Have You Played… Grim Fandango?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

You met me at a very strange time in my life, Grim Fandango. And I rather think I met you at a very strange time in your creators’ lives too.

The adventure game bubble had burst. For many of us, the joke seemed to have gone as far as it could. Full Throttle consciously took things in a more grown-up direction than the flat-out comedy of most of its stablemate predecessors, and though it’s fair to say that FT probably retains the most killer lines, for me it’s Grim Fandango that best represented the genre’s full-blown existential crisis.

Never mind the awkward blending of 2D environments with 3D models and cumbersome controls – this was a game about a conspicuously wacky character soon questioning his relevancy, then his entire existence, and eventually embracing the calm finality of the afterlife. Given that it was the last great gasp of the point and click adventure (I’m not calling the genre dead by a long shot, but it sure ain’t no superstar any more), it’s not hard to feel that Grim Fandango was a metaphor for, well, itself.

Possibly intended, possibly not. In another universe, Grim Fandango was a runaway success, Lucasarts were fully invested in making more 3D adventures, Tim Schafer and co did not depart to found Double Fine and Escape From Monkey Island was triumph. In that universe, Grim Fandango would have been the herald of a new era of more thoughtful pointer-clickers, and not the (near-as-dammit) swangsong for the outgoing age.

I revisited it for the remastered version the other year, and while its humour was a little broader then I remembered, it was still wrapped in a skein of sadness. It was that which I felt so strongly at the time, when I found it discounted in an airport shop while fleeing home from a botched Summer of travel across Australia. I had fallen out with wealthy companions I did not have the money to keep up with, I had struggled to adapt to upping sticks every other night, I was missing my girlfriend of the time and I had lost track of who I wanted to be.

Manny seemed to be in a similar state. His half-beautiful, half-broken world felt familiar. I identified with him, though he was a far cooler customer than I ever was.

Whenever I feel lost, I think of Manny.

59 Comments

  1. UnholySmoke says:

    Unparalleled in its emotional scope. Just, the pinnacle of the genre, and nothing has even tried to come close ever since. The gameplay was, by that stage in the game, a dinosaur, but that was rendered pretty much immaterial by everything else that was going on. Visuals, FMV, dialogue, music, and ohmygoodness *the humour*. And [not really a spoiler] an ending that seems to be coming at you gradually then sneaks up with a gut punch that leaves you welling up. It’s not aged well, even the remaster, but anyone who played it when it came out knows.

    • BooleanBob says:

      Hijacking the top comment so that I can recommend the Universal Hint System website to anyone reading this who is struggling with this (or most any other adventure) game.

      It’s an amazing site that doles out nested, spoiler-limited hints, broken down specifically to each puzzle within each chapter and phrased by question (how do I find the key to the back office? what do I do about these hostile birds?) rather than by solution.

      It really is a remarkably wonderful way to get over the occasional frustrating hump encountered during adventures and RPGs, approximately one thousand times better than using a traditional guide, and my only wish is that they had a patreon so I could offer them more support.

  2. Rich says:

    Sod Citizen Kane, this ‘ere is art.

  3. mrentropy5 says:

    Grim Fandango is my favorite game, ever. It would work well just being straight animated and not a game at all. I especially love the chapter transitions.

    • Shazbut says:

      For me, the transition from Year 1 to Year 2 was one of those moments that you have as a child which you end up remembering into adulthood. It was probably the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It still might be.

      • zapatapon says:

        I share that feeling. The transition from Year 1 to Year 2 is fantastic and has etched itself into my memory back then, it is always the first image that comes to mind when reminiscing about GF. The narrative fast-forward is so rarely used in video games, let alone one so finely crafted as in GF — this may be why it has such a powerful effect.

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      MajorLag says:

      Yeah, I never played it, but I did watch what would these days be called a Long Play of it, and it worked in that format.

  4. geldonyetich says:

    Great setting, great cast, great execution. One of the all time greats in the adventure genre, even most of the puzzles make sense.

