This week features the re-launch of Grim Fandango, Lucas Arts’ film noir style game for PC, Mac, and PlayStation. The release has been expanded and it is now also available for iPads, iPhones, and Androids. It has been more than fifteen years since the original release and, if you missed it the first time around, you owe it to yourself to take advantage of this second chance to experience this visually stunning dark tale of the dead.
“Something’s rotten in the land of the dead,” Lucas Arts’ advertisements explain, “And you’re being played for a sucker.” This is the basis of the game’s storyline where Manny Calavera, a travel agent at the Department of Death, discovers a conspiracy that robs souls of their passage to eternal rest. Instead of traveling through the land of the dead through airships and/or a steam-powered luxury liner, souls need to journey to the end of the line on foot. This takes them past many dangerous areas of the land of the dead and some never make it. Through Manny, players experience a four-year journey of the soul in a world designed with a unique combination of film noir and Mexican folklore.
Film noir is a style marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. These are movies where viewers go in without any expectation of a happy ending. At most, as Terry Pratchett once wrote in Witches Abroad, there will be an “ending” because the narrative demands it. The story needs to be completed. But happy ever after? No—not in film noir.
This type of work is dark; many of the images are shot in black and white or with muted colors. Settings include shadowy rooms, alleys, back doors of fancy restaurants or nightclubs, and rain-slicked dark streets with a single lamppost providing the only illumination. Even when characters are near windows, they inevitably stand half in the shadows.
Film noir certainly presents consistent characterization as well. Everyone drinks hard liquor. Everyone smokes; it is amazing that the characters can see each other through the haze. Women wear dresses with low necklines and high hems, floppy hats, mascara, lipstick, high heels, and elbow-length gloves. Men wear fedoras, suits, and ties. Most characters carry guns and threaten others with them constantly.
Originally applied to certain American detective/thriller films produced between 1944 and 1954, the term film noir has expanded somewhat to include other types of art and literature. It is not unusual to describe a photograph, a novel, or other artistic work as being created in the style of film noir. Because of the short film clips inserted into the game, Grim Fandango certainly can claim the title of “film noir” as well.
In those film clips—indeed interspersed throughout the whole game—there are references to the scenes and plot elements of film noir. The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Double Indemnity and others are given more than just passing mentions in the storyline. Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca becomes Calavera Café in Grim Fandango, for instance, and the similarities extend down to the famous piano playing scenes with Glottis, Manny’s best friend, filling in for Sam.
Just like these films, Grim Fandango has aged remarkably well. The artwork has been “refreshed” for the new release, but the style remains strikingly original in the vast sea of adventure games available today. What hasn’t changed is the storyline and the humor that the creators, writers, and developers brought to the game, and that makes it a dramatically different offering in the film noir style. The game is funny, but doesn’t make cheap jokes at any of the characters’ expense. Even Glottis, who has a few moments of physical comedy, is not a one-dimensional character. He was created by the powers-that-be as a mechanic and this profession is what makes him happy. When he is fired, he literally rips out his own heart and Manny has to save his life. During the scene when he tells Manny, “I don’t want to be a pianist any more. I’m a mechanic,” it is hard not to empathize.
Perhaps it is the inclusion of Mexican folklore that elevates the mood of the game. Each time that a player interacts with Manny, it is during the Mexican Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), which is a traditional holiday that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember those who have died and to help support their spiritual journey. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed. Or perhaps the game is elevated in mood by the hero, Manny Calvera, an everyday person (albeit a skeleton) who is simply trying to do the right thing for his clients and redeem himself in the process. Either way, this is a film noir style story that can have a happy ending, even if players don’t know what will happen when they reach the end of the line.