The Untouchables: Grim Fandango

The Untouchables: Grim Fandango

The Untouchables: Grim Fandango

This is the third article in our series looking for the flaws in some of the greatest and most discussed games of all time. You can read our previous dissections by following these links: 

The lovely bones?

If you want to talk mature, minimalist storytelling in a genre where story means everything, look no further than Grim Fandango. Despite primitive 3D rendering technology, it tackles hard subject matter – death – in as heartening and lyrical a way as you’ll find anywhere. Fiercely experimental and a huge risk for LucasArts, it scrapped the UI of the point-and-click genre to become a new, more cinematic adventure. One without a visible cursor.

“Yeah, I remember not liking the interface,” says Dave Gilbert, an adventure game maker whose loyalty to point-and-click has given us the Blackwell series, The Shivah, and a new line of casual adventures starting with Emerald City Confidential. “If there’s a thing over there, I just want to move my mouse over and click on it. It was a very clever use of the technology; pick any other 3D game from ’98 to ’99 and it doesn’t look nearly as good. But [the interface] is very, very cumbersome. Escape From Monkey Island streamlined it a bit, but not very much, and there’s a reason, I guess, why that interface was never used again.”

Kevin Bruner was the game’s lead programmer – he went on to cofound and become CTO of Telltale Games, – and he recalls how Grim was a game intoxicated with innovation. “It was the first adventure game that LucasArts made that wasn’t based on [scripting language] SCUMM, so there was a lot of rhetoric around what the SCUMM of the future was going to be, what the future of the genre was going to look like. We didn’t spend a lot of time contrasting back to the SCUMM games to say, ‘Is it as good?’ It was more about pushing forward. Certainly, not everything worked, but we weren’t really lamenting things like the inventory…”

Removing the cursor was one of the biggest challenges, Bruner admits, and those who played the game will recall how pixel hunting was replaced by following the gaze of Grim’s protagonist, Manny, who was a wonderful cocktail of ingredients from great US movies such as Casablanca. Along with redemption and a beautiful (dead) lady, his journey is a search for items you’d never know were there if his head didn’t turn magnetically towards them. For a LucasArts adventure, this meant compromise.

“One of the biggest was the density of things in the world you could interact with,” Bruner recalls. “It had to be limited, because if you had a table with five or six things on it, you can identify those with a cursor, but with Manny’s gaze you had to make sure they were separate. From a puzzle design perspective, that made everything more important. Everything that Manny could interact with had to communicate hints and nudge the user along, because there were a lot fewer opportunities to get him talking about stuff.”

Bruner credits writer and designer Tim Schafer with tackling that problem in the way that came most naturally to him: writing brilliant dialogue that quietly delivered the clues. In many ways, Grim Fandango is not only Schafer’s best work, but among the greatest tales ever told in videogames. But the interface – with its equally quirky tank ‘character-relative’ and ‘camera-relative’ choice of controls, and its propensity for doing or picking things you didn’t want it to – is by far its worst trait. “I did get used to it eventually,” Gilbert says, “but I don’t think it holds up that well. A lot of adventure games now are criticised for not being innovative in design or interface, but most attempts never seem to work too well. Point-and-click, though… Point-and-click just does.”

Equally obvious, although far less troublesome, is Grim Fandango’s pace, which lags and zips around the real heart of the adventure: Rubacava. Here, Manny explores an evocative gambling den and trades great banter with the Peter Lorre-esque Chowchilla Charlie. To get there, though, means navigating the corridors and politics of a dead-end sales job, as well as a sometimes-baffling Petrified Forest.

“As interesting as the world is,” Gilbert says, “it starts in an office. And you’re wandering around trying to figure out pneumatic tubes and all this stuff. You’re in the Land of the Dead, going through files, looking through computers… It’s actually quite slow. I’m not sure if Tim Schafer or someone would have designed that the same today. That’s a problem with adventure games these days: they’re very slow affairs, so how do you get someone’s attention right at the start?

Manny and Glotis await Meche at their jazz bar in Rubacava.

“There’s so many games out there nowadays, and for the most part you download a demo, see if you like it, then move on to the next one. Fifteen years ago, that wasn’t the case: you’d already bought the thing and invested before you even turned it on. So the beginning could be slow and take time to introduce the characters and the world; I remember the introduction to Kingdom Hearts was a snorefest. And when you have such an out-there setting as Grim Fandango, you do have to introduce elements a little slower. Whenever I replay it, though, I want to get past that office section and get to Rubacava, because that’s what feels like the game that was promised on the box.”

When you leave Rubacava, furthermore, the game never returns to such a stable and engrossing place. Its four-year tale positively flies through some locations, and some might even say it feels disjointed.

“I think there’s two parts to why it feels that way,” Bruner says. “The first is that for the very first section of the game, it being really experimental, we were learning a lot about what worked, what didn’t, and how to produce the content that did. Particularly in that first year, a lot of things changed [plot-wise]; content was cut and altered, so a lot was compromised by us making something we’d never done before. The flip side was that by the time we got to year two, we knew how to make the game. And, coincidentally, year two is one of the least compromised from a writing and design point of view. It really is what Tim designed. For years three and four, that’s when the reality of the production schedule [was felt]… Grim was a very long production; there was a lot of pressure in the last six to seven months to get it in a box and get it out, all of which is why it feels so hit-and-miss. So many unknowns.”

The hybrid nature of GrimE engine visuals, he adds, meant further complications for Manny’s walking around. The prerendered 3D backdrop was 2D in practice, which meant an invisible 3D plane had to be added as a kind of superimposed collision map. When the two didn’t quite mesh, an elevator wouldn’t co-operate or you’d get snagged on thin air. Gilbert has another issue, too: “The weird thing about adventure games now, I’ve noticed, is that there’s always an option to either walk or run across the screen – and Grim Fandango has it. Any modern game since The Longest Journey, in fact. But the running’s actually still quite slow. Why not have the character move that fast to begin with? I guess it’s more realistic to have them walking and taking in the surroundings. 

“There’s one scene in Longest Journey – I always use it as an example to show my artists – where there’s this great big vista, but the character’s tiny, so it’ll take him ages to walk across the screen. It’s this enormous, gorgeous dock that takes forever to walk from one end to the other, which by the tenth time is no longer exciting or beautiful. But they give you the opportunity to run, to acknowledge that the character walks too slowly. So if you know that, why have them walk so slowly to begin with? It’s sort of a necessary evil, because if your avatar’s moving at a ridiculous speed it does pull you out of the experience.”

Could Grim Fandango benefit from a remake, then? Would a hints system make it more accessible, for instance, as implemented by games such as Beneath A Steel Sky? Both men agree that nowadays you probably wouldn’t have a choice.

Gilbert recalls a conversation at PAX East last year where “someone said that if you have to the leave the game to enjoy it then you’ve failed. And I think that’s why there’s this move towards easier adventure games now, because they don’t want you to leave the game. But the problem is, of course, how do you make it easy without having to guide the player through the puzzles?”

“It’s the obtuseness that’s gone,” Bruner says. “As tastes have changed, and we’re competing with shooters and physics-based games… It’s part of why everyone lamented the death of adventure games. They were obtuse. They played more slowly and required a bigger time commitment. If you were making Grim today, you’d approach it differently. I don’t know if a game like it would survive.”

Tomorrow we'll look at Halo: Combat Evolved with the help of Time Splitters and GoldenEye 007 designer David Doak. You can read our original review of Grim Fandango here.