  5. RQH says:

    I liked it in the first part of year one, when I was a hapless travel agent in the land of the dead trying to catch a break.

    I hated it in the second part of year one, when I was muddling around in some poorly-conceived car solving puzzles that seemed solely there to pad out the experience rather than tell any kind of story.

    I fell head-over-heels in love with it in Rubacava, with the pitch perfect Casablanca homage, and the deft way it conveyed the weight of the elided year and the relationships Manny had built in that time, culminating in Lola’s heartbreaking end.

    Year three stumbled again, with more fiddly 3D puzzles and a lack of compelling character interactions. The most intriguing story element–what Meche experienced in the year she had to wander on her own–was only hinted at, never fully explored.

    But year four, the way it brings the story full circle and brings the hero to victory and redemption, but not without sacrifice, is once again terrific. The villain’s final defeat is especially satisfying. And then the train hurtles off into the unknown and the game about the dead says something about life, and it’s just this perfectly fitting ending, in keeping with the tone and themes of the rest of the game.

    Like others have said, there’s a real sadness here. Not despair, and not anything that will likely move you to tears. But the kind of sadness the soul feels when it longs for something it knows not what. It’s a sadness rooted in the hope that there could be something better out there. Melancholy is the right word, I think.

  6. int says:

    I’ll just take a little more bread to honor the dead.

  7. lancelot says:

    I tried to play the remastered version a while ago and decided that in the current millennium I’m not going to waste my time on it. It has the very worst of the “traditional” pnc gameplay, where you are moving across many locations trying to figure out where that one action is hidden that’s available to you at this point and that will allow you to move on. And often “moving on” means that you find yourself in exactly the same situation, and have to start looking for the next available action, the access to which has been silently triggered by your last action.

    Grim Fandango actually manages to make it even worse by its awkward interface and its jumping camera angles and also by adding semi-action sequences, where you’re left guessing whether you’re missing something needed to solve the puzzle, or you’re doing the steps in the wrong order, or the trick is that the puzzle depends on the timing.

    And of course, however close you are to the solution, you’re not going to get any meaningful hints.

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      turkeydrumstick says:

      Regarding the interface issues; didn’t the remaster integrate mouse controls?

      • lancelot says:

        Yes, supposedly you can play the game with just the mouse. (I remember there were discussions about some hotspots behaving differently with the keyboard and with the mouse.)

        But that doesn’t fix the horrible interface, particularly the inventory manipulation.

    • lylebot says:

      I played the remaster, it was the first time I had played it. Loved the characters and story, hated the puzzles. I am not ashamed to say I used a walkthrough.

    • MisterFurious says:

      Yeah, I agree. I finally got to play it this year after hearing about how fantastic it was for years upon years, people saying that it was one of the greatest games ever made, and I loathed it. Maybe the story is great if you can get into it, but I play games for the gameplay and the gameplay was ass. If all you have is story, then be a book or a movie.

  8. Gandor says:

    A gaming masterpiece. Played the remastered version last year, and it really took me down memory lane. In my all time top 5.
    And for the last six months or so I have been thinking of getting a Grim Fandango tatto. Still not sure, as it would be my first.
    There is so much to love in this game.
    And even though I appreciate the story coming to a satisfying end, I still wish there was a sequel. Or two. Or ten. Just so I can get back to the skeleton noir world which marked my childhood.

    “With bony hands I hold my partner
    On souless feet we cross the floor
    The music stops as if to answer
    An empty knocking at the door

    It seems his skin was sweet as mango
    When last I held him to my breast
    But now we dance this grim fandango
    And will four years before we rest”

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      Drib says:

      I was always more partial to the moon one.

      It shone, pale as bone
      as I stood there alone
      and I thought to myself how the moon
      that night
      cast its light
      on my heart’s true delight
      and the reef where her body was strewn.

