13-Aug-2001 Is the adventure game really dead? This one certainly is. Emerging from his crypt: Steve Hill
For some time now, a number of self-appointed experts - not least our good selves - have been sounding the bell for adventure games (see report on page30), claiming that the genre is all but washed up, mercilessly crushed beneath the weight of first-person murder and visceral arcade thrills. Of course, there was a time when adventures were 'all the rage', but they now represent little more than a quaint throwback to an earlier, more innocent, age. It's all over. Finished. Kaput. Gone. Or is it? If anyone can breath life back into the genre, it's LucasArts, pioneers of adventures as we know them, and the team responsible for some genuinely seminal titles. Incidentally, to put things in perspective, consider that when Culture Club were first mincing up the charts, adventure games largely consisted of 'North-South-East-West-Your skull was cleaved'. If the sweaty youngsters pawing at their rubber keyboards back then could have magically been shown a preview of things to come, it would almost certainly have been dismissed as the stuff of a madman's dream.
Much like the story behind Grim Fandango. Step forward, Manuel Calavera, travel agent at the Department of Death, flogging luxury packages to souls on their four-year journey to eternal rest. For sins committed in the living world, Manny has been sentenced to his own personal purgatory, awarded the ultimate dead-end job: a salesman. But it's not all barefaced lying and expense account lunches spent kowtowing to clients, making generic conversation and shamelessly feigning interest in their lives while being unable to look into their eyes without seeing the dollar signs of commission. Well, actually it is, but Manny is going through a bad patch, and a long time has passed since he last qualified for a set of steak knives, let alone a pair of Eurostar tickets. Having once been able to sell sand to arabs and snow to eskimos, Manny is now struggling to make his quota, and can't move on until he does. Something is clearly amiss, and it turns out that he's caught in the middle of an embezzlement ring that's preventing him from getting the right clients. With your help, Manny soon finds this out and steals a prime prospect, starting a chain of events that not only threaten his job, but the eternal destiny of his soul, not to mention several weeks of your life.
Clearly, the story is a nonsense, but it's presented in such a stylish manner that you unquestioningly accept whatever gibberish is thrown at you, becoming wholly absorbed in the technicolour fantasy world that lives in your special telly. Drawing inspiration from the films Chinatown, Casablanca and The Big Sleep, the game's four-year saga intertwines the themes of classic film noir with the exotic mythology of ancient Mexico; although the less pretentious could just as rightfully claim that it's Ren And Stimpy meets The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Adopting a fresh 3D look, the graphics are nothing less than sensational, with or without an accelerator card. All of the shots on this page were taken with the game running in software only, and in some ways they look more real, the 3Dfx version having a trademark 'plasticy' look about it. Whatever, the game looks fantastic, and has an interface to match, the lead character's head actually turning to look at objects, bypassing the traditional frustration of trying to interact with everything. Of course, the usual adventure game rules apply: for instance, rather than simply pointing out a crucial dog-tag, you have to get a metal detector from a dizzy security woman, who then throws it into a gigantic tray of cat litter, forcing you to trawl through some man-sized turds. That sort of thing. The puzzles certainly aren't easy, and often involve traversing the same areas several times, although tasks can be worked on simultaneously.
LucasArts have always been renowned for their comedy, and while there is a great deal of clever smile humour in Grim Fandango, there are very few dog-laughs to be had. In fact the humour is in a far more bitter vein than previous outings, taking thinly veiled swipes at several sections of society, including salesmen, secretaries, gamblers, the working class, beatniks, morons and schizophrenics. Other than the silver-tongued Calavera, the other constant character is his sidekick and driver, Glottis, an obese simpleton with a penchant for cars and gambling. Essentially harmless, he's the kind of person who would accidentally strangle a puppy by squeezing it too hard, and much of the game involves Manny exploiting his idiocy for his own personal gain. He does have some feelings though, and a love interest is thrown into the mix quite early in the proceedings, providing the basis for numerous capers.
Designed by Tim Schafer - whose CV includes Day Of The Tentacle and Full Throttle - Grim Fandango represents LucasArts at their creative best. A subtle blend of lateral thinking, arcade puzzles, bizarre settings, outlandish characters and seamless cut-scenes, it's a joy to play (apart from when you get stuck - expect the PC ZONE walkthrough to come to your aid soon). Indeed, with its expert direction, costumes, characters, music and atmosphere, it would actually make a superb film. As it stands, it's a great game. If the doom-mongers are to be believed, and it really is last orders for adventure games, then Grim Fandango at least provides us with a f***ing good lock-in.