Playing Grim Fandango for the First Time: Part One
By: Katelyn Vause
You don’t need me to tell you that Grim Fandango is a masterpiece. The beloved adventure game is widely regarded as a classic, and though I’m only a couple of hours in, I see why. The art style is gorgeous, the dialogue is snappy and frequently funny, and the worldbuilding is smart. As someone who loves point and click games, this is the perfect game for me, yet I somehow didn’t get to experience it until adulthood. Thanks to a recently released remaster, I finally have the chance to do just that.
For those of you unfamiliar with Grim Fandango, the premise is this: you play as a skeleton (based on a calaca-type figure from Mexican culture) named Manny living in the Land of the Dead. Manny is working as a sales agent to work off a moral debt from when he was alive (though he can’t remember what evil he committed). What does his company do? Sell afterlife travel packages to recently departed souls, of course! However, Manny’s amnesia, combined with his inability to get good clients (or get good clients the packages they seemingly deserve) soon sends him on an adventure to expose corruption in the Land of the Dead and save a client he unwittingly sent on a dangerous journey.
If you’re familiar with the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead, you’ll recognize its influence on the art style, especially on the characters. Characters occasionally speak to each other in Spanish, which is a nice touch. The game is also influenced by noir, and this really comes through in the music. And though Manny is not exactly a hard boiled detective, he has that slight cynical edge all protagonists from the genre possess.
One of the best things about Grim is it’s sense of humor, and this is revealed almost immediately. The game opens with Manny in full Grim Reaper costume, working with a client who turns out to be a dud barely worthy of a walking stick to guide him to the final circle of the afterlife. When Manny returns to his office, he takes off his Grim Reaper garb, revealing that his intimidating height is the result of him walking on stilts. The humor, sometimes steering toward the edge of dark, is a common thread throughout the story, and something I really appreciate.
As I am no stranger to adventure games, the moment I was able to, I begin clicking on everything I possibly could in Manny’s office. I find a message in a tube informing me of a mass poisoning, as well as a deck of cards. Helpfully, whenever there is something for you to click on, Manny will incline his head toward it.
Unhelpfully, the rival salesman, Domino, sent Manny’s driver home early, leaving Manny stuck at the office with no way to get to the poisoning. Though I had yet to see him, I already knew I hated Domino. This also provides an opportunity for Grim to do a neat bit of worldbuilding: the workers aren’t allowed to drive, as it prevents them from running away.
Who is allowed to drive, you may ask? Elementals, who are given one purpose in life. In the garage, I encounter one named Glottis. Huge, orange, loud, sweet, and obsessed with cars, Glottis informs me that she can modify my car so she can drive me to the poisoning, but only if she receives a work order first.
When I go upstairs to ask for a work order, the secretary, Eva, attempts to buzz the boss, who responds by shouting that he doesn’t want to be disturbed. Bureaucracy at its finest. Annoyed, I decide to go outside and look for someone or something that can help me.
If you walk to the left when you leave, you will encounter a highway curving around a building. If you walk too far, Manny will admonish himself (and you, indirectly) about standing on the highway. This is another small way in which the game helps you. If you push too far, someone will give you a warning. If you try to use an item in the wrong spot, Manny will tell you it’s not the right place.
I walk back, and slip into an alley on the right side of the building. I notice a long rope made of neckties dangling in the alley. Who put it there and why is not immediately clear, but I tell the intrepid Manny to climb.
Something that I was surprised by is how the game manages to make certain things feel dangerous. When I reached the ledge at the top of the building, the wind, scary music, and dizzying heights actually made me feel nervous. I knew there was no way Manny could fall off the ledge, but Grim actually managed to provoke my mild fear of heights.
Luckily, the boss’s window is open, and a peek in his office reveals he’s not even there! A computer with a list of pre recorded responses reveals his secret; I reprogram the computer to say “Cripes, Eva, just sign it yourself!”
Pleased with myself, I climb back down and return to Eva, who is finally able to sign the work order. After Glottis manages to modify the car (which seems to have just been her cutting half of the roof off to wedge herself in the driver’s seat) we set off for the poisoning.
The poisoning site is yet another example of the game’s cleverness. The human world looks very different from the Land of the Dead, in a horrifying way. The living people and backgrounds look like they were cut and pasted from various magazines, with the faces at odd angles and the mouths too bright a red. Even after spending relatively little time in the Land of the Dead, it’s genuinely jarring to see the “real” world.
You can choose to scare the living humans. Manny will tell you “Scaring the living is against company policy, but everyone does it.” If you do it a few times in a row, you’ll get an achievement, which I thought was funny. The only client left is a very mean man who, as usual, turns out to be a dud. This leads to a cutscene with Manny sealing the client in a large shipping container cushioned by packing foam. Thanks to this, I now have access to the packing room on the first floor.
A dejected Manny returns upstairs to find Domino working out in his office. As a power move, I have Manny immediately pour himself a drink from Domino’s stash. Unfortunately, Domino doesn’t seem to care. The two exchange insults for a while, which has a pretty authentic office-rivalry feel, all things considered. I hold back a bit and don’t choose to have Manny say he’d like to punch Domino, though I now regret that, as I wonder how he would’ve responded.
At this point, Manny decides to take his (after)life into his own hands, and I can’t say I blame him. The plan? Sabotage the message system and steal a good client notification before it can get to Domino.
How does he plan to do that? And how long will it take me to figure out what tools I need to make it happen? Tune in next time for an update on my first Grim Fandango play through! As always, chat with us in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org!