      • jj2112 says:

        I called my cat “Boney.”
        ‘Til she said it wouldn’t do
        I said, “Why?”
        She said, “Sister
        ‘Cuz that’s what I’VE been calling YOU!”

      • snowgim says:

        Hey, Sailor.

      • UnholySmoke says:

        Together this time!

  9. Zenicetus says:

    Loved the art direction and atmosphere, but hated the way half the puzzles were hint-free and completely illogical. So I’ve never gotten past the first part of the game.

    One day I might try it again. I’m just not a fan of games where I’m spending half my time on the Web searching for puzzle answers, and feeling like I want to slap the game designer for not making it more fun. Maybe I just suck at puzzles.

    • davethejuggler says:

      I’m in the same boat. I used to love adventure games, but i just can’t face the more traditional ones anymore. I bounced right off the remastered version. May have to watch a lets play or long play of it to get the story as i still feel it’s a gaping hole in my gaming history.

    • carewolf says:

      Yeah. I didn’t realize until after looking at a walhtrough that you had to initiate conversion with some persons several times to exhaust their conversation tree and to progress.

    • caff says:

      Seems there’s a few of us in the “Didn’t Play It The First Time Around Then Tried Playing The Remastered Version But Didn’t Get On With It And Now We’re Not Sure If We’ve Missed A Seminally Classic Story” club. Or DPITFTATPTRVBDGOWIANWNSIWMASCS club for short.

      • Marclev says:

        I felt roughly like that the first time round with Grim Fandango. There’s a lot of rose tinted nostalgia for these old Lucasarts adventures, but you need to remember, there’s a good reason why the genre stopped being popular for a fair few years in the naughties. People on the whole simply got frustrated with the type of puzzles these things used to have.

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          Risingson says:

          Please, don’t do that. I feel really sad when someone blames the whole genre of something problems that the genre just should avoid, like in the case of adventures, mazes, lack of hints or direction for the puzzles, meandering around, pixel hunting. Grim Fandango did really has some parts with that lack of direction and/or hints, but I tell you that you will hardly find that in any previous Lucas adventure. They already mastered the design in 1991.

          In Grim Fandango the controls are awful and pace and puzzles are uneven, but the game has a lot, quite a lot of heart. It is also ver nicely written, never over expository, something that would become difficult to avoid when The Longest Journey arrived some time later. To me it’s the Von Sternberg’s “Morocco” of adventure games, if I can go pedantic, thanks.

      • LTK says:

        Count me in with that club as well. Trying to get through the puzzles was a slog and a walkthrough didn’t make it much better, so I gave up on it shortly after the bit with the car.

        • Buggery says:

          That’s a pity, it gets so good from there. Mind, if the aesthetics and plot weren’t enough to carry you that far maybe it wasn’t the game for you.

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        alison says:

        I’ll join that club. Played adventure games since they were all text, played a bunch of Sierra and Lucas Arts graphic adventures when they were new, never played Grim Fandango till the remaster came out, and then it sucked.

        I can totally understand people having fond memories of it if they played it back then, but without the rose-tinted specs it is really a very long and boring slog (and that’s playing with a walkthrough). You can throw a dart at pretty much any Daedelic or Wadjet Eye game from the last 5 years and get a more enjoyable experience, imo. Not taking anything away from whatever the game meant back in 1998, but nowadays? Meh.

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    subdog says:

    Games with such a well-defined and unique aesthetic sense were virtually nonexistent in that era. My memories of Fandango are so indelible because of the art and the music dovetailing so perfectly with the mood and the story.

    Genre and mechanics aside, it was a pure masterpiece of the old 1990’s promise of “multimedia interactive art”.

    • milligna says:

      Bad Day on the Midway. 2 years before, twice as much well-defined and unique aesthetic sense, twice as much multimedia interactive art. Of course, you’re cheating a bit once The Residents are involved in anything.

