Grim Fandango; Video Games as Art & My Dream Game
1997's Grim Fandango must surely be one of the best games of any genre and on any platform to have ever been made. Through telling a compelling and original story through a visually stunning and interactive medium, it singularly gives weight to the argument that video games can be art.
Taking delicious visual cues from Art Deco, film noir and the Mexican Day of the Dead, it puts you in the shoes of one Manual Calavera – a frustrated pencil pusher at the Department of the Dead. Manuel (or “Manny”, as he's called by most everyone), with his impeccable dress sense, burning ambition, fierce loyalty and dry sense of humour, is a protagonist of extraordinary depth and likeability; the antithesis of the gravelly voiced man-tank space-marines who seem to have infected the medium as a whole (though he does have a gravelly voice). I'm so taken with Manny as a character that I tried, with very limited success, to dress as him last Halloween.
Grim Fandango takes the idea of the grim reaper and turns it into dreary bureaucracy. The vision of the afterlife presented is somehow simultaneously depressing yet optimistic. Everyone's given the chance for salvation, but the worse the life you'll live, the harder you'll have to work to achieve it.
At the very bottom of the scale are the likes of Manny and his co-workers. They've lived such sinful lives that they have to work menial jobs for an indefinite period before they're even given a shot at salvation. Manny works as a reaper. It's his job to ferry souls from the land of the living and sell them transcendence packages upon their arrival. Though a return trip to the Land of the Living makes for a surreal early highlight of the game, reducing the role of grim reaper to that of a glorified travel agent is just one of the many aspects that make Grim Fandango a fascinating work of genius.
Those who have worked saintly lives are given a golden ticket on The Number 9 – a gorgeous Art Deco train that whisks you to heaven in a matter of minutes. Those who have lived good lives (but not great lives) are still given transport, but of decreasingly less speed and sophistication. This ranges from a car right down to a lowly walking stick with a compass in the handle (“The Excelsior Line”). Given the amount of land to traverse and monsters to battle, walking to heaven is very much a form of penance, and it's probably to this fate that the majority of humanity is doomed. Only the truly determined will make it, and it is indeed possible to die a second death.
It's never revealed what happens to those who die in the Land of the Dead, but the means these skeletal mobsters have of killing each other is disturbingly brilliant. Playing on the old “pushing up flowers” metaphor, there's a lethal substance in the Land of the Dead known as “sproutella”. This is placed within darts which are fired from handguns. Should a skeleton get hit by one of these darts, the sproutella will immediately start to flow through their marrow and cause flowers to sprout through their bones.
Just imagine how potent a substance would have to be to course so quickly through bone marrow. Just imagine how blindingly painful it would be were flowers to sprout with such force that they could penetrate your very bones. Of course, sprouting is used as a form of torture as well as execution in the world of Grim Fandango. Late in the game, a sprawling meadow of flowers takes on a sinister and immensely disturbing new light once you step into the greenhouse...
Corruption is rife in the Land of the Dead. An obese crime lord (who really is “big-boned” as opposed to fat) struck upon the genius idea of selling people tickets on The Number 9. Regardless of the life you've lived, if you've the resources, salvation can be yours in no time!
This creates something of a problem when the rightful owners of the golden Number 9 tickets suddenly find themselves rid of their speedy transcendence. The plot of Grim Fandango kicks into life once Manny accidentally presents the saintly Mercedes with the lowly walking stick instead of her rightful golden ticket. This immediately exposes the scam, and suddenly Manny's life is in very grave danger. Luckily, he's rescued by the beret-wearing Salvatore – an anarchic skeleton with a French accent who's somehow able to grow a moustache – and enlisted into the Lost Souls Alliance.
And it's from this point that, over the years, I was able to painstakingly devise, one bit at a time, my dream game. Every gamer has one – that game which will never, ever, ever get made but which would tick every single one of their boxes. For me, it's an action RPG by the name of Lost Souls Alliance.
In Lost Soul Alliance (LSA), you would play as a member of said organisation and would work to uncover and destroy corruption in The Land of the Dead. It would play very much like Deus Ex – with a first-person perspective that would switch to third-person every time you have a conversation. You'd receive mission-briefings from Salvatore himself and then, in true open-ended fashion, it would be absolutely up to you as to how you achieve your objectives.
But being the Land of the Dead, the gung-ho approach wouldn't really ever be a viable option. Instead of an arsenal of high-calibre weaponry, you'd have access to two different strains of sproutella – slow and fast. Fast you could use to quickly clear rooms once the going gets tough, but the slow one you could use to extract information, as it were, in a move that would give the game an immediate 18 certificate. You could offer soothing liquid nitrogen in exchange for answers.
An intriguing gameplay dynamic would arise should you yourself get hit by a stray sproutella dart. Once sproutella's in your system, there's not a lot you can do to stop it. You can freeze its progress with liquid nitrogen, but that won't help you with the fast-acting stuff. Your only other recourse is amputation, as seen in the original Grim Fandango where a sprouted LSA agent is reduced to a skull hopping around on a single arm.
As a result, your character may, at some points, be forced to remove either single limbs or the entirety of his (or her) body; leaving only the sentient skull behind. You could then fit yourself with spruced-up replacement limbs, which could introduce a wonderful steam-punk element that would be perfectly in keeping with the game's “period” atmosphere.
At the completion of tasks and missions, you could be given a choice between experience and money. Experience determines how quickly you can achieve transcendence (everybody's ultimate aim in the Land of the Dead), and the faster you build it up the faster you can get yourself a ticket for the Number 9. This done, you could, if you wish, abandon the game altogether and move on – leaving behind all the people you've promised to help along the way – a moral dilemma that Manny himself grapples with towards the end of Grim Fandango.
But choose money, and salvation will drift further away, yet you'll suddenly have the means to get yourself new equipment, new limbs, or even to gamble on roulette or giant cat races.
Choose experience every time and you'll complete the game quicker but have a much harder time doing it. Choose money and the game will take much longer to complete but you'll have an easier - and perhaps more fun - time doing it. But with the contrast between money, experience and difficulty, LSA would become a rare example of an RPG that lends itself well to those crazy YouTube speed runners.
An open-world adventure in which you play as an undercover LSA agent in The Land of the Dead – I simply cannot imagine anything better.
But it won't happen. Ever.
Unless Tim Schafer decides to crowd-source it? That would be a kick-starter in which I'd be more than happy to invest.