Grim Fandango – “Grim Schafer”


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.

score: 2/5

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  • Comments (14)
    • Coyote
    • May 26th, 2011

    Although I won’t defend Grim Fandango (on the basis that I only played it for a short time), I am one of those people that consider Tim Schafer an authorial reference in videogames.

    Specifically, I consider his creative vision (and the creative vision of his team) to be quite unique in the medium. Although they were full of problems, I enjoyed the world that he created for games like Brutal Legend, Full Trottle, Psychonauts and the most recent Stacking. Sure, the gameplay is flawed in many of his games and his humor is often juvenile and doesn’t always works; but even when the jokes doesn’t resonate in me, just writing the games down as “dumb comedy” is a disservice…

    In a market filled with brown and grey shooters and generic Tolkien-esque role playing games, he is the one of the (very) few game designer the western has that is unapologetically creative, whose vision is so ingrained in the game that one can always recognize it as a Schafer’s game… the closest the medium has to an auteur this side of the globe.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • May 26th, 2011

    Do I consider Schafer an author? Yes, I do. But being an author is not a synonym of being any darn good (just as being a studio product is not guarantee of the opposite).
    Naturally, I commend him for pursuing creative endeavors guided the confines of his own aesthetic ideal; but I simply cannot pretend to subscribe it, appreciate it or even applaud it.

    Do not misunderstand my position. I am not saying that “Grim Fandango” or “Full Throttle” or “Psychonauts” or any of his other games are generic pieces of trash. I’m saying they are merely dumb and juvenile pieces of entertainment.

    Cheers Coyote!

  1. I know I’m late to the party (7 months late at the time of writing), but this reeking, pretentious, arrogant ejaculation of a “review” here simply forced me to reply.

    Firstly, the puzzle solving. I never had to consult a walkthrough once, and I’m not bragging. While Monkey Island 2 and similar LucasArts titles had me ALT+TABbing to Gamefaqs every other twenty minutes, Grim Fandango caused me none such troubles, with every item combination making perfect sense. For example, you can get an empty balloon from a clown. Later on, if you use the balloon with a gunk dispenser, you get a gunk-filled balloon which you can use to later jam a pneumatic pipe. Nothing nonsensical or enigmatic about that whatsoever. Frankly, if I had to complain about the puzzles, I’d say they’re all a bit too linear.

    Secondly, your complaints on the writing and aesthetic design, which you can only seem to describe as “juvenile”, as if juvinility is a negative trait. Gulliver’s Travels was juvenile. Tom Sawyer was juvenile. Huckleberry Finn was juvenile. A Confederacy of Dunces was juvenile. How, in any way, shape, or form, does “juvenile” count as valid criticism? Your pathetic quote:

    “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.”

    Drives me insane, simply because of how smug it is, and how smug you are. “Potentially rich” themes? The rich themes are fully realized perfectly: a black-comedy-Aztec-art-deco-film-noir setting that doesn’t take itself seriously at all. “Dumbed-down” comedy? Dumbed-down from WHAT?

    Your pretentiousness shines through in gleaming waves here, your overstuffed and unwieldy vocabulary padding out an unimpressive and unremarkable mess of “criticisms”, which overall add up to a little less than “I didn’t like this game because I didn’t find it funny”. I thank whatever powers that be that you don’t have any following or popularity, because you’re a pretentious blowhard, spouting hot air onto a blog that nobody ever reads.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • December 15th, 2011

    Duly noted, my oh so very unpretentious and juvenile little friend. Go back to Skyrim now, ta ta!

  2. @ruicraveirinha
    I will, don’t you worry (it’s a great game!), but not before imparting some valid advice, friend: responding to someone who called you out on your smugness and insubstantial criticisms WITH smugness and insubstantial criticism isn’t the way to go about being a big, mature artsy critic like yourself. You have to answer your opponent, letting them see it your way. I blatantly asked two questions and implied one:

    -What puzzles did you find difficult/nonsensical?
    -Why does “juvenile” count as valid criticism?
    -What is the humor “dumbed-down” from?

