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Gamers Month ver. 3 - An Easy Tale of Crime and Corruption in the Land of the Dead
The phrase "instant classic" has become quite disposable as of late. People often use it to describe Top 40 albums as if cookie-cutter monotonous garbage was designed without a shelf life and meant to stick around forevere. I can't help but feel a sense of disappointment that when I use this phrase to describe a truly classic concept it's somewhat cheapened by its overusage. Such is the case with, what I consider to be the greatest video game ever made: Grim Fandango.
Grim Fandango was developed and published by Lucas Arts under the genius direction of Tim Schafer who, in my opinion, is the most astute and creative game designer working in the industry to this day. He has had a direct golden hand in classic and critically-acclaimed games such as Full Throttle, The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Psychonauts and Brütal Legend and, even though his games don't sell through the roof like your standard-issue first-person shooter, the charm, wit and skillfully-spun stories stick with you far longer and more than make up for the monotony of shooting brown people in Afghanistan takes on after the first 30 minutes. Everyone has that one game that, to them, simply embodied everything good about video games in their eyes either because they found some common ground with the central character or because it somehow struck a chord with you in its presentation; with its Mexican folklore and central character who always seems down and out but never quite ready to give up (Oh, how idealistic I felt well over 10 years ago...) Grim Fandango became mine. From the Offices of the Department of Death to the Edge of The World, let us take a look at Manny Calavera is not just as he self-deprecatingly calls himself an "ugly pile of bones".
This is the story of Manny Calavera. Manny has a job at a travel agency and seems to not like his job too much because his in-house rival gets all the good clients. This would be nothing out of the ordinary except that everyone in this land is kind of dead. In The Land of the Dead, Manny's job as a travel agent consists of selling his clients travel packages to trek them safely across the land to their final destination. However, at The Department of Death, selling a travel package to someone with shoddy credit (in this case, how good their deeds as the living were) isn't so easy, especially when all his clients seem to have been rather bad humans before they came to see him and, with travel packages ranging from the "Number Nine" bullet train for fast passage to a walking stick with a compass to walk to the end of the world, only the most saintly of souls arrive in style.
DoD Travel Packages. The "Double N" train package is the one on the right.
Manny waves his latest client, Celso, goodbye as he sends him off with the "Excelsior" walking stick travel package.
Sadly, Manny is on the brink of losing his job. His boss is constantly on his ass while his nemesis Domino Hurley nabs all the good clients. Desperate, he steals one of Dom's clients and that's how we are introduced to the damsel-in-distress of this film noir: Mercedes "Meche" Colomar. Mercedes was a saint while she was alive but, the department computers somehow assign her the 4-year walking package anyway. Disheartened by the outcome of events after he sends Meche on her long and perilous journey, he begins investigating what he suspects is top-level corruption to swindle souls from their death-given right to luxurious travel and, thus, begins Manny's colorful journey across the Land of the Dead to rescue Meche and bring those responsible to justice.
Along the way, he meets Glottis, a demon who was summoned from an ethereal plane of existence just in case someone needed an auto mechanic who has a gambling addiction and likes to hit the bottle when he's on a losing streak. Despite this, Glottis is a kind and caring companion who worries about Manny at every step on their journey and proves himself to be a capable engineer when he modifies one of the DoD company cars (a hearse which he is too big to get into) and turns it into the car you all wish you had: THE BONE WAGON
Because riding bicycles is for meatbags and coffin stuffers!
Without spoiling too much of the story, we accompany Manny on his alliance with a group of revolutionaries with a love of carrier pigeons, a drive through a dead forest, as he becomes an admirer of beatnik poetry, a casino owner, an avid scuba diver and a fierce anti-child labor advocate. This is a man who, while weaving many cigarettes through his bony fingers is on a pursuit of truth, a beautiful woman and suave suit.
