The Calavera Chronicles

By Alec Meer on November 7th, 2008 at 6:07 pm.

Everyone in the world – yes, everyone – emailed us about this, but in our post-colonies jetlag we got confused about who was going to post it, so no-one did. Hooray! Too many cooks spoil the blog…. Hopefully it’s not so late that you’ve all read it already, anyway. What ‘it’ is is Double Fine headchap Tim Schaefer releasing the extensive design documents for Grim Fandango: an illuminating Making Of / What If in handy PDF form.

Grim Fandango’s one of those games I don’t quite dare go back to: I adored it at the time, its bittersweet plotting and art deco / Mexican mash-up stylings placing it as the most grown-up of the classics Lucasarts’ stable. I was moved by it, big girl’s blouse that I am. If I went back now, I worry the obtuse puzzles and annoying control system would smash right through my comfy nostalgia. Schaefer references the former in his short post about the design doc:

People said the puzzles in Grim were super hard, and I’ve always maintained that this was due to a deep character flaw or mental illness on the part of the player. But now, reading this again, I’ve realized that holy smokes–Some of them puzzles were nuts. Obscure. Mean, even. I blame Peter Chan, because he will never read this post to know that I blamed him.

Damn straight. I still suffer occasional night terrors about the cat racing puzzle.

The document’s incredibly detailed, a glimpse into just how elborately planned an adventure game this was. That really is a lot of flow charts. Fortunately, there’s also a bunch of concept art, typically witty asides from Schaefer and even a few scenes and puzzles that didn’t make it into the eventual game. Man, I hope there’s a whole slew of these things out there for all manner of old games, and releasing them becomes something of a trend. This sort of unexpected insight is mana from developer heaven.

Ah, beautiful Grim Fandango. Dare I visit you one more time?

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45 Comments »

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  1. gnome says:

    This is the most beautiful (well, without an AO rating, that is) thing I’ve ever downloaded. And a disturbing look into the collective designing mind of the Grim Fandango group and especially Mr. Schaefer.

    Never thought the game was that tough really.

  2. Thirith says:

    In my books, Grim Fandango is one of the games that is most successful at showing the artistic potential of telling a story in a computer game.

    Also, it is just pretty fucking damn cool!

    (And I say that as someone who thinks that adventure game mechanics are quite primitive, really.)

  3. Pags says:

    Fan-fucking-tastic. That is all.

  4. The Hammer says:

    Man, and I thought I was being unique about sending it in!

    Lovely from what I can tell, anyway. Gonna have a proper skim during the weekend.

  5. Guhndahb says:

    Dare away. While the controls are frustrating, you can get used to them reasonably quickly. Sure, you’ll walk the wrong way a few (hundred) times but you’ll live.

    The puzzles are all quite solvable though some require some real patience (or, for the weak, gamefaqs). I feel GF managed to make some of the most sensible puzzles ever put into an adventure game. They were far less contrived than is typical of the genre.

    Best of all, the brilliant story and voice acting will wash away every other drawback and will fill you with sheer joy. The only real penalty for playing it will be to wish for more of the same in a day where such art is rare.

    I replayed it about 18 months ago and I was more struck by the brilliance that is Grim Fandango than when I first played it, not the other way around. Well… okay… that was after I bitched about the control scheme to anyone within earshot. :)

  6. Gpig says:

    Grim Fandango is one of the best games I’ve played. It’s controls are better than pointing and clicking, and the game still holds up well since I finally beat it last year and really liked it. As for obtuse puzzles, you don’t lose your soul if you look up a solution. It isn’t like Braid or Portal where you are retarded if you don’t eventually solve the puzzles. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

    Now I just need to try Siberia and the Longest Journey.. (also is that train game still good?)

  7. PleasingFungus says:

    Downloaded the design docs when they showed up elsewhere. Stayed up late reading them. Wonderful.

    I played Grim Fandango as a kid, together with my father and brother. (We played a lot of adventure games co-operatively like that.) I have a lot of fond memories of that game.