    Answer those for me, why don’t you, since you didn’t make any of that clear in your big, mature, artsy review. It seems you were too busy tabbing out to thesaurus.com instead of fleshing out your very weak criticisms for the poor, dumb, immature, juvenile little laymen such as myself.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • December 16th, 2011

    My dear unsophisticated friend,

    If I were you, I would count myself lucky that I even let your comment fly, seing as it merely amounts to a deplorable rant adorned with simple-minded insults which I find very much in line with the character of a little child whose unsung hero has just been crushed by a nasty villain. I imagine that if you really wanted to discuss my opinion concerning the game in question, you would have shown decorum. Given that you engaged in a petty argument, enfatuated with your holier-than-thou scorn (which needs refinement, as it is so lacking in wit!), I replied as seemed fit, adopting a posture in line with the debasing caricature which you drew of my personality.

    Unfortunately, your new comment continues the same line of petty derision, so I will refrain from responding to ANY of your potentially interesting questions. If you took time from your not so precious agenda to glance at this blog, you will have read many a comment in direct oposition to my opinion to which I replied. I am, unlike yourself, open to all opinions and criticisms, warranted or not, so as long as there is a speck of education involved in the debate. As this is not the case, I’m afraid this will be the last of my replies to your whining. If you continue commenting, consider everything you write hereon out deleted; I have no interest in inflating the pre-pubescent ego of a brat by soiling this otherwise open, clean space for honest confrontation of ideas.

    Have a nice day in Skyrim, and gulp down a jar of Black-Briar Mead in my honor!

    • Piksson
    • December 18th, 2011

    Hmm, I’ve got to say that somebody made some very good points…

    In comparison to other LA creations I find Grim Fandango having the smallest number of “nonsensical” puzzles. Having problem solving them or finnishing the game is no justification of accusing the creator. I as well have had no problem finishing the game because I expected some of the puzzles to be this usual sort of try-and-see thing from the beginning. Maybe some concepts are a bit wacky but to go through that game without making any mistakes or constantly trying new things you would need have the imagination at least to match Schafers.

    As juvenile and dumbed-down goes – ok, I can see how this noir-aztec-etc.etc. idea could have been put to other, more sophisticated, use (not saying better here!). I think that this humorous attitude towards the undead works perfectly here.

    I think the problem is you’re making too much of it. Most games of that era are “dumb and juvenile pieces of entertainment”, and even today something more than that is rare. I guess what i’m saying is: plaing video games is something juvenile in general, and making anything more of it makes you sound smug 🙂

    • ruicraveirinha
    • December 19th, 2011

    So, to sum it up, your arguments are:

    1. That there are worse LA videogames in terms of weird puzzling, so this one fares, by comparison, a little better. All right, that’s certainly true, but given that you are actually agreeing with me in that there are such puzzles, I see my point vindicated. If you read my text right, you’ll notice no mentioning of the question of “difficulty”. The question that bothers me is not how tough it is to solve these puzzles: I assure you to have played games much more demanding in terms of observation, wit and intelect. No, what I question is Schafer’s understanding of the purpose of a ‘puzzle’ in the videogame architecture, and I see no other intent other than amuse us with the odd combinations of trinkets and the pantomines that naturally ensue. They fail to both stimulate abstract logical-deductive reasoning and even to prompt players in to seeking better understanding of the world and its characters (which are pretty much one-sided as is). So no, I don’t find them interesting elements in the view of creative design.

    2. That all videogames are infantile, thus it is OK to maintain and even applaud that state of affairs? I’m sorry, but I shan’t agree. Videogames can be more adult, clever, and serious. And they can even be so, while still managing to be humorous. That you go as far as admitting you get how the “noir-aztec-bla-bla” world could be framed in order to pursue more elevating visions is telling of how patternalist your view on videogames is. My so called “smug” understanding of videogames is merely a testament to my respect for the medium, which I firmly believe can withstand a more critical perspective as long as it seeks to elevate it beyond its current status. Feel free to disagree and accept its mediocrity as you argued.

    Cheers Piksson.

  3. There is some very colourful argumentation in this thread. As a non-native English speaker, there is enough in there to elevate my skills to new heights! I did not even know that “shall not” could be compressed into “shan’t”. I will try to re-use it.

    Jokes aside, I enjoyed your initial post. But before going any further, I shan’t omit to confess that I am a helpless Grim Fandango fan. I read and collect all what I can find online about the game. My obsession is so bad that I am even spending all my meagre savings to recreate some of its cinematic cut-scene in an amateur stop-motion movie project (my production blog: http://grimstopmo.blogspot.com/, but feel free if to edit this out if you find my self-reference abusive or irrelevant to this column).

