People of Earth, welcome back to my Nerdy Love Letters! You human readers may or may not know this, but I grew up playing LucasArts computer games. For a kid who had devoured Choose Your Own Adventure books for years (oh, we should talk about them too in this column), these point and click adventure games were the next level up, acting as interactive movies full of personality and imagination. Sam & Max Hit the Road, Full ThrottleDay of the Tentacle, The Dig – all were fun. But one game in particular became a fan-favorite for a lot of us, and was referred to by the company itself as “the most ambitious graphic adventure that LucasArts has ever developed.” I’m talking about the 1998 video game that took place in an afterlife realm inspired by film noir and Mexican folklore, that delightful mystery adventure titled… Grim Fandango.

Grim Fandango was directed and written by Tim Shafer (Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle), who created the game with artist Peter Tsacle, programmer Bret Mogilefsky, and composer Peter McConnell. The game has been considered the last of the 1990s era of adventure games. Though profitable, sales fell after a strong initial outing, and in the end it was deemed having underperformed expectations, making roughly 50% of what LucasArts’ Full Throttle had made. But it continued to gain popularity over the years, particularly as a fond memory when it became hard to find. GameSpot included it in its 2003 list of “Greatest Games of All Time,” and ranked it #10 in its 2012 list for “Best PC Ending.” TIME Magazine included it in its 2012 list of “All-TIME 100 Greatest Video Games.” Empire ranked it #84 in its 2014 list “The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time,” while the same year PC Gamer ranked it #21 in its Top 100 list.

When Disney acquired LucasArts in 2013, all development was halted and most of the staff was laid off. Tim Shafer’s new studio Double Fine Productions, along with Sony, secured the Grim Fandango property and released a gorgeous remastered version in 2015, adding in creator commentary tracks and an orchestrated version of the original score.

Grim Fandango‘s designers made it with over fifty 3D characters and 90 locations. To help make the whole game a film noir pastiche, Tim Shafer had the creative team watch movies such as Chinatown, The Big Sleep, and Casablanca. A petrified forest setting is a direct reference to the Bogart film The Petrified Forest, while the game’s large vehicles with huge engines and visible hydraulics were inspired by the film Monte Carlo or Bust! (known in America as Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies). 

The art style was both creative and practical. 3D animation used by LucasArts in the late 1990s meant the characters would look blocky and exaggerated. By inhabiting the game with demons and animated skeletons rather than human beings, the blocky animation blended perfectly with cartoony designs and exaggerated skeletons. In a press release for Grim Fandango, LucasArts Product Marketing Manager Tom Byron said, “Tim Schafer… has successfully undertaken a different approach to Grim Fandango by turning the technical limitations of 3D into an art style.” He was right. As a result, the game art holds up to this day, even before the remastering process.

But, Kistler, you ask, what was this game even about? That’s a perfect question to ask, human reader. Well done! I was just getting to that part.

The story takes place in 8th Underworld, also known simply as the Land of the Dead, an afterlife realm where 1940s trappings (including pneumatic tubes and automats) and art deco architecture mix with Aztec inspired designs. The hero was meant by the game creators to be a “Hispanic Humphrey Bogart,” a grim reaper named Manuel “Manny” Calavera whom the player controls. Manny was voiced by Tony Plana, the Cuban American actor and director who has appeared all over film and TV, and has been popular most recently for roles in shows such as 24, Ugly Betty, The Fosters, One Day at a Time, and Netflix’s The Punisher.

In this story, grim reapers act as travel agents for the Department of Death. The reapers collect souls (clients) to the 8th Underworld, then send them on the four year spiritual journey to their final destination, the mysterious 9th Underworld also known as the Land of Eternal Rest. Selfish jerks and deadbeats wind up having to make the journey largely on foot (a journey that takes a minimum of four years), while other clients have been buried with enough money to afford a travel package that shortens the trip (which also lets their reaper travel agent collect a commission). Veritable saints needn’t undergo further hardship to prove their worthiness, since they qualify for a ticket on the #9 train that reaches the Land of Eternal Rest in minutes.

Not all souls want to make the long trek to their final fate and have decided to make the best in the realm of the 8th Underworld. Other souls find out they need to work first to redeem themselves for their actions in life. As a result, this game shows us cities and sea ports full of lost souls occupying various jobs and roles. As one character remarks, “We found a way to make the Land of the Dead livable.” There are also demons walking around this realm. They’re not evil, just elemental beings summoned from the Land of the Dead itself to perform menial tasks such as being a driver, a mechanic, or an elevator operator.

“Oh, Manny. So cynical. What happened to you, Manny, that caused you to lose your sense of hope? Your love of life?”
“I died.”

Manny himself is a metaphorical and literal working stiff. Being a grim reaper for the Department of Death is a sentence of community service due to his sins in the Land of the Living. But he isn’t a hero who seeks redemption. He’s now been with the DoD longer than even his current boss and is fed up with waiting for his final rest. He resents the mysterious forces that have taken it upon themselves to judge who’s life was good or wasn’t good. He argues that more than proven himself but is stuck by circumstances beyond his control. Whatever he was in life, in death he’s a resentful cynic with a bittersweet wit.

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Concluding that he’s not being treated fairly and needs to do whatever it takes to get out, Manny steals a rival’s client who led a near-saintly life and recently died. The soul in question is a lady named Mercedes “Meche” Colomar, voiced by Maria Canals-Barrera who is known for her role as Hawkgirl in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, as well as roles in The Wizards of Waverly Place, The Proud Family and Danny Phantom.

Meche: “You’re not here to give me my medication?”

