Friday, October 20, 2006

The Greatest Games Computer Ever: 1 - Grim Fandango

As a starting point, imagine David Lynch is Mexican.

Now think of any David Lynch movie which isn't The Straight Story. More specifically, imagine Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with me. But filmed in Mexico with Mexican movie stars.

Now mutate Mexican Lynch into American John Huston fresh from directing Key Largo.

And then ensure every actor in the movie is dead.

You're now roughly in the area inhabited by the greatest game of all time - Grim Fandango from Lucas Interactive.

Written by Tim Schafer, the talent behind the stellar! Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango inhabited, on the face of it, standard enough point and click adventure game territory, as popularised by the Monkey Island series from the same company. But that's just the jumping off point for Grim Fandango and within five minutes of playing the game you'll understand that it amounts to much more than that.

For instance, where Monkey Island and other adventure games tended to be populated by similarly styled cartoon people (see Alone in the Dark, for example) and the survival-horror genre which in some ways replaced them feature almost entirely characterless protagonists*, designed to look as much like a Hollywood action hero as graphical technology allows, everyone in GF is a proper, almost filmic individual.

Take the hero of the game, ! Manny Calavero. He's a travel agent/reaper in the Land o! f the De ad which - in proper Film Noir fashion - reeks of decadence and corruption. His job is to gather newly dead souls and then sell them a travel package to enable them to make their 4 year journey to the Ninth Underworld, all souls' final destination. It's a dead-end job which he doesn't enjoy and it's made no better by his bullying boss and over-achieving colleague. When Manny talks he's always just a little world-weary, a tiny bit cynical and, as a result, he comes across as an individual, rather than a generic hero.

It helps he has a long thin skull for a head in this respect, obviously.

The skulls are one of the best things about the game actually. To be more precise, the look of the characters is another element designed to highlight the fact that thought has gone into every aspect of development. It's the Land of the Dead so, logically, everyone in the game is deceased. In most gam! es this would be the cue for hordes of zombies and armies of the shuffling undead, but in GF it's a damn fine reason for modelling everyone on the work of José Guadalupe Posada (and not Lawrence Miles' Faction Paradox, as you might think).

The backgrounds and settings too are something outwith the norm. Only The Petrified Forest fits into the general template for spooky afterlife settings, but even this is nicely atmospheric. Other settings, howver, include a bright and breezy 30s New York style city (revisited at the end of the game as a dank and dangerous version of itself), a city at the literal edge of the world (like Discworld, the Land of the Dead ends in a giant waterfall, over which the City protrudes), a section unde! rwater and, best of all, Rubacava, featuring an homage to Rick! 's cafe from Casablanca, seedy docks and a grimy tattoo parlour. There's a very stylised thirties feel to it all with giant airships and massive bridges, but again with a leavening of Film Noir shadows and fog. If Myst had been a game you could play for pleasure rather than a game you looked at and went 'wow!' it might have resembled Grim Fandango.

And lets' not forget the dialogue - all 7000 lines of it, and every line souding as though it had been written by some McCarthy period blacklistee working under a pseudonym to avoid joining the Hollywood Ten in jail.

Even before you get to the gameplay it sounds great, doesn't it?

But it gets progressively better as you get deeper into the game and no description can ever do justice t! o the atmosphere of the Land of the Dead. With genuinely funny lines and situations wherever you go, puzzles which fall just on the right side of too bloody hard and a quite wonderful soundtrack, Grim Fandango is untouched in the history of gaming.

Sadly, only about 17 people actually bought it so the rumoured sequel never appeared (although Schafer went on to write the really quite good Psychonauts), but if you see a copy buy it, install it and prepare to immerse yourself in the Greatest Game Ever.

* Go on, name the hero of the first Resident Evil.


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Blogger alienvoord said...

Now that sounds like my kind of game.

2:09 pm  
Blogger Scott Liddell said...

I still remember the night I completed GF. It was like losing a friend. Obviously the bleating of fans for a sequel that will never happen has been done to death, but it is still shame.
When I am fantastically rich, I hope to personally pay for a film adaption myself. Tim Burton will clearly beg me for the gig (maybe he was playing GF when he did Corpse Bride) but we'll see, we'll see...

5:29 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

AV: "Now that sounds like my kind of game."

I suspect it might be - go buy a copy now!

12:24 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Or - since it appears to be deleted - get it here:

2:16 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Grim Fandango was a truly great game - I was wondering what might top your list, and this one deserves it. It could be bloody frustrating at times, but that's the way some old friends can be :)

3:43 pm  
Blogger TimeWarden said...

You won’t find any disagreement from me with regard the quality of Nigel Kneale’s writing. On my list to watch (eventually!) is “The Year of the Sex Olympics” both for him and Leonard Rossiter, predicting the future of television well before “Vengeance on Varos” and “Videodrome”. Kneale’s “1984” with Peter Cushing (not forgetting a brief appearance by Wilfrid Brambell!) remains the finest adaptation of Orwell’s novel while, despite the removal of a short scene, my VHS copy of “Quatermass and the Pit” has always been one of my most treasured tapes.

You’re also right about genius being an overused word. What I dislike is when someone says an actor or pop singer is the best when what they really mean is the person in question is their particular favourite, a different thing entirely!

5:40 am  
Blogger Mark Clapham said...

To answer your *question, there are two: Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine.

I am very sad, yes.


10:57 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Equally sadly, I actually knew the answer.

11:30 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Oh and did you hear Tim - Nigel Kneale died at the weekend :(

11:33 pm  

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