Grim Fandango

grim fandango

Grim Fandango is a dark comedy neo-noir adventure game released by LucasArts in 1998 for Windows, with game designer Tim Schafer as project leader. It is the first adventure game by LucasArts to use 3D computer graphics overlaid on pre-rendered, static backgrounds. As with other LucasArts adventure games, the player must converse with other characters and examine, collect, and use objects correctly to solve puzzles in order to progress.

Grim Fandango‍ ’​s world combines elements of the Aztec belief of afterlife with style aspects of film noir, including ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ ‘On the Waterfront, ‘and ‘Casablanca,’ to create the Land of the Dead, through which recently departed souls, represented in the game as calaca-like figures, must travel before they reach their final destination, the Ninth Underworld. The story follows travel agent Manuel ‘Manny’ Calavera as he attempts to save Mercedes ‘Meche’ Colomar, a newly arrived but virtuous soul, during her long journey.

The game received universal acclaim from critics, who praised its artistic design and overall game direction in particular. Grim Fandango was selected for several gaming awards at the time of release, and is often listed in publishers’ lists of top games of all time. However, the game was considered a commercial failure and factored into LucasArts’ termination of their adventure game development, contributing to the decline of the adventure game genre.

The game lacks any type of HUD. Unlike the earlier 2D LucasArts games, the player is informed of objects or persons of interest not by text floating on the screen when the player passes a cursor over them, but instead by the fact that Manny will turn his head towards that object or person as he walks by. The player reviews the inventory of items that Manny has collected by watching him pull each item in and out of his coat jacket. Manny can engage in dialogue with other characters through conversation trees to gain hints of what needs to be done to solve the puzzles or to progress the plot. As in most LucasArts adventure games, the player can never die or otherwise get into a no-win situation (that prevents completion of the game).

‘Grim Fandango’ takes place in the Land of the Dead, where recently departed souls aim to make their way to the Ninth Underworld. Good deeds in life are rewarded by access to better travel packages to assist in making the journey of the soul, the best of which is the Number Nine, a train that takes four minutes to reach the gate to the Ninth Underworld. Souls who did not lead a kind life are left to travel through the Land of the Dead on foot, which would take around four years. Such souls often lose faith in the existence of the Ninth Underworld and instead find jobs and stay put. The travel agents of the Department of Death act as the Grim Reaper to escort the souls from the mortal world to the Land of the Dead, and then determine which mode of transport the soul has merited. Each year on the Day of the Dead, these souls are allowed to visit their families in the Land of the Living.

The souls in the Land of the Dead appear as skeletal calaca figures. Alongside them are demons that have been summoned to help with the more mundane tasks of day-to-day life, such as vehicle maintenance. The souls themselves can suffer death-within-death by being ‘sprouted,’ the result of being shot with ‘sproutella’-filled darts that cause flowers to grow out through the bones. Many of the characters are Mexican and occasional Spanish words are interspersed into the English dialog, resulting in Spanglish. Many of the characters smoke, following a film noir tradition; the manual asks players to consider that every smoker in the game is dead.

The game combines several Aztec beliefs of the afterlife and underworld with 1930s Art Deco design motifs and a dark plot reminiscent of the film noir genre. The Aztec motifs of the game were influenced by Schafer’s decade-long fascination with folklore, stemming from an anthropology class he took at University of California Berkeley, and talks with folklorist Alan Dundes, with Schafer recognizing that the four-year journey of the soul in the afterlife would set the stage for an adventure game. Schafer stated that once he had set on the Afterlife setting: ‘Then I thought, what role would a person want to play in a Day of the Dead scenario? You’d want to be the grim reaper himself. That’s how Manny got his job. Then I imagined him picking up people in the land of the living and bringing them to the land of the dead, like he’s really just a glorified limo or taxi driver. So the idea came of Manny having this really mundane job that looks glamorous because he has the robe and the scythe, but really, he’s just punching the clock.’ Schafer recounted a Mexican folklore about how the dead were buried with two bags of gold to be used in the afterlife, one on their chest and one hidden in their coffin, such that if the spirits in the afterlife stole the one on the chest, they would still have the hidden bag of gold; this idea of a criminal element in the afterlife led to the idea of a crime-ridden, film noir style to the world, triggered too many ideas that they had to then trim down.

Schafer stated that the main film noir inspiration was drawn from films like ‘Double Indemnity,’ in which a weak and undistinguished insurance salesman finds himself entangled in an intricate criminal enterprise. The design and early plot are fashioned after films such as ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.’ Several scenes are directly inspired by the genre’s films such as ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ ‘The Third Man,’ ‘Key Largo,’ and most notably ‘Casablanca’: two characters in the game’s second act are directly modeled after the roles played by Peter Lorre and Claude Rains in the film. The main villain, Hector LeMans, was designed to resemble Sydney Greenstreet’s character of Signor Ferrari from ‘Casablanca.’ His voice was also modeled after Greenstreet, complete with his trademark chuckle.

The game featured a large cast for voice acting in the game’s dialog and cutscenes, employing many Latino actors to help with the Spanish slang. Voice actors included Tony Plana as Manny, María Canals as Meche, Alan Blumenfeld as Glottis, and Jim Ward as Hector. Schafer credits Plana for helping to deepen the character of Manny, as the voice actor was a native Spanish speaker and suggested alternate dialog for the game that was more natural for casual Spanish conversations. The game’s music, a mix of an orchestral score, South American folk music, jazz, swing and big band sounds, was composed at LucasArts by Peter McConnell and inspired by the likes of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman as well as film composers Max Steiner and Adolph Deutsch. The score featured live musicians that McConnell knew or made contact with in San Francisco’s Mission District, including a mariachi band.

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