January 30th, 2015

death and dream

Grim Fandango Remastered

Grim Fandango is a video game about movies. It feels like a weird thing to say about a video game. Video games, in all their desperate need to prove themselves, crib cinematic language all the time, but that doesn't mean they're about movies.

Grim Fandango is a game that's about movies, specifically old-fashioned, hard-boiled noir films, but one thing I appreciate about it is for all that it evokes the tropes (the dim, slatted lighting, the smoking, the femme fatales), it refuses to rest on them, and instead crafts something smarter than that.

Okay, to give some context, Grim Fandango is an adventure game that first came out in 1998, recently re-released. It's also about death, because you kind of play a (Latino!) grim reaper and all the action takes place in the Land of the Dead. It's been hailed as a classic, the best of its genre, for decades now, and it's been super difficult to get hold of until now.

I've played it through once, and now I'm playing it through again to listen to the developer commentary and just soaking in the zippy dialogue and odd locations.

It captures something, I think, a weird mix between a cartoonish, kid-friendly(ish) world and a real adult sense of loss and regret. The heart of a good noir story is about good people trying to survive in an unfair world, and the game knows it and works it for all it's got.

The entire second act is a tribute to Casablanca so vivid that I immediately wanted to rewatch the movie as soon as I got there.

But it's not just the aesthetics, the little nods to classic film (the musical cue when any sort of bird shows up is pretty much a direct nod to The Birds). Due to the technical limitations of the time, the video game camera remains fixed, static, as your character weaves its way to and fro across the frame, and it completely changes your interaction with the character when there isn't a camera floating over their shoulder every time they turn around. There's also the placement of the camera in each area, which feels deliberate, cinematic. It'd be one thing if it was always placed horizontal to the floor, 5 feet off the ground, but it's not. It pulls out and up when moving into a larger space. It pulls in tight when you need to focus on the details. This can be both disorienting and really effective.

The puzzles of the game? Eh. Not my thing. I mostly forced my way through with a walkthrough. It would be easy to say that this means the game would be better off as an actual movie, but I don't buy that argument. Games are about exploring and interacting with a virtual space, and Grim Fandango is just so jam-packed with odd, interesting characters and weird, fun locations that it's always a pleasure to find someone you can talk to for a period of time.

In many ways, the game both shows its age and demonstrates its timelessness. There's just not a whole lot of people around, and the areas can feel rather small and sparse compared to modern video game environments. But the game knows how to use what it has, and make it work. The voice acting is really powerful. The writing is both funny and effective. I'm still trying to unpack everything the game is trying to say, about death and about life and about making amends for the mistakes of your past and the passing of time. I'm trying to figure out if it's actually what the game is saying or if it's just stealing those themes from better movies.

Anyway, here's Long Live Grim Fandango, which is a great article about the game and about the eventual remaster of it.

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