    It is my persistent and regular googling about anything GF-related led me to your gem. And I am not ironical: this is the first negative review about GF that I stumbled upon, and it is refreshing after reading so many similar-minded reviews from cult-followers which I plead guilty of belonging to.

    Yet, as open as I am for differing opinions, I am puzzled by your immunity to the spell that this game seems to have on so many of us.
    I am just curious, when did you play this game? I played it when it was first released in 1998. A big part of your critic seems to be resolving around GF’s puzzles. I have to admit (yet a little reluctantly) that these are not the parts of the game which have aged best. But at the time, for the literal juvenile player I was then, these off-key, tong-in-cheek puzzles felt innovative and contributed to the surreal theme and tone of the story. I cannot really defend the gameplay: history, with the benefit of hindsight, is indeed vindicating some of your points. But these could be put against many so-called adventure game of this era. Sounds a bit like deploring that the old Charlie Chaplin movies were soooo… black and white.

    And then regarding your take on the Tim Schafer humour: Well, humour has not evolved as fast as video game gameplay and I cannot re-use the excuse of historical context. Silly me, those GF lines still crack me up. Allow me, to finish my comment to your post, to paste here a quote, which, by the way, I lifted from a GF blog critic, better articulated than me, and which is a nice counterpoint to your post (http://www.etc.cmu.edu/etcpress/content/grim-fandango-stephen-jacobs)

    Manny: “Some festival, huh?”
    Balloon Twister: “Yeah, pretty busy. My Carpal Tunnel Syndrome’s acting up.”
    Manny: “But you don’t have any… tendons.”
    Balloon Twister: “Yeah, well you don’t have a tongue, but that doesn’t seem to shut you up, now does it?”

    • ruicraveirinha
    • December 26th, 2011

    Hi pixyfrog, and welcome ye sir, fellow non-native english speaker!

    As to your curiosity, I played the game twice. The first was… I don’t know exactly, but early 2000’s – back then I didn’t get to finish the game for some reason (think it was when a computer of mine was replaced). The second time was, obviously, when I wrote the review, and finally got to the end.

    I think you’re right in that many adventure games of the era shared similar (nay, worse!) maladies in terms of game-structure. But the same is held as true even today, only the genre has become the target of a niche audience and small-scale companies. As a matter of historic reflection, let us take into account that “Broken Sword” (which I think is represents classic adventure at its most pristine and popular and consensual) was released in 1996, and compare the refinement it shows in that particular aspect – surely you see the differences? “Grim Fandango” was, already for that time, a very conservative piece, and its puzzle design fits perfectly in line with previous LucasArts ventures. It’s surely a matter of taste, whether or not they come out as surreal humorous pieces or just plain silly, but I would find it very hard to concede on their “innovation”, as you put it. And I don’t think the comparison with b&w photography holds, for a few reasons: one, b&w photography was the only available technical option of film directors in its time, and second, when alternatives came up, b&w started being used with particular aesthetic intentions. Now, my problem is not so much the use of that particular structure, but what it tells me about the work and the author and the relationship it seeks with us audience. As I see nothing innovative or particularly interesting in its use, I appraised it negatively (I have no qualms with those who think otherwise – that’s what distinguishes art criticism from product reviewing, it’s supposed to be subjective).

    As to why the game didn’t sweep me away, I will admit as much: during my first play the captivating use of references delighted me. But back then I was 10 or so years younger and didn’t know half of what I know about videogames today. Yes, “Grim Fandango” has a colorful, incredibly creative and (here yes) innovative world. But, again, we must consider I had the power of historic hindsight on my side, and around the release of the game in the latter half of the 90’s, saw give birth to some of the most import adventure games, no, some of the most important videogames of all time. How can I valour “Grim Fandango’s” world when objects like “Myst”, “Bad Mojo”, “Riven”, “Gadget”, “Sanitarium”, “The Last Express”, “Blade Runner”, “Cosmology of Kyoto”, “LSD”, “Sanitarium”, “L’Amerzone”, “Ceremony of Innocence”, heck, even “Shenmue” (one year later!, one year later!), all shown more thoughtful, ambiguous, provoking and insightful interpretations of even richer thematic backgrounds?

