I have a lot of very useless skills.
If I put my hands together and wiggle my finger muscles, I can make my hand wave in a way that is cool but utterly functionless. I can also recite—pretty much from memory—the entirety of the opening of Grim Fandango, and often catch myself repeating it out loud without realising: “Sorry for the wait, Mr. Flores. I am ready to take you now.”
It’s 2010, and I’m 12 years old. My father has always been very big on those eccentric puzzle games in the mould of The 7th Guest, and has finally got around to adding Grim Fandango—in my view, designer Tim Schafer’s best work—to his library.
At this point, we’d played through a few of LucasArts’ games together. We beat their cartoonish puzzler Day of the Tentacle and made some solid progress through their bad-boy-on-a-motorcycle-them-up Full Throttle, and now we’d reached their tale about a dead travel agent trying to make things work in the Underworld. I liked most of the games we played together, and some of them still hold up today, but most of them pass me by in my recollection. Grim Fandango, on the other hand, was—and remains—one of my favourite games of all time.
Grim Fandango is the story of travel agent Manny Calavera, a down-on-his-luck salaryman in the afterlife trying to work off some time so his soul can move on. His job is to sell travel packages to other transitive souls moving from life to the Ninth Underworld—the Land of Eternal Rest—but all of his clients end up being dead-end, low-commission nobodies that put him no closer to escaping.
Sniffing a little more into the whole operation at his employer, the Department of Death, Calavera discovers a web of corruption throughout the underworld’s bureaucracy and spends the next four years investigating it—and maybe finding true love, if such a thing exists in the hereafter.
It created a lot of debate over whether it “destroyed” the adventure game genre. While it was critically acclaimed in its time, and rightly so, it wasn’t the commercial hit that the team was hoping for—and thereafter, the puzzle-adventure genre was largely left behind by the big studios until its resurgence in the 2010s.
I think that’s a tragedy, really, because Grim Fandango was excellent. The writing alone was terrific; it’s a slow burn at first, but the story does a strong job of selling you on the core premise of corruption and sinister dealings in the Land of the Dead, as well as making you invested in the personal fortunes of its lead and the ever-expanding wacky cast of characters he surrounds himself with. It’s well paced, too; with every year that goes by, Calavera gets closer and closer by degrees to the truth he’s searching for, and there’s a strong sense of rising action that increases at just the right speed to keep you interested without burning you out.
Speaking of Calavera, I love his character to death. I love his character in death, too, if you’ll pardon the pun (and even if you won’t). His sardonic wisecracks and witty rejoinders, his effusive self-confidence, his sincere disdain for corruption, and protectiveness of his friends, all tied together by the excellent vocal delivery of Tony Plana—he’s just cool, man. I don’t know what else I can say, which bodes poorly for me as a journalist.
Grim Fandango stood out from the other games we played back then for its setting design, too. The well-appointed halls at the Department of Death, the grimy city streets of Rubacava, and the great waterfall at the end of the world all looked graphically far superior to most of the puzzle games I had experienced beforehand.
My fascination with the game has followed me since. I wasn’t intellectually equipped to appreciate the game’s core themes in the way I am now; in the universe of Grim Fandango, the corrupting power of money and influence is an absolute force that transcends even life itself, and it’s not hard to see what political message you’re meant to take.
In retrospect, though, Grim was an initiation for me to an entire sphere of heavily story-focused, adventure-puzzle games—your Ace Attorneys, Zero Escapes, and Disco Elysiums—because even then I was awed by not only the fact the game was telling a grand narrative I had heretofore only experienced in books and on television but by how well the story and the puzzles clicked with each other. I started seeking out other games that scratched that same itch, and not long after I started the first Phoenix Wright game; my fate was sealed.
I’m a writer and game developer myself now, and Grim Fandango is still one of my biggest inspirations. Despite its 90s-era foibles, annoying bugs, and the forklift puzzle in year two that still takes me five attempts to solve (even though, yes, I know what the solution is and, no, I don’t need a walkthrough) it remains—if not my north star—then a bright entry in the constellation of games that demonstrate what strong stories the medium can tell if we allow ourselves to take it seriously.