The Writing of Grim Fandango

Feb 21, 2015 | Video Games

So, I do loves me some video games. And video games occasionally deliver some truly stellar story-telling – none more so than the best adventure games.

Little history here: point-and-click adventures were a crazy popular genre, back when I was a kid. They were all about the story – you played a character, who could walk around and talk to other characters and whose entire mission was to solve some puzzle, advance the plot, and experience the story. The best of these games are legends in their own right, beloved by gamers everywhere and thought of fondly even now, years later.

Some of the absolute best were created by Tim Schafer when he was working at LucasArts, and his best was Grim Fandango.

Grim Fandango was just sublime, start to finish. It had an amazing aesthetic, with world-building worthy of any triple-A RPG. The music was fantastic. The characterization was touching. The voice-acting was spot-on.

The story was the best part, though. Occasionally silly, very engaging, and totally heart-warming. One thing that always struck me about Tim Schafer, and Grim Fandango in particular, is that he’s an absolute master of exposition. Considering the truly bizarre nature of Grim Fandango’s world, the short intro cutscene is all you need to grasp what’s going on and why – and it never feels like a lecture, or just plain excessive.

Schafer combined so many odd elements to create Grim Fandango that it almost seems impossible that it was made at all. It’s got strong noir/pulp themes, drawing on the likes of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, along with art deco elements, Aztec murals, the Latino feel of the Day of the Dead, and the hard-bitten criminal silliness that sometimes reminds me of Sin City. But he makes it work, as the story evolves, and I don’t think there’s a single instance of lazy characterization or plot in the whole game. Even small bit characters are interesting and vibrant; again, something that Schafer is known for, especially if you’ve played his other games like Psychonauts or the more recent Broken Age.

One thing I truly enjoyed is the voice acting. It’s so easy for a game to phone it in, even in a top tier title – I’m looking at you, Dishonored! But Grim Fandango never fell into that. The actual characters are all oddball skeleton caricatures with little in the way of actual expressions, and the game was released in 1998 when high definition 3D graphics were simply unavailable, so the voice acting has to work overtime to provide nuance – and it does it in spades. I remember one of the first cutscenes, when Manny meets another main character called Meche and the player has to go through a number of dialogue options, and every time I’m simply blown away by the sheer sincerity of the voices, of the lines delivered so well that it’s as immersive as a movie.

Yeah… Grim Fandango is one of my favorite games. Like Broken Age, I’ll forgive it a lot of sins simply because it was crafted by people who really believed in it, and who wanted to make something truly good.

I’m bringing this up now because Grim Fandango was just recently remastered and re-released, which means that we can all play it again and appreciate it again. It’s just such a great game! I highly, highly recommend taking a look at it, on your platform of choice, especially if you’re a writer. It may be a video game, but it’s got many lessons on truly excellent storytelling to teach us.