LucasArts' Secret History #13: Grim Fandango Pan De Muerto

Pan De Meurto

Grim Fandango is The Game. Others, true, men have spoken of. Chrono Trigger at one point was held to the highest, still great and lofty in summation of experience, and epic in its own right. Super Mario Bros. 3 is undoubtedly a contender, with its sculpted systems, its finely finished boards and whirling hydraulics. Final Fantasy 7 holds the public opinion, its total redefinition of old and new, the very blurring of Genre, above all it plays on emotions, manipulates nostalgia as a finely tuned violin. Grim Fandango is yet greater, though, than all Games which have come before, all which will hence flood the shelves of retail. The game weaves a sophisticated, gorgeous tale, rife with possibility and infused with a chilled passion Schafer has not yet been able to reproduce. Psychonauts came but close, although that drew more from the twisted followers of Jhonen Vasquez; stilted holiday specials or paranormal comic serials. In the end, though, Psychonauts suffered from a lack of precision, too much was cut and too many loose ends straggled. Grim Fandango remains perfect in its precision, Tim leaves no character unexamined. Evident immediately is his self-proclaimed love of Vonnegut, for instance, the appearance of the phrase "Excelsior" on the synonymous walking stick, par "Breakfast of Champions", as well as his thorough portrayal of every character as the miraculous center amidst their own drama.

And The Architecture never ceases to awe, ominous Art Deco lobbyways and Barton Fink hallways marked with bright windows and flecked with golden ledges. Rubacava's spiralling bridges and stoic cliff-carved elevators, beautious empty passageways furnished with dead demons. The liberated design and aspirant structure posits some higher world so much greater and brighter than death. A game which concerns itself with the dirt and the bone of prior struggles has no business exploring perpetual bliss, yet there it stands. And when Manny approaches that foreboding Temple so lonely at the precipice of everything, the player confronts the cosmic forces and laws tethering us to corporeal suffering. But conflict still brews in the heart of the neon city. An end is in sight. So, as players, we too must confront the mortality of the play experience. What lies beyond the narrative, what action does one take when a world is justly ended. We return to Rubacava, finding, like the state of adventure games as a whole, that it is not what it once was, a dim husk.

Then, Velasco. The dockmaster initially presents himself as a heartwarming comrade, the last friendly figure before all hell breaks loose. But even as a foil to Manny's devout heroism, more luminous is his struggle than many else who've walked the dead earth. A search, sad, old, pointed, toward the very spirit of the ocean foam itself, an endeavor toward cold water and bright sun, far from the fickle works of man, living or dead be he. Tim's brilliance shines here, in the subversion of the expected. Beautiful it is that we can see powerfully the psyche of a solitary character. Similarly, we glimpse a tortured past with the gorgeous Carla, herself an emblem of the machine, Death's own laws and regulations, the prevention of flight and an unfettered spirit. She spins a sad story of life, the pain we all must endure, and proves that Death even does not bring a release.

Wonderful, too, are the manifold puzzles, sculpted with Chekov's gun, requiring equal amounts of OCD and Fridge Logic. Tim spoke regretfully of the long-cancelled 5-puzzle climax, in which we witnessed Raoul's saga come to a close. The racetrack elevator rings especially impenetrable, the gauntlet of Mensa scholars and Princeton students. But they are higher too than any other puzzles, foreshadowed vaguely and briefly in the occasional stray bit of dialogue, even in some cases coming complete with lore, such as the year four Letter gambit and Rocket Fuel scenario.

Above all, though, the core of the experience undoubtedly resonates in the pre-finale. Chepito, unbound, wanders at last to the soft sleep beyond. Manny himself would've gone, might've escaped and shed his skeletal frame, liberated by an inner light. To this point, he had not been a hero, merely victim of circumstance and occasional nice guy. But something there changed, some fibre of his soul brightened. Resolved, he turned back across the four year journey, to end the cycle of corruption. There is great sacrifice in his triumphant decision, and great courage in his journey. There we realize that although all will soon end, we must have one last assault, a trek backward through the glory days and hallowed wood, to the office which so begat our quest. So it goes...

And the music shines, transporting the realm of the deceased into a vibrant acid-tinged stage. Sad bebop accompanies the roving Celso in a discarded Automat, Archaic flutes pipe in the sprinkled streets of Old El Marrow. Rampant surf music plays, an anthem of the roads. But this is not a Beat Game, nor is it plainly Jazz, nor is it Gothic, although some would say. Rather, it is a compendium of Human experience, the ancient, the modern, and all avenues of life, French villages humble and lonesome, Stone Mexican Totems, 50's decadence and rebellion, industrial darkness, and the flawless Art Deco monuments. This is Adventure Gaming as it never has been, never will be. Every examination provides some hidden line, every failed puzzle another insight, every revisited conversation a new remark.

Something happened, then, in the creation of that game, a forced crunch mode awoke some inner brilliance in Tim's mind.

The sadness, in its creation, lies in the mortality of the medium. Nevermore will we see so many amazing cultural landmarks combine to form a distinct and pure whole. Autumn Moon could potentially resuscitate the genre, but their efforts don't possess the vitality, the sheer creative spirit. The legendary puzzle design document detailed an entire third of the game which was cut, maybe more. So many ideas, full of potential, wasted. Yet brilliant it remains.

And this too shall pass, and there will come a time in every man's life when his existence grows short, and if he is like any other man, he will dread what is to come. The player will look back, and remember Grim Fandango. And A Dance With Death Will Commence.

-- Icebox

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