  8. gnome says:

    Gpig, I’d say you’d better stay away from Syberia. Not much in it besides pretty pictures. TLJ is a really good offering, but I guess you should try and track Discworld Noir. It’s as close to GF as any game ever will be.

  9. Tom says:

    GF was pure magic. It moved me to Alec.
    When the dude with the lantern who sings a lot chose to walk the final stretch to heaven when he could have just taken the train… that was magic.
    One of the all time greats. Think I’ve said this before but the dude who voiced Manny was in Ugly Betty. Played her grand father or something. His voice is actually iconic for gamers I’d say. I recognised instantly. His characters been killed off though, so no point tuning in for an episode to see that man himself.

  10. Hypocee says:

    I went back years later and enjoyed it more the second time – as great a game as it is, in my mind GF would be just as happy as a film. Knowing most of what to do ahead of time made the plot flow better for me. And yes, that racing photo puzzle is obtuse, annoying and fiddly – probably took me two days to figure out what they even wanted, back in the day – but fortunately it’s nearly unique in that. The gelatin, the boat anchors and (for a different reason) the cargo lift are the only others I remember with any displeasure at all. GF had the most sensible, pleasant puzzles of any adventure game I can remember. Tied to those characters…Grim Fandango 4 life. Er, afterlife.

  11. Hypocee says:

    Oh, and the freaking beavers. Action puzzles in my otherwise pure adventure game? OK, but only if you signpost the hell out of them.

  12. Messy Penguin says:

    Awesome Awesome game
    Hopefully more developers will do this as this can be quite useful in an education sense (God im sad)
    Im going to give this to some students so they can see some insight into how these games are drafted out

    I want to play it again now!

  13. theleif says:

    Oh, you should play it again, Mr. Meer!
    I played it for my first time 2 years ago, and, even though it was almost 10 years old, i loved it. Download the community launcher with extra options and go, dammit!

  14. hungSolo says:

    “In order to preserve this document, please restrain your fallen tears of joy to this box.”

    Tim Schafer is a funny man. Wish there were more like him in the industry.

  15. Lachlan says:

    This document is a Godsend. Grim Fandango always had the impression of being heavily cut to make a release date – so much of the game makes sense now we can see what was missing.

  16. Senethro says:

    Some smaller, less detailed documents on Planescape: Torment are floating about somewhere.

    Can anyone make out what that screwed up paragraph near the end is saying?

  17. Pags says:

    It’s nice to see that Tim Schafer can’t help but be funny even when writing a serious design document.

  18. Conquests.of. says:

    Hard puzzles can never be a flaw.

    it’s not the game’s fault that players are dumb

  19. ysbreker says:

    @Senethro it’s supposed to be garbage. Check http://www,doublefine.net/ for more on that.

    I so hope we will still see brutal legend some day :/

  20. Senethro says:

    Haha, garbage text to circumvent deadlines. Genius.

  21. Joe says:

    Hm. Like you Alec, this is one of the few games in my collection which I have only completed once. I think I too am scared to revisit it, despite my continued rants on its brilliance.

  22. MarvintheParanoidAndroid says:

    Bah, when I tried playing Grim Fandango on my XP system it crashed when I started Year 4 (a problem switching to the second disc I think)… I tried a load of stuff but eventually reluctantly gave up, this makes me really want to fix it again now. I read the design document up to Year 4 and then forced myself to stop until I complete the game :P

    Also Discworld Noir has been sitting on my desktop waiting to be played for a while, I’ll have to get through that too… just as soon as I finish Fallout 3 :(

  23. Ben Abraham says:

    Is this another step towards the game industry finally doing what everyone is every other culture industry has been doing for a generation? Oh right, it’s just Tim Schaefer being Tim Schaefer, Bless him.

  24. Grandstone says:

    Crud. I really want to read this, but Vista PDF is being a bitch and I only get a sea of gray pages after the cover sheet. Anyone know how to fix this? Do I need a better computer or something?

  25. Sum0 says:

    When it comes to Grim, I stand by the description on the massive History of Games wallchart once given away with an ancient PC Gamer:

    “Games as art? Pah. This is better than art.”