The game's control scheme is very straight forward much like the original Resident Evil games. Your left and right controls make you turn, up makes you walk forward and down makes you walk backwards. You can only interact with certain objects and, since all the backgrounds are pre-rendered (AM I USING THIS WORD IN THE CORRECT CONTEXT NOW, SKILLS? YOU FUCK.) it's fairly easy to discern objects you can interact with from the backgrounds due to the game's rather sharp polygonal edges. The graphics haven't aged incredibly well but it's not necessary to have a high polish when the central character is, as he describes himself, "frayed around the edges and I've got fewer suits".
Thanks for the reminder, chumps.
Gameplay-wise, the vast majority of your time is spent collecting seemingly-random gadgets and items which are used in conjunction with each other to solve rather simple but cleverly-designed puzzles. For example, in order to figure out why Domino is always getting all the good work orders in the first ac, Manny investigates the mysterious pneumatic tube system that feeds into Dom's office but, in order to jam the system, he must find several pieces (balloons, expandable foam, fool a groundskeeper into opening a door and leaving it unlocked, etc) and mix them together in the building's basement to jam the tubes. Every puzzle in the game is pretty much a variant of this core system but, given the backdrop, the stories given to every character and the attention paid to even the most minute of details, this insultingly-simple gameplay device becomes an enjoyable experience that replicates itself in the game time after time without you ever feeling like you are repeating any of your actions and it gets you one step closer to Meche.
The game's atmosphere is very distinct amalgamation of film noir-ish atmosphere & Mexican folklore. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks scotch and everyone speaks "Spanglish". There are very sharply-designed art-deco interiors and equally stunning Mayan pyramids to perfectly bookend both genres which the game seems to lovingly caress so finely. While casinos house souls from all walks of... uh... death trying to wrangle together enough scratch to buy their ticket to the Edge of the World, a traditional Day of the Dead Festival rages on in the streets of New Marrow complete with traditional mariachi music and piñatas. However, that's only beginning to scratch the surface of the entire feel of the game. As souls in the land of the dead, everyone is portrayed as a traditional Mexican "calaca" figure. These figures are quite common in Mexico during "Dia de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) celebrations and are used to symbolize life within death. The very Mexican folklore permeates every aspect of the atmosphere as well: Each of the game's four acts takes place one year apart on November 2nd (Mexico's Day of the Dead), flowers are used to symbolize the absolute end of life, piñatas and mariachis always accompany the celebration perfectly keeping beat and the Edge of the World is, well, a Mayan temple in which the gatekeeper is a calaca with a Mayan headdress.
I'll admit that we Mexicans have a rather unhealthy obsession with the dead but, ¡ay caramba!, we sure know how to make it colorful!
The one thing that truly ties this game together is its amazing soundtrack. True to the game's mashup spirit, the soundtrack is comprised by a beautifully orchestrated jazz/folkloric & mariachi score composed by long-time Schafer collaborator Peter McConnell. Where the sprawling art-deco cityscapes, smoky casino bars and slam poetry dives are aptly given a jazzy score, the more traditionally cultural settings are given their own folkloric Mexican music. Never does the soundtrack feel out of place nor does it ever overstep its role in the game. Once sold as a CD soundtrack, it is now out of print and was titled Grim Fandango: Big Band Bebop and Bones. You can find the soundtrack on fan-run site GrimFandango.net, albeit at a relatively low quality.
Banister slides and piano riffs make EVERY bar scene better.
All in all, Grim Fandango strikes a perfect balance between a macabre subject matter, a colorful and artsy atmosphere that's a pitch-perfect mix of two seemingly-juxtaposed genres and a written script that has more wit in its first few exchanges than most modern movies pack in their entire running times. The gameplay is simple, yet, easy to understand and is constantly woven expertly into the story. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of playing this game, do yourself a favor and rob, steal or kidnap your neighbor's kid for ransom in order to buy this game. I can't count the number of times I have played and beat this game and it still feels fresh and timeless. It just goes to show that, under brilliant creative direction and clever story writing an ordinary game that takes place among the dead is anything but.
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