Dead Man Walking
LucasArts' Grim Fandango Takes Adventure Gaming to New Dimension
by Jeff Green
How do you follow up one of the greatest adventure games of the past 10 years? That's the challenge facing LucasArts in the wake of Curse of Monkey Island, last year's comic masterpiece that walked away with every adventure gaming award in virtually every major gaming publication, including this one. The answer is Grim Fandango-a stunning game now in development, which promises to take LucasArts adventures into a whole new dimension (the third), while still providing fans with the trademark laughs and puzzle-solving thrills we've come to expect.
At the helm of Grim Fandango is veteran LucasArts developer Tim Schafer, whose previous works include the classic Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle. Those familiar with these titles, however, should drop all preconceptions and expectations. Grim Fandango is going to look, feel, and play differently than any adventure game you've ever experienced before. You want one example? How about a cast of characters composed entirely of the dead.
Grim Fandango, as first reported back in our November 1997 issue, is a crime story mixing elements of film noir with traditional Mexican folklore. The result is a game that both darker and more surreal than any previous LucasArts effort.
The game takes place in the Land of the Dead-the first stop, according to Mexican folklore, of a soul when a person dies. Upon arrival, each soul must embark on a four-year journey across the Land of the Dead before coming to its final resting place. Just how difficult this journey is depends on the kind of life one has lived. For Schafer, this presented an ideal set-up for an adventure game, in which the struggle to get out of the Land of the Dead (like the struggle-in one of the game's many influences-to leave Casablanca) might lead a soul to commit a dangerous, desperate act.
The game's main character is Manny Calavera ("calavera" is Spanish for "skull"), a hapless skeleton in the Land of the Dead, who is stuck with the job of "travel agent" for the Department of Death. Every morning, Manny must don his Grim Reaper outfit (kept in a closet in his office), escort his newly deceased clients to the Land of the Dead, and set them on their four-year trek.
Manny's job also requires him to sell, for those who qualify, a more efficient way-such as by rental car, boat, or train-of getting across the Land. The only way Manny himself will ever move on to his eternal rest is if he meets a certain sales quota. The trouble is, his good leads have all dried up, so, in a nod to David Mamet's modern noir drama Glengarry Glen Ross, Manny decides to steal a lead. And this is where his problems begin.
Grim Fandango plays out as a four-act drama over the course of four years (paralleling the four-year journey of the soul) as Manny's act leads him on a dangerous collision course with the game's bad guy, Hector LeMans, who wants the stolen lead back. Manny also interacts with femme fatale Mercedes Colomar, and a large orange demon by the name of Glottis who becomes Manny's pal and confidante.
The four-year timetable gives Schafer the canvas in which to really develop the characters' relationships, with fortunes friendships rising and falling as the story progresses. The deeper story can be visibly seen in the phone book-size script in Schafer's LucasArts office in Marin. Schafer estimates the script to be at about 7,000 lines of dialog, compared to the roughly 2,300 lines of Full Throttle.
The film noir and Mexican folklore influences drive more than just the plot. They serve as the basis behind Grim Fandango's boldly original look, which combines prerendered 2D backgrounds with 3D polygonal characters.
The ominous, brilliantly detailed background art, architecture, and lighting-designed by artist Peter Chan, also the lead conceptual designer on Jedi Knight-draws primarily on '40s and '50s American cinema. (Grim Fandango, is, by the way, the first 16-bit color adventure game for LucasArts.) The wild character art and animation was inspired by Mexican Day of the Dead art-as well as by Tim Burton's stop-motion animation film The Nightmare Before Christmas. All of the game's characters are 3D models with primitive mask-like skulls for heads and the kind of cartoony, bent perspective found in Burton's film. The added twist is that all of the characters' facial movements-including talking-are accomplished by 2D animation superimposed over the skull heads. The resulting effect is both creepy and funny, and guarantees that, if nothing else, Grim Fandango will be one of the coolest, weirdest-looking adventure games we've ever seen.
Along with film noir and Mexican folklore, however, there was one other big influence on Schafer in designing Grim Fandango, one that had a drastic effect on how the game is played: Super Mario 64.
"When I played Super Mario on the N64," Schafer says, "it really changed my perspective on how things could be done in an adventure game. A 2D adventure is kind of distancing-but in Mario, you are there, you are the character."
Schafer's experience with Mario led him to decide for the first time to scrap the venerable SCUMM engine-the driving force behind every LucasArts adventure game for years-and create, along with lead programmer Bret Mogilefsky and other members of the team, a brand new game engine. Gone are the "verb ring," the inventory box, and even the mouse cursor-and in their place is an engine that LucasArts hopes will put you more in the game.