Manny: “No. But I am here to ease your pain.”

Meche: “Guess they couldn’t save me, eh?”

Manny: “No. But there’s still a chance you could save me.”

Maria Canals-Barrera does not have the same amount of screen time in the game as Manny or his friend Glotis. Regardless, she delivers an excellent performance, making it clear immediately that Meche might have lived by saintly actions but is neither a delicate flower nor a fool. She’s trusting at first, but she’s also got wit and some savvy to her. Later on, she becomes a more jaded and guarded character due to her experiences in the underworld. Canals-Barrera is able to convey this change very nicely in her delivery of Shafer’s excellent dialogue.

But that’s jumping ahead! Apologies, humans. We haven’t even mentioned the real premise of the game, the point that spurs Manny into action and adventure.

You see, Manny initially figures the commission from Meche will be large enough to ensure he’s on his way out, or at least a lot closer to it. But his computers claim Meche doesn’t qualify for a fast track ticket at all and instead must walk the multi-year journey like all of his other most recent clients. Before Manny can figure things out, Meche starts off on her journey, thinking she might as well get started. Fearful of the dangers she will face on her trek, and guilt-ridden that he may have accidentally cheated her of an easy ride to paradise, Manny chases after Meche while also investigating a conspiracy he realizes has been operating all around him. And that’s when the game truly begins!

The game is a puzzle solver. Throughout the different scenarios, you must help Manny talk himself out of situations or guide him to find the tools necessary to get to his goals. Most of these puzzles are already fun to solve, but they’re made more entertaining by Calavera’s wit. Early on in the game, the player must turn the deadbolt of a door while it’s open, in order to ensure it doesn’t shut and lock later. Rather than do this in silence, Manny humorously remarks: “I just locked an open door. Strange… yet symbolically compelling.”

Along with Manny, there are many hilarious characters delivering over the top threats, fun puns, and off beat observations. There’s the touching innocence of Manny’s demon chauffeur and mechanic Glotis, who is determined to make every vehicle he sees bigger and faster than ever intended. There are entertaining allies such as the secret revolutionaries who also suspect corruption in the Department of Death.

I’m being vague on story because discovering the story for yourself is half the fun, and this is a memorable one. It takes us through a fantastic world of different environments and creatures, all of whom are pretty memorable. Manny finds himself becoming a helper, ally and even hero to different people he comes across. But none of this – nor potential romantic interests – can hold his attention for long. He becomes increasingly determined to find Meche. If he can’t ensure her a quick trip to her final fate, he can at least make sure she’s safe from the dangers of the otherworld. When asked if he’s fallen in love with the woman, Manny glibly answers, “Love? Love is for the living, Sal. I’m only after her for one reason. She’s my ticket out of here.”

It’s a great line. Does it sum up Manny or is it a lie? How skewed is his view of the underworld and himself? These kinds of questions and character beats made me truly fall in love with Grim Fandango, and I found Manny more of a hopeful cynic than a true one, a person secretly looking for someone or something to prove him wrong. Repeatedly, he winds up without resources of any kind and in a place where he has no real contacts. But he not only perseveres in each situation, he finds a way to attain power and resources again in a short amount of time. You get the sense that no matter how badly he’s ever beaten or how much he loses, he’ll adapt to the new circumstances and surpass what his enemies and rivals expect. Such a quality makes for an admirable hero.

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Manny truly grows with you during this game, evolving from a self-centered person only interested in fast results to someone who can enjoy the journey of life (or death) for its own rewards. And unlike some narratives, the character doesn’t make these changes overnight or during a long weekend. This game covers a long stretch of time, so Manny’s evolution seems all the more natural and grounded, which is a great counterbalance to the strange fantasy world he inhabits.

“Well, I guess when you’ve got nothing to go home to,  you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Are there flaws in Grim Fandango? Sure. It’s sometimes difficult to be in exactly the right position to pick up an object or use it properly. While many of the puzzle problems are logical in the context of the game, a couple are so weird that it’s generally recommended you just save yourself the frustration and look up a solution. A couple of characters are tough to recognize at first when they change clothes. And while Meche does have some nice progression as a character, we don’t see enough of her to fully register or appreciate it. She has agency at times, but her actions result in personal failure to improve her situation. She’s saved by people who appreciate her, but doesn’t have a real moment of victory for herself. I realize this is often the case with women characters in film noir who aren’t villains, and I know Manny is the protagonist. This flaw didn’t ruin the game, particularly since Canals-Barrera was memorable in the role despite not even being on screen for more than half the game. I just would’ve liked something a little more from her character.

Overall, this is a game I love and still enjoy revisiting, either for a replay or to show friends. I’m glad for its longevity in the hearts of fans and for the new remastered version. In the creator commentary, Tim Shafer says: “When you’re making stuff, it should be something that could only have been made by you – or in that group of people – and at the time you made it, in the place you made it… I think Grim is definitely that case… I think it makes the game really special, but it also has a lot of personal details that are just kind of woven into it… Even if we were making this game from scratch – with the same intentions today – it would just be totally different.”

Grim Fandango is a unique creature. While it may inspire similar games and stories yet to come, it will still stand out in my memory as something that was truly original when it first arrived. And I’ll always consider Manny Calavera one of my favorite noir characters.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen at the end of the line. So you might as well enjoy the trip.”

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Alan Kistler

Alan Sizzler Kistler is a Latin American freelance writer, editor, script doctor, and superhero/sci-fi historian. He is the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Doctor Who: A History" and knows too much about how different super powers are supposed to work. You can find him on Twitter: @SizzlerKistler
Alan Kistler