    Now, you may rightfully question my posture of hindsight, but personally I think it allows far better judgement. Thanks to it, I am older, more immune to the marketing and social pressures of the time, to the wonders of superficial technological advancements, and more knowledgeable of the historic context of the game’s release. I don’t have to guess the relevance of “Grim Fandango”, I can almost measure it! In this regard, a word must be said when it comes to Tim. As is clear, some of the negativity of this review is not solely directed at “Grim Fandango”, but to his career and perhaps even more so, to his critical acclaim. Critics judge, and they judge based on taste, and my dear, dear friends, my taste lies in a different world than that of Schafer’s disposition. Seeing as everyone is so infatuated with a character as Schafer’s – who I consider never to have delivered in any substantial way to the medium’s artistic progress – glad as he has been as ever was, in delivering entertaining gags, more or less well written (you chose a good quote, for sure, but what great writer intercedes charming literary play with fart jokes and pantominesque adolescent idiosyncrasies with giant stuffed animals and motorbikes?), in creative worlds which he consistently fails to explore outside his superficial comedy lines? What can I say of Grim Schafer, the author of videogames like “Day of the Tentacle”, “Pyschonauts”, “Brutal Legend” or “Stacking”? He can brainstorm? He can write comedy? He has good pop-culture references? Yes, true. But every game he put out I failed to relate to, and as such, my heart lies barred.

    And thus I bid adieu pixyfrog. I am very happy you understood that different opinions are welcome, and that you commented on this eerie lonesome corner of that vast wasteland which one calls the internet. Thank you very much for the delightful discussion!

    Cheers!

    P.S. In the future, I would ask you to be careful in how and to whom you signal this blog; they say all publicity is good publicity, but it can be stressful for me to endure and reply to unsophisticated characters. Better alone than in bad company, as they say!

  4. “But what great writer intercedes charming literary play with fart jokes and pantominesque adolescent idiosyncrasies with giant stuffed animals and motorbikes?”

    Francois Rabelais! Founding pillar father of French literature… except for motorbikes, which were not invented in his time, but surely there were farting giants!

    Now, abusing your hospitality in spite of your Adieu’s, let me push it a bit further without any futile attempt to changie your opinion: You admit that you had an (initially voluptuous, it seems) ”Coitus Interruptus” with the game in the early 2000’s, only to be resumed 10 years later. I wonder if any of the games that you are quoting (half of which I played and enjoyed), subjected to this mode of consumption, would not have equally bled under a sharp and erudite post-mortem analysis.

    Maybe not…

    To be fair, I will have to admit that my b&w reference was indeed a stretched analogy. But I guess that we are arguing on disjointed panes. I am relating to that gaming experience (that, maybe, a faulty computer has deprived you of?) and while your point was to question Tim’s contribution to videogame history. Our blades shall never meet.

    But crossing iron with you has nonetheless been a pleasure, and rest assured that I will not unleash hordes of GF cult followers on your blog. This shall remain a strictly private discussion!

    p.s. If you enjoyed l’Amerzone, try to find the seminal original graphic novel from Sokal, the fith opus “L’Inspecteur Canardo” bearing the same title. I am not sure if this has been translated. I bet this reading will surpass the gaming experience of its video game adaptation.

    • jelly@butthurt.com
    • February 10th, 2012

    speechless 😮

    • JohnnyW
    • April 1st, 2012

    @ruicraveirinha

    So, I take you can’t actually answer those questions then? I also presume you censored the fellow’s reply to make it look like you silenced him with you logic and wit.

    You can’t claim to be taking the high road while littering your responses with childish insults.

    I would like to know:

    -What puzzles did you find difficult/nonsensical?
    -Why does “juvenile” count as valid criticism?
    -What is the humor “dumbed-down” from?

    Thanks.

    • A. Guy
    • April 13th, 2012

    Your review reminds me of those academic essays that you do in university. You know, where you spend thousands of words (most of which were nabbed straight from a thesaurus) desperately scrambling around trying to prove your thesis.

    After pointing out all the aspects that favour your argument and giving a (dis)honourable mention to the opposing factors (at best) you round it up nicely by saying what can be roughly translated to “and that’s why I’m right!”

    Yes I know my writing style sucks, I’m not an academic or anything; however, I know the difference between an unbiased review and a one sided rant… even if I needed to access dictionary.com every now and then 😉

    Feel free to cut down my comment with your mighty intellect, but make sure you use nice bite sized words. Otherwise you’ll basically be talking to yourself.

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