WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP, WHOEVER HAS YET TO PLAY THE GAME IS WARNED
This article is a translation, more or less, of my own article on my Italian blog, I pensieri volanti. If you want to check the original in Italian, go here. For all the others…let’s go.
Those who have played games for a long time are perfectly aware of what I’m going to talk about here. Both the title and the image presentation are clear hints. And I don’t want to hide it that much: this was the first time I played this game, after tons and tons of praise from everyone. I’m not angry if you want to insult me, you’re perfectly free to do it…to be really honest, I’d insult myself too for having waited so much time. Which can be said for way too many other great games I’ve yet to play. But I won’t show you the list, just imagine it as long as all the crazy stuff Donald Trump said or did in his election campaign. Yeah, it’s that long. All due to my passion for videogames being fired up by Super Smash Bros. Melee and…but that’s a story for another time. The title in question is, of course, Grim Fandango Remastered.
This game…caputred me so much that I completed it in a 3-days marathon. I knew it would’ve been fantastic, but I never expected to be so affected by so many elements from the title, first by Lucasarts, then Disney/Double Fine/Sony (thank Boyes and Vignocchi, thanks for this gift. I’m actually serious). And maybe “affected” is a bit reducing for so many of these elements.
Let’s start with the visual style of the game, simply genius: a mix of Incas and Mexican’s traditional Dia de Muertos, all immersed in atmospheres and places straight from 30s-40s noir movies…only someone demented could think that. Tim Schafer, indeed: I mean, how would you call someone who writes a fake letter to Sony, pretending to be a 12 first, then 10-years old boy, asking for great old games to come back. The best kind of demented, though (given his history with adventure games). Here’s a screenshot of this bafoon, by the way:
As power is nothing without control (ah!), style is nothing without execution. Fortunately, Grim Fandango presents a mostly masterful execution. The story is, with no doubts, original: a travel agent for the “Ninth Underworld”, outside of the Land of the Dead, where everyone go when they die, demons born just to execute one specific duty (but give to them a piano, and you’ll see they manage to play that too), tricks and frauds, rebels, the classic beatniks in a bar literally called “Blue Casket”, those damn borders of the world, but also love, friendship, betrayal. All the elements in Grim Fandango give to Lucasarts’ title a bittersweet taste, in the right doses. In fact, it all starts with a miserable guy (Celso), who turns out to be cuckolded (poor guy) and who can only get on the “Excelsior Line”, a cane with a compass for his upcoming 4-years-long-voyage; it continues with Glottis’ mad passion for engines, his overall extravagance, Manny Calavera’s jokes, the interactions with other characters…I mean, he tries to scare skull-pidgeons with a Sigmund Freud-shaped baloon (maybe they were afraid to be psychoanalised, who knows). Moreover, sea bees (FREE BEES!), or that guy walking in circles believing he’s following the right path, and everything ends with the good winning against the evil. And this is all sweet. But the bitter component is present, not just mixed with the sweet, but as the basis of the sweet. It’s the foundation because, well, this is a story dealing with dead people, travel agents trying to sell voyages to poor souls who have just reached the afterlife, so they can escape from a place that remember to them that, yes, they’re dead.
But what about the bitter that spices the sweet? Let’s just think about the very first Mercedes Colomar’s appearance (“You’re not her to give me my medication?”, “Guess they couldn’t save me, eh?”): they remind us this is still a dramatic story about the Land of the Dead, despite that little asshole Manny just packaged a few moments earlier. Mainly, how to forget Membrillo, in the mortuary, a man whose job is to sadly inform other people that their relatives have furtherly passed away. He looks for treasures (hints about who the victims are) that he wouldn’t wish to find, because “the reward is not riches, but the chance to make a phone call and break somebody’s heart. Before and after Membrillo’s speeches, there are and there will be lots of both funny and serious moments, but this is the part of the game that hit me the most. Thanks to it, I got the confirmation I was seeking about Grim Fandango having a bittersweet soul, maybe even more pronounced as bitter than sweet. The germination itself, the extreme irony of flowers here representing the “death after death”, as well as (maybe?) a reference to how, after death, people are buried under the ground. Flowers usually represent the life that blossoms and opposes the death, but here they’re the death that opposes the life, the end of the death itself, although this happens through a floreal transformation that oozes “life”. And this is the same title where you must get a book with revolutionary quotes from beatniks because, otherwise, some sea bees can’t properly express their own protest’s motivation (don’t ever dare to sing out of time with the rest of the choir, I swear), or where you obtain to save your own vehicle from Domino’s explosive trap thanks to…jelly…puked by a demon who’s way too used to drink. The same title that offers to you moments liek Lola’s death, the sad destiny of those who miss the train without deserving it, the flatout crazy florist working for Hector. Everything becomes a game thanks to puzzles ranging between great and nut. Some of them made me suffer, with the obvious consequent “D’Oh!” once I got how to solve them. But I’d say it’s game just listening every speech from every character…it’s a pity trying to fast-finish this game, with so many memorable quotes (from Glottis to Membrillo, from the festival’s clown to Domic) right behind the corner. Who cares, anyway: there are no penalties, the difficulty is in finding the right solution to a puzzle, not to guess the right answer the first time.
Unfortunately, while I surely don’t hate the genre (quite the opposite), I played a way too low number of adventure games, and this one was the first in several years; I’m quite “ignorant” on this subject. How much, you may ask? I didn’t remember to double click for running. Yep, I’m a gigantic idioti, and what’s even better is that I say it so myself. The main adventure games I played so far are the first Monkey Island (fantastic) and Beneath a Steel Sky (again, fantastic)…and Grim Fandango Remastered, of course. This version is very similar to the original (obvious, due to the pre-rendered backgrounds), but character models are much more detailed, alongisde a much improved illumination system. The only real problem I had the misfortune to see were some strange bugs here and there, like Olivia “shaking” while standing near the door inside the Blue Casket, and some “strange” animations. That and some difficulties in using point-and-click controls to make Manny move in the indended direction.
But, sincerly, who cares, since Grim Fandango, even around 20 years after its original release, is still something you surely won’t forget that easily: the story of a four-years-long journey (that sounds like Moses’ journey, now that I think about it), made of joys, silly details that just make you laugh, of pains and important thoughts.
The alternation between laughters and tears, between the irony and the sad truth…this makes me think how this game is seriously poetic. It’s not easy to treat this kind of contrast well, but the execution here deserves all the praise possible. A voyage that, after all the events of the game, doesn’t really end, because “nobody knows what’s gonna happen at the end of the line, so we might as well enjoy the trip”. Good old Manny, from voyages’ harvester to saviour of lifes for the definitive trip.
See you soon, world