Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
No Gods, No Devils

Brendan Main | 4 Jan 2011 11:51
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It's in pursuit of some sense of order that Grim Fandango plays out - a quest that drags Manny across the Land of the Dead for four years, moving from petrified wilderness to a bustling metropolis to an island retreat, arriving finally at the gleaming white deserts that stretch to the end of the underworld. Along the way, he encounters a motley cast of characters, ranging from a speed freak demon, a frigid secretary, a dashing Latin revolutionary, and a bunch of beatniks. They all, in their own ways, have dead ended that game called life, and now struggle to sort out the aftermath. The moment after death is often thought of as the moment of big reveal - a chance, finally, to get the straight dish on life, the universe, and everything. How unusually cruel, then, to leave these folks wondering just what the hell is going on.

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Because Grim Fandango is a game that follows a very different model of life and death, it provides a thoughtful example of what happens when conventional ideas of "good" and "bad" are blurred. It's true that the Land of the Dead is not a place of torment, and there are no monstrous beings hellbent on spreading torment and misery. But there's also no purpose or sense of justice, and no order save soulless bureaucracy. With no rules to live by, and no one in charge, the second lives led by the denizens of this underworld may seem just as meaningless and meandering as the first. Similarly, in most videogames, it is usually simple to separate the good from the bad - say, between the good mushrooms that power you up and the bad mushroom that kill you. But in Grim Fandango, as a noir-flavored adventure game, the good can rub elbows with the rotten, and it's every soul for himself. Accordingly, the game's many villains - a bloated, wheezing businessman, a slimeball salesman, a femme fatale with questionable taste in boyfriends - aren't gargantuan pillars of Pure Eebil, but just crooked folks on the take. In the absence of any sort of metaphysical justice, they've turned life eternal into the longest con. They've even perfected a way to cheat death in the other direction: by shooting an unwanted target full of fast sprouting plantlife so that their skeletal frame is torn apart by a great tangle of flowers, "killing" them a second time over. There's dead, and then there's pushing daisies.

This loosening of rules works both ways, so even conventional baddies seem to be soul-sick. In Grim Fandango, the demons that populate the Land of the Dead are not fiery whipcrackers, but rather elemental spirits called into being to drudge away at Joe jobs - one claims he was created with a singular, burning desire to run the office elevators, which is a shame since they just got automated last year. Even the wicked seem like spare parts inside a failing and disimpassioned system: Near the end of the game, when most of the conspirators have been sprouted, shredded to bits or cast into fiery pits, it is revealed that the main desire behind the golden-ticket plot is not to rake in the big bucks for a few greedy souls, but to give them one desperate last shot at redemption. One particularly tainted mobster has amassed an entire suitcase full of these scrips, perhaps hoping that at the Gates at the End of the World, they will buy saints by the bulk. It sounds desperate, and it is bound to fail. Even in the next life, it seems, you can't take it with you. But the whole scheme does make a certain type of sense, especially in a videogame - at this point, we are all experts at collecting coins towards an extra life.

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