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        subdog says:

        The key difference being that in addition to well-defined and unique, GF’s aesthetic was actually nice to look at/listen to. The same cannot be said for the garish and obnoxious BDotMW.

  11. Shazbut says:

    The puzzles are mostly just ok I think, but otherwise it’s an absolute masterclass in every respect.

    When they were ripping off Casablanca, I wondered if the developers could have known their game was going to be as legendary in the gaming world as Casablanca is in the film world.

  12. Urthman says:

    Grim Fandango is a masterpiece of world-building, art design, writing and storytelling. But I think Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People might be the pinnacle of point-and-click adventure games. The point-and-click format is a perfect match for the Homestar Runner flash cartoons that are full of silly Easter eggs revealed by clicking in the right spot. The puzzles and other gameplay consistently serve the absurdist humor rather than getting in the way of it. Even the conversation system is a perfect match for the way the Homestar characters seem to each live in their own world with its own logic and are only dimly aware of the perspectives of anyone else. Conversations that are repetitive and filled with non sequiturs are more true to the characters then some impossibly good AI conversation engine would be. And if you like Strong Bad’s brand of humor, the game is every bit as consistently funny, inventive, silly, and clever as the flash cartoons are.

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      Risingson says:

      I also find them among the better designed of the Telltale adventures. And I love the third one to pieces. A game that parodies nowadays music festivals? With clever puzzles? How cannot I love it.

      Still a bit below the third season of Sam&Max, though.

  13. Carra says:

    I was thinking about this game last week. Only got to play the demo when it came out but I played it last year and I loved it.

    It’s easy to see why the game has a classic status. I haven’t played many games that manage to make me feel sad. Life is strange did it last year but besides that? Mmm, hard to think of many. It’s great to see a game now and then that isn’t just about shooting things but manages to bring something extra to the table.

  14. Marclev says:

    Tried it twice, many years apart, once back in a day and more recently the remastered edition.

    Both times I bounced off it at roughly the same place, namely the third act where the game opens up after you arrive in the coastal town (I think, been a while), and to me felt both times like it looses direction. Too many places to go, too many options. Each time I just felt overwhelmed and lost the motivation to keep on playing.

    I love point and click adventures and have played countless ones, so I’d be so bold as to consider this a flaw with the game design.

    Mainly wanted to say though, the swan song and best of the golden age of point and clicks is clearly The Longest Journey, not this.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      Man, I love Longest Journey, but seriously: You need to give Grim Fandango another try.

      • Buggery says:

        God yes. Everything in the game is so beautifully crafted but the entirety of year 2 is excellent. Also the final part.

  15. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Liked it so much I made it my little avatar picture (see left).

    So many great characters and one of the most poignant stories in gaming. They did Pixar before Pixar did.

  16. Unknown says:

    I think the main flaw of Grim Fandango is that it peaks relatively early in Rubacava, and never really rises to those heights again (until the very end). I started replaying the Remaster and bailed after Year Two because I knew I was about to hit a long stretch of tedious underwater puzzles and boring boiler-room aesthetics.

  17. ansionnach says:

    Nicely written, Alec.

    Can’t say too much about Grim Fandango as I haven’t played it since the first time (finished it without a guide, which is the norm for me). That was very close to the release day. I absolutely loved it. I even think the interface was decent enough. The way Manny bounced off walls was better than getting stuck and it was predictable enough to not be annoying most of the time. Character-relative controls make sense to me. The inventory could have been better. Every now and things placed close together could be difficult to notice as Manny’s head might not move much between them. You got used to the slight movement it would make, though. I think some of the problems were due to Schafer’s desire to dispense with more abstract aspects of interface like icons. An interesting idea but there was no need to throw it all out.

    Is there something I hated about it? The scythe. Used to accidentally take it out quite often after over-shooting what I wanted in the inventory screen. Took ages to take out and put away!

    • zapatapon says:

      “My scythe. I like to keep it next to where my heart used to be.”

