Let us play the part of the cruel critic, since so few seem to care about it: it is dazzling to think that someone like Tim Schafer is considered an authorial reference in videogames. Harsh? Perhaps so. Case in point: “Grim Fandango”, Schafer’s critically acclaimed masterpiece. Born from the creative furnaces of LucasArts, it was the swan’s song of that long-winding production line. But like all swan songs, it stands as cruel reminder of the studio’s impeding demise, a symbol of all the reasons why it was a swan song in the first place.
“Grim Fandango” is old in every way. Not 1998 old, which is the year of release, more like 1988 old. It’s not the technical maladies – the dated, incoherent interface, still impregnated with the remains of SCUMM’s vocabulary-based interactions, and the ill-born subjective character control that never works right – they are annoying, but sufferable hindrances. What really strikes as old-fashioned and dated is the creative philosophy that shapes the depths of its design. A philosophy of grim absurdity, envisioned by LucasArts in its heyday and forever engraved in Schafer’s creations. “Grim Fandango”, like its predecessors, views puzzle-solving as a highly improbable combinatorial guess game, poking fun at players with its randomness and lack of logic as if it were a creative jest worthy of applause. But let’s even go as far as forgetting its frustrating conception; what do these puzzles say about Schafer? That he is whimsical and playful? Sardonic maybe? The crux here is that we simply cannot find any semantics in the gameplay, apart from the minor consideration that, given a senseless world, puzzles should equally lack meaning. It is a design joke that stands as a joke. A rarely funny one at that.
It is the senseless fictional world of “Grim Fandango” that justifies its popular reverie. Indeed, it is difficult not to be swept away by its creative play of references, where film-noir, mexican folklore and Aztec mythology blend wonderfully to give form to a zany underworld of lost souls, where campy surrealism is never too far away from stylish art deco, with Peter McConnell’s jazzy mixes always providing suitable ambiance. But Schafer quotes without any realization of function outside the most basic comedy revel, mixing unexpected cultural references with puns that could have easily been extracted from an above-board children cartoon. Its wacky interpretation of an undead “Hero’s Journey” is simply never given voice with wit and charm, Schafer’s geeky, idiosyncratic humor constantly debasing the game’s visual and conceptual apparatus. For not even in a game on the afterlife could he avoid hot-rod iconography! How far we sit from the eloquent prose of “Broken Sword” or the later “Discworld Noir”…
“Grim Fandango”, to wrap it up neatly, is a paradox of an aesthetically and technically progressive work based on an orthodox framework, repeating, for the umpth time, all the motifs of classics like “Monkey Island”. Which ends up being tragic in a work with such potentially rich themes, only to lay them all to waste in a dumbed down comedy that sells itself short. Then again, historic hindsight provides the answer to the why of this fact – both LucasArts and Schafer were never really capable of doing anything else. Even today, they continue to write the same teenage gags, over and over and over and over again.