[Warning: Heavy spoilers ahead.]
Is it possible for a game to be truly timeless? That no matter how powerful machines get, it’ll never age? The answer is “Yes”, which is somewhat ironic in that the game about to be retroviewed is about life after death. The name of the game is Grim Fandango, which is the best adventure game ever made. Yes, ever. Better than the Monkey Island series, better than the Infocom text adventures including Planetfall, better than the Gabriel Knight series, better than the myriad of Nintendo DS aventure titles. It could technically be considered the best game ever since it still looks like it was made yesterday, thanks to its stylish look.
The game stars Manny Calavera, one of many Grim Reapers in the Mexican-inspired afterlife. Manny may be a Reaper, but in actuality, he’s a travel agent. When someone dies, its his job to arrange transport from the Eighth Underworld to the Ninth, and the player’s transport depends on how well they lived their life (being rich doesn’t hurt, either – apparently, you can take it with you.) If you were virtuous enough, you could get a ticket on the Number Nine train, which zips you past all the turmoil of the dangerous afterlife in a matter of minutes. If you were scum, you have to walk, with the risk of being permanently killed by demon beavers or underwater monsters. If you were really bad, you’re forced into Manny’s position, having to earn his way out of “community service”. (A nice touch, you never learn why Manny or his coworkers were assigned to the Department of Death. When asked, Eva refuses – Manny conveniently can’t remember.) All is not well in the Land of the Dead, however, as Number Nine tickets are being stolen from deserving clients.
Aside from the unique premise, Grim Fandango’s story whirls through various genres. The first part is inspired by Glengarry Glen Ross, while the second is Casablanca set in the beatnik era, and the fourth part is a nod to A Matter of Life and Death. Each of the four parts takes place on the Day of the Dead, year-by-year. In the first year, Manny is on the bottom rung of the ladder as a “junior agent” at the Department of Death (tellingly, he’d worked there longer than anyone, even his boss and rival Domino Hurley), while in the second, he’s the boss of a nightclub with three roulette tables. The third, he’s the captain of his own ship before ending up on the Edge of the World, and in the fourth… well, he’s made it to The End of the World, but his job isn’t finished.
Even better than the overall plot is the story and the dialogue. Manny is a Hispanic Everyman who feels real. He is witty, self-deprecating (“It’s an old pile of bones… like me”), flawed, egotistical and most of all, heroic. Voice acted by Tony Plana, who for a toiled for three decades as a bit actor in television until landing the role of Ignacio Suarez in Ugly Betty, makes Manny likeable to the point at which the gamer truly cares for him. They want him to succeed because he’s a great guy who deserves it.
In fact, this likability is a part of one of the key scenes, an understated one in the Fourth Year, and often missed by gamers and those who hadn’t played it more than a few times: Manny is alone at the train station at The End of the World, and approaches the tunnel that leads to the next life – one of the minor characters, Chepito, had just used it to move on to the Ninth Underworld. When the player gets close to it, Manny realizes, “I could actually do it. I could walk out of this world right now and not look back… But I can’t. I can’t do it. I’m not leaving without the people I promised to save.” A player who knows the ending already and understands the desires of the denizens will feel the full impact of his sacrifice.
The other character who gamers identify with is Glottis, the enormous orange demon mechanic who is “given one purpose, one skill, one desire… TO DRIVE. Or, to change oil or adjust timing belts if no driving jobs are open.” He’s a favorite among Fandango fans (hey, that’s alliterative) because he overdoes everything. His idea of improving a car’s performance is to “slam the front into the weeds, tub the rear end, dual blowers poppin’ outta the hood” – and that’s not enough. He prides himself about being popular with the ladies, and has a crippling gambling addiction. His love of cars and engines are so ingrained that when he’s dying, one of his desires is to lay oily rags on his coffin. He is over-the-top in every way, but Manny can’t do without him – and the player, too. When Glottis and Manny part for the last time, it always brings a tear to the eye.
The story itself is one of the best written for a video game, and whenever a fool claims that video games have never told a good story, it makes me wish they’d plop their buttocks down and just read and listen to the dialogue. For one, the game is funny. Very funny, ranging from laugh-out-loud situations, such as Glottis’ drunkenness at the cat track, to one-line zingers that will make you chuckle to surrealist cracks straight out of The Far Side (When Manny is the Grim Reaper, if he looks at a hamburger and fries platter, he muses, “I can’t reap hamburger – cows are a whole other bureau, not to mention the lettuce.”)
The humor doesn’t come at the expense of intelligence. It covers a lot of existential themes, as Manny begins to question his un-life, his desires, and basically what it’s all about. At the very end, he’s earned enough wisdom to understand that the destination doesn’t nearly matter as much as the path taken, telling love interest Meche Colomar, “You know, sweetheart, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: nobody knows what’s gonna happen at the end of the line, so you might as well enjoy the trip.”
So why is Grim Fandango timeless? The story is one a player will revisit over and over, despite knowing the puzzles, because it’s like reading a favorite book. The 3D graphics don’t look dated, as the game’s art direction is always a pleasure to watch, as well as the character design. The music by Peter McConnell ranges from Peruvian folk music to 1960′s jazz. You never feel like you’re playing an 11 year old game. It could have been released a few days ago.
This is one game that desperately needs to be re-released, whether as a Windows Vista/7 native PC game or an Xbox Live Arcade title. In short, the writing, the dialogue, the humor, the music, the voice acting, the story, the puzzles (none of which are illogical), the characters and the overall joy from beginning to end, just makes Grim Fandango one of the best, if not the best, games ever made, and like Manny, will never grow old.