      That line never gets old though…

      • ansionnach says:

        I used to have him say it over and over again in frustration after taking it out. I’d probably end up accidentally taking it out again, then. Too bad you couldn’t run around hitting things with it. Maybe this could make for a departure for adventure games – when you get stuck, simply kill everyone. Just don’t allow adventure designers near the action bit.

  18. Darth Gangrel says:

    I have many classics on GoG that I haven’t played yet, but I still haven’t bought Grim Fandango. Now that it has a newer version, with less clumsy controls people say, it feels like nothing is stopping me from adding it to my list, except my backlog.

  19. Turkey says:

    It’s my favorite game. I used to play through it annually for about 5 or 6 years.

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    jssebastian says:

    Funny thing about the controls: when I first played it, everyone was complaining about the controls, but I thought they were great.

    Instead of the usual tedious pixel hunting, you’d walk around, and Manny would turn his head to look at things you could interact with: brilliant!

    Then I played the remaster, and instantly thought, this is so slow!.. and quickly switched the controls to move around with the mouse.

    I didn’t finish re-playing the remaster, but still one of the best. I love the rubacava section especially, a few absolutely memorable pieces like the pneumatic post machine and the pigeon skeletons in the cage, and the music which I could still hum years after playing it.

  21. bonuswavepilot says:

    Pedantry delivery: you’ve got ‘swangsong’ for swansong there, and say ‘a little broader then I remember’ rather than ‘than’.

  22. MEGAMASTER4000 says:

    Even though I haven’t played it through yet, and I didn’t play it at the time of publishing, I can say this:

    We need more games like Grim Fandango.

  23. Marclev says:

    Speaking of which, has anybody released any decent point and click adventure yet this year? I think I’ve played all the good recent ones, and it feels like there hasn’t been one for a while now…

    • lancelot says:

      Adventuring hasn’t been very good so far this year: there were Memoranda, Secret Monster Society Chapter 2, A Long Road Home, Frostrune, and I wouldn’t recommend any of those. Also Cayne, but Stasis was so awful that I don’t think I’m going to try Cayne at all.

      The only one I’d recommend is Milkmaid of the Milky Way.

      Check out the list that I made here, maybe you’ll find something new. Also Space Pilgrim, which I didn’t know about. It’s a crying shame that game isn’t more well-known, the game is a gem.

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        alison says:

        Echoing the Space Pilgrim rec. It is one of those RPGMaker games that turns out to make a better adventure game than a lot of adventure games.

        Last year had a fair amount of decent adventures imo (Kathy Rain, new Deponia, Shardlight, Grimsfield etc), so I am holding out hope for this year.

  24. Hyrius says:

    One of my favorites, no doubt.

  25. jalf says:

    I revisited this game a year or so ago, and was surprised at how well it held up. Perhaps I was too young to really get it back in the 90’s (and perhaps my English skills weren’t quite up to par at the time), but I found the game to be so much better than I remembered (and I remembered it as a good game).

    Probably my favorite adventure game ever.

  26. GernauMorat says:

    So here’s the thing – in my opinion pretty much all adventure games have terrible, terrible puzzles. I have never enjoyed solving them in any game. What I have enjoyed [with a walkthrough] is the excellent narrative some of these games , Grim Fandango being the prime example, possess. Honestly, they could have just made the puzzles utterly simplistic and I would have enjoyed the game more.

  27. Danda says:

    This game has been in my all-time Top 3 for two decades. I recently played the remaster and… it remains in my Top 3. Firmly.

    I don’t like to see so many people throwing 1998 complaints at the game, even with all the enhancements. “Wow, they tried to adapt the format to console controls and they failed.” Yes, and that’s fixed now. For me it’s like seeing people saying “I won’t watch Casablanca because it’s in black and white. Well, I once watched half an hour but it was so slow. There were no explosions or anything remotely interesting. Oh, and no widescreen format”. Come on!

    If you like adventure games you should play it. Period.