Usually, the underworld is a perfect stomping ground in videogames, chock full of slavering hordes and demonic overseers, ultimately ruled by a goat-horned monstrosity who sounds suspiciously like Tim Curry. It's got everything you could possibly want: bad guys, good loot, and a tasteful skull décor. All this makes a game like LucasArts's Grim Fandango unusual. It imagines an underworld without such diabolical fixtures - no hellfire, no eternal torment. Instead, the afterlife looks like Thursday afternoon.
In Grim Fandango's skeletal Land of the Dead, it's business as usual for the dearly departed. Inspired by the Aztec nether-realm of Mictlan, the Land of the Dead is a passing place for people on their way to their final destination - but these days, people pass in style. The virtuous are whisked away by rail de luxe, arriving within minutes. The worst of us losers have to schlep across limbo one step at a time, over the course of several years - and you thought the wait at the pearly gates was bad. A select few stick around, living much as they did in life ... at least, if you call that living, which I suppose you shouldn't. The game follows Manny Calavera, who is stuck in the dead end town of El Marrow due to some terrible misdeeds in a former life. He passes his time as a working stiff at the Department of Death, peddling "travel packages" to the recently deceased on their way to the other side. But Manny always seems to get the short end of the scythe, tending to deadbeats while the "good" customers get snapped up. At one point, after sending off a series of skinflinted customers, he laments his fate: "I need a saint. I need a lead on a rich, dead saint."
Enter Mercedes "Meche" Colomar, a sweet and demure woman who lived a life of compassion - her shortened time on earth was filled with poverty and volunteer work. Plus, she loves puppies, which should count for something. Meche aces the post-death examination, but for some reason is denied a ticket on the express train to the afterlife. Instead, she departs on foot, unprotected and alone. It's at this point that Manny realizes that something very big is going down in the Land of the Dead - first class tickets to the next realm are ending up in the wrong hands. The whole system is rife with corruption and collusion. What do you call an afterlife where bad things still happen to good people?
It's in this ambiguity that Grim Fandango stands apart. In nearly every videogame ever made, there is a way that you can "die," but not really. Big ideas like life and death are all part of a universal gamers' code, drummed into us since we were little, that goes something like this: "There is good, and there is bad. There are rules to follow - do it wrong, and it's Game Over. Do everything right, and you'll be rewarded. Do really well, and you'll get a High Score, and your name will be remembered forever!" Within the very rubric of traditional gaming there is a whiff of brimstone, and a logic that verges upon the theological. From this perspective, Grim Fandango's Land of the Dead pushes this central metaphor of gaming into sharp relief, by presenting an alternative outside this scheme of punishment and reward. Instead, good and bad are roughly equal, and the rules that we labor so hard to follow don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Instead, we get a game that starts at Game Over, and goes from there.