apex of the medium could never match its own ambitions or my ambitions for it. It was a great game, but it wasn’t what it deserved to be, and it felt almost like a personal slight. Instead of worrying myself with the breakdown of the home surrounding me, I occupied myself with the injustices done to this computer game.
As computers and operating systems advanced, Grim Fandango was in some senses lost to time. The game was made for Windows 98, but when Windows XP came out only three year later, the game was made essentially unplayable without special patches. All the other old LucasArts games were easily playable through emulation software, but it was difficult to get Grim Fandango working on modern hardware. This wonderful game had landed, tried to make a mark, failed to do so and quickly began to fade into nothing but a bittersweet memory. Right at the time I was coming out of my shell and would’ve loved to share my weird passion with friends, Grim Fandango was basically gone.
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that a remastered and re-released Grim Fandango has been a longtime dream. I have literally had dreams about the game getting that treatment and seeing the brilliance at its core finally done justice with modern technology. Last year, when Disney shuttered LucasArts, I put to bed the idea that the game would ever come back. I thought it was gone forever, floating around in limbo like Manny Calavera himself. As it turns out, Disney is far kinder than I could’ve expected, allowing Tim Schafer to license it and give it a technological makeover.
Schafer bringing Grim Fandango back to life is the fulfillment of a dream for me as much as I’m sure it is for him. It’s a nostalgia trip, but also a journey back to a time in my life when computer games were one of the few places I could find unconditional happiness and joy. It’s the chance to correct one of the few things about that sanctuary that wasn’t quite perfect. I can’t wait to get a copy of Grim Fandango for the PS4 and return to that happy place, happier than ever, and maybe get a sense of closure for the game and for myself. Better still, now that it has the full support of Sony, and will be released on a massive platform, I’ll be able to share this incredible game with all of you. At last Grim Fandango has the chance to find a huge audience. It deserves that much, and if you play it you’ll see why.