In a little over two weeks’ time, Tim Schafer’s classic adventure game Grim Fandango will rise from the grave, ready to inform a whole new generation of players on how storytelling in games is supposed to work. Needless to say, we could hardly be more excited.
But as the launch day approaches and we prepare to step back into the well-worn shoes of Manny Calavera, it occurs that the relaunch of Grim Fandango could have been so much more.
What appealed about Grim Fandango more than anything else was its world building. Despite the player only every visiting a couple of dozen significant locations on their four-year Journey of the Soul, everywhere in the Land of the Dead felt as though it had a purpose and a place. There were locations like Puerto Zapato and the mountains over which Manny and Glottis travel which were never properly explored. The proposal therefore is more radical than a mere sequel – it’s an expansion.
Imagine the scene. The game opens with a soul walking into an office at the Department of Death, scared to – well, not that – of what might await them. But to their surprise, the smiling “travel agent” just asks them about their life. In short order, we have a character built and sent off on their four year Journey of the Soul.
Of course, there is the option simply to walk the desert, ocean and frozen wastes to reach heaven as quickly as possible. But to do so would be to miss half the fun of unlife. The whole world is open, from the sprawling metropolis of El Marrow, bustling with souls trying to make ends meet, to the bleak views of the Edge of the World. The player can learn skills, build a life for themselves, and help with the problems of the lost souls wandering the wastes.
Imagine the option to see how this world works from top to bottom, as you find yourself tackling the criminal gangs of the underworld, rescuing sailors lost on the Sea of Lament, battling the monsters of the deep and taking a team of sled dogs across the mountains as the gates of heaven appear over the horizon.
When the player finally decides to end their journey, having solved (or otherwise) the mystery of their sins in life and having absolved (or not) themselves of their wrongdoing, passing through the gate tells you what you achieved and the impact of your actions on the world around you.
Many of the participants in the interminable debate on what makes a game define the status by having a failure state. Grim Fandango has none of those as far as we would understand them – nor, indeed would this hypothetical expansion into a Fallout-style RPG. But there is a good reason for this, because Grim Fandango explores the question seldom asked of games – what happens to those who have already failed?
The only genuinely good character who appears in Grim Fandango (Meche Colomar) is there by mistake, and even she is quickly corrupted by the pressure of the situation and becomes cunning and willing to deceive and use violence by the game’s end. All the other characters are flawed in some post-fatal way, and it is their weaknesses that make for interesting storytelling.
The same could hold true in a hypothetical sequel – by necessity, the character creation process would bestow upon your lost soul certain disadvantages as part of their personality. Think of it as the opposite of permanent buffs and stat changes given to RPG characters, only with the exception that this game would have little if any combat, and no levelling. An open-world adventure game is not something which has been often tried, but there is no reason a satisfying journey could not be created by a player’s native wits, brains and charm. Who knows – they may learn something about themselves.
It will be encouraging and extraordinarily nostalgic to see the return of Grim Fandango, especially given its superb reputation and current high prices. But it would be a great shame if it was the last thing that was ever done with the license.