  26. Arnulf says:

    About that last paragraph. Even geniuses resort to cheap tricks! I’m relieved.

    (I still have the discs somewhere, don’t even remember all the puzzles… but the story was beautiful.)

  27. Pags says:

    Even reading his notes on the puzzle, I still don’t understand how to do the mechanical tree bit; I always just bluffed my way through it.

    Anyone else deliberately try and slow their progress through the second chapter because they loved Rubacava so much? I always had a weird sense of comfort playing that part, I sometimes used to boot up Grim Fandango, have Manny walk downstairs to where Glottis was playing piano and just stop playing the game and bask in it all.

  28. theleif says:

    If you have a problem with the game, download the Grim fandango Launcher at: http://www.grimfandango.net/?page=launcher

    It lets you install the full game on your hd.

  29. VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    Happy Birthday Manuel!

    And despite the slightly clumsy controls, Grim Fandango is definitely still worth playing again. So be bold, Alec! Have no fear! Manual Calavera will live* again!

    *Technically, he’ll be dead again.

  30. Stijn says:

    @ Pags: Absolutely. Few in-game locales have topped Rubacava for me.

  31. Premium User Badge

    MacBeth says:

    I have fond memories of this, but no disc. Is it even still available through legitimate means?

  32. Premium User Badge

    MacBeth says:

    OK answered my own question – eBay, Amazon marketplace, Play.com resellers…

  33. Caiman says:

    As soon as this becomes available on Good Old Games, I’ll buy it.

  34. drewski says:

    It’s been released as part of LucasArts desperate attempts to pimp every last coin out of the adventure gaming purse, in a budget title range, along with Sam and Max, DotT and the Monkey Island games. Check your local games store bargain bin and cross your fingers. Very worth picking up, I grabbed it earlier this year and fell in love with it all over again, especially Rubacava which is heartbreakingly beautiful.

  35. MeestaNob! says:

    I desperately DO NOT want a sequel to Grim Fandango, it’s story and it’s conclusion are perfection, however, I do want a HD re-mastering of the existing game, with a few of these intriguing removed puzzles re-included.

    I’d pay in actual money for it. Lots. Other peoples, obv.

  36. MeestaNob! says:

    Actually, that’s a lie. I’d use my own money.

    It would be nice if a collectors edition came, steel book case, large hard cover art book of all the locations in the game, an audio CD of the soundtrack, and a Manny-as-the-Reaper figurine. I’d happy part with $200 for it as it’s just an amazing game, an amazing experience. Joyous.

    So, ace like the BioShock collectors edition, but with a good game included for added value (oooh controversy).

  37. thefanciestofpants says:

    ” I still suffer occasional night terrors about the cat racing puzzle.

    I can’t even remember that one. I must have repressed that memory.

    Hooray for Grim Fandango!

  38. thesombrerokid says:

    i play grim fandago all the time and it’s brilliant!

  39. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Bah, when I tried playing Grim Fandango on my XP system it crashed when I started Year 4 (a problem switching to the second disc I think)”. I tried a load of stuff but eventually reluctantly gave up”

    Same here.

    “If you have a problem with the game, download the Grim fandango Launcher at: http://www.grimfandango.net/?page=launcher

    Woohoo!

  40. Matt Rundle says:

    I love that there are jokes in the design document; not so that they could go in the game – just to keep the reader entertained.

  41. Grandstone says:

    Surely someone else has had the endless-gray-pages problem with PDF Vista. Reading about the document is nice, but I’d really love to actually read it.

  42. theleif says:

    @Grandstone
    Have you tried to open the pdf with XPS Viewer?

  43. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Hooray for those ever vigilant LucasArts legal eagles! What will those cheeky scamps do next?!

    To protect this document, please restrict your tears of joy to this box -> [] Thank you!

  44. Conquests says:

    Better have an obscure mind-puzzle than no puzzle for the obscure minded player of today’s games.

  45. Chrone says:

    Thanks Man Raised By Puffins :)