As Mogilefsky explains, "SCUMM was ideally suited to 2D animation, but when it came time to do a 3D game, we knew we had to break away from it." Thus, instead of pointing to the screen and clicking to where you want Manny to go, you will now be able to drive the character in continuous motion, using, if you wish, a gamepad or an analog joystick. Instead of running your cursor all over the screen to find "hot spots" to interact with, Manny's head will turn conspicuously towards any active area he approaches on screen. Depending on what it is, you can then press a key to perform a standard adventure gaming action-such as examining or picking up an item, or talking to another character.
The team's goal with all the interface decisions was to keep things off-screen and out of the way as much as possible. They hope that this will help make the game, in Mogilefsky's words, "as aesthetically pleasing as a film." The only concession the designers have had to make to adventure gaming conventions so far is to leave conversation text on-screen-though they admit that they originally toyed with the idea of losing that as well.
Along with a more hidden interface, the new engine has enabled the designers to pull all sorts of visual tricks, including streaming video behind characters, multiple camera setups in the same space, and numerous camera cuts and angle changes as Manny maneuvers through the world.
"Everything has been storyboarded out," says Mogilefsky. "It's probably the most extensive storyboarding we've ever done. We borrowed a lot from film noir to give it a '50s movie feel."
The move to a sophisticated 3D-engine is going to require, of course, greater computing power than the old 2D adventures, but the designers are working to ensure that the game's graphics (such as various levels of shadows) will be scaleable without detracting from the experience, so that gamers with older machines will still be able to play. Those with higher-end machines, meanwhile, will be able to enjoy extra special effects, such as the shimmer of water and rain.
If any or all of this frightens or confuses the longtime adventure gamer, rest assured that the team is working to ensure that, despite all the revolutionary changes, Grim Fandango is going to feel just like a traditional LucasArts adventure. There's no platform or action elements to contend with. It's still a puzzle- and conversation-based adventure game, only one that's been taken to the next level.
And thankfully, despite the game's dark subject matter, Grim Fandango still retains the classic LucasArts sense of humor. Expect the same ridiculous sight gags (such as dead, skeletal pigeons pecking at food), and the same laugh-out-loud situations and dialogue. A visit to one of the game's locations, a beatnik club for the undead, lets you jump onstage and create your own improv poetry, replete with such lines as "I am your failure." Once you create your poem, look later in the game for one of the characters to steal it and recite it back to you, word for word. This has nothing to do with solving the game's mysteries, of course, but is the kind of random, pointless humor that has always made the LucasArts adventures so fun.
Few companies would have the inspiration or the nerve to attempt a story like Grim Fandango, and even fewer would have the talent to pull it off. Although the game still has a long way to go before it ships this fall, it already is showing the makings of being one of the highlights of 1998, especially for quality-starved adventure gamers.
|Tim's Dead Game|
|Walking in to Tim Schafer's office at LucasArts, one can see just how much Grim Fandango has taken over his life. Decorated all around his office-along with a KISS Army painting, PaRappa the Rappa alarm clock, and "Welcome Back Kotter" lunch box-is a giant collection of Mexican Day of the Dead art, as well as the complete scripts of noir classics like Double Indemnity and the '70s noir homage Chinatown.
We took a chunk of time out of Tim's busy schedule to ask him a few questions about Grim Fandango.
CGW: Where did the inspiration for the game come from?
Schafer: I'd been interested in the Mexican Day of the Dead ever since I took a folklore class at Berkeley. It's a really interesting holiday: the dead come back to the land of the living for one day to celebrate with loved ones. A story set in the land of the dead seemed like perfect adventure game material to me.
CGW: Where did the title come from?
Schafer: Well, that's what the Day of the Dead is. A bittersweet celebration of death as a part of life. A morbid, lively dance-a grim fandango. I originally called it "Deeds of the Dead," which also played off the Double Indemnity and Glengarry Glen Ross connections, but LucasArts has a rule about putting the word "dead" or "death" in game titles. Around this office, people just call it "Tim's Dead Game."
CGW: Are you worried that some people are going to feel that you're treading on, or making fun of, an ethnic heritage in this game?
Schafer: I hope not. I feel that we're treating the subject respectfully. We're not making fun of it, and we're trying to be faithful to the culture....All of the voice acting for all the game's major characters, including Manny, is being performed by Latino actors and actresses..
CGW: What do you say to snobby computer gamers who worry about this game being influenced by Super Mario 64.
Schafer: A lot of people who make adventure games don't look outside the genre-and that can lead to a real stuffy attitude. I think there's something to learn from Mario without the game becoming a platform game.
CGW: Can we expect to see any cameos in Grim Fandango, like Stan from Monkey Island, or Max?
Schafer: Well, you definitely won't see Max, since we aren't allowed to do that anymore [due to licensing issues]. But as for other cameos? What can I say? It's a LucasArts game...
CGW: Where'd you get that PaRappa the Rappa alarm clock?
Schafer: A friend brought it back from Japan. Cool, isn't it?
CGW: Yeah. Can we have it?
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