Grim Fandango Is a Perfect Fusion of Film Noir and Detective Novel

What makes a good fusion? Synergy would be a good description: where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. In food, fusion and synergy would be where ingredients delicious on their own combine to create something greater. For example, one could argue that a Tex-Mex brisket taco sounds appealing, whilst squid in custard would not, regardless of the freshness of the squid or the creaminess of the custard.

The 1998 adventure game Grim Fandango is a prime example of synergy through fusion. Named after an Iberian dance, the official by-line for the game was ‘An Epic Tale of Crime and Corruption in the Land of the Dead.’ Another name considered during development was ‘The Long Siesta’, a riff on the Raymond Chandler masterpiece The Long Goodbye. That title is arguably more recognisable, and a better introduction to what the game really is, a fusion between hardboiled detective fiction, film noir and a mythical journey through Mexican Day of the Dead folklore.

The sheer originality of that premise is worth considering. It’s hard to imagine a pitch meeting at the now defunct Lucasarts, who were masters of the point and click adventure, where writer and lead designer Tim Schafer was trying to explain how the idea would work. Mixing a mid-twentieth century genre with a religious festival from Mexico would have sounded completely nonsensical without having viewed the game. Studio executives at the time may have wondered why this wasn’t any less absurd a concept than US constitutional history mixed with rap music, or Jane Austin mixed with zombies.

But Tim Schafer’s pitch worked on the back of his success with his previous titles, (Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle etc), the purse strings opened, the game was made, and out of this strange fusion, they created a masterpiece.

It’s hard to fathom which is more memorable, the writing or the artwork, another synergy within the whole. Tim Schafer again was responsible for the writing. From seemingly nowhere, he hewed a Hispanic American protagonist, the cleverly named Manny Calavera (in English: skull), who mixed Philip Marlowe’s cynical speech patterns with humour and compassion. The game follows Manny as he undertakes a journey through the land of the dead to rescue a woman he let down. Much like the rest of the game, the fusion of ideas seemed to elevate everything, including the voice acting, with many more Hispanic voice actors chosen to fulfil the theme and to give authenticity. Manny has a sidekick, a demon named Glottis, who serves to lower the tone and add slapstick humour without spoiling the broth. Manny’s love interest, Mercedes ‘Meche’ Colemar, serves as a femme fatale character without resorting to cliché’.

The lead artist for the project was Peter Chan. Much like Schafer, Chan seemed to relish the opportunity to mix different genres and themes. From his original concept art, we can see that Chan in a few drawings created the world that remains so beautiful and evocative. A particular masterstroke seems to have been the unnecessary but welcome use of art deco. Everything, from the characters, to the buildings, to the vehicles, is far more beautiful and intricate than it needs to be.

The genius of setting the game within the Mexican land of the dead shouldn’t be underestimated. It gave Schafer license to weave his 20th century tale of crime and corruption with all its touch points, whilst creating something undeniably fresh. Within the game you can see the insurance salesman of the classic Double Indemnity and a now-forgotten business world of typists, statement offices and pneumatic mail tubes. The office windows that actually open, the smoking, the liquor cabinets, all evoke scenes from Mad Men, which Grim preceded. Playing it, you feel a nostalgia for these environments, even though many who played Grim would have been too young to have experienced offices in the 1960s and before. 

In its second act of four, the game opens into what is the masterpiece within the masterpiece, the port city of Rubacava. This is a beautifully lit dockside world set at night, complete with jazz bars, airships, racetracks and lighthouses. Here the game greedily plunders the film Casablanca with Manny in charge of a direct copy of Rick’s Cafe American from that film, with its casino and corrupt police chief. Throughout the sequence memorable characters compete for your attention, from sailors to cloak room girls, welding bees to disdainful feline lawyers.

There are missteps in the game. A few of the puzzles are tediously hard, and Grim suffers from the fate of many adventure games where the open world (or at least multi-scene) setting mean the player is constantly running from one side of a map to the other to solve the puzzles. Intriguingly, Schafer himself once mentioned that moving the character round the three dimensional environment with directional arrows (it was originally a PC game) was their immersive aim, and they succeeded, but the game would have perhaps worked even better as a point and click.

Peter Chan’s concept work for Grim Fandango.

In defence of the maximalism and epic scale of Grim, the game would not have been as successful as a strictly two-dimensional, pixel art puzzler. The ingenious use of zoom can scale two-dimensional environments to be more immersive, for example by closing in on a character in a small room whilst pulling out on a more expansive outdoor scene, and two-dimensional art can also help lower production costs as new environments can be added more easily, without the need for complex (at the time of release) three-dimensional modelling. Yet, adventure games are arguably more suited to larger three-dimensional environments, allowing creators to increase scene variety, experiment with camera placement, and broaden puzzle possibilities.

The three-dimensional environments of Grim also mean it looks like what it is: a playable film. Dialogue in particular can look stilted in profile, and intentionally choosing two dimensions at a time when game engines had expanded successfully into the third would have seemed like a retrograde step. The game captures much of the look and feel of a film noir, the use of three dimensions allowing camera angles other than side on. No doubt a two-dimensional version of Grim would have still been beautiful thanks to the artwork, and it would have likely been simpler to create, but it would have been a lesser work.

Is it the perfect adventure game? Decidedly not. Others are smoother, with more coherent puzzles, and some do more with less. The 2016 hit Inside from Playdead being a particularly good example of how to create a dystopian world through visuals and suggestion alone, without a single line of dialogue. The mystery and space between explanations can add to the art itself. The physical puzzle mechanics in that game and others are both cleverer and more intuitive to players than the sometimes-byzantine puzzles in Grim.

So no, it is not the perfect adventure game. Instead, Grim Fandango is a love letter to mid-century cinema and film noir. It’s a piece of 20th century high art, a bridge between the analogue past and the digital future. It’s an example of the homage bettering the original. Grim Fandango is fusion done right.

Words: Roman Madej

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