What's in a Game?

What's in a Game?
I Left My Heart in Rubacava

N. Evan Van Zelfden | 21 Mar 2006 11:02
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Hyper Reality
Some people spend their whole lives planning dream vacations. They will travel to a far off land, see its sights, and return home once more.

Somewhere between one-third and half of Grim Fandango takes place in a city called Rubacava. You spend the night running through darkened streets, past glowing street lamps, up elevators, down stairways, under silent dirigibles, across bridges and causeways... The compelling moments are those when you're exploring, walking from one location to the next. What might have been loading screens are, instead, a series of aesthetic experiences.

Rubacava is a city of calm beauty, languor even. Spending one last night there leaves an impression on the player. That is why, if I could visit any place in the world, it would be one that doesn't exist. It compels me more than Vienna, or London, or Peking. I want to walk the streets of Rubacava, though I can't, for I exist and it doesn't. It has captured my imagination and my heart. Because all the details in Grim Fandango are so well executed, Rubacava lives on in my imagination, and I find it far more vivid, more beautiful than any real city I have ever seen.

Rhythm and Blues
The game's architecture is a mixture of any American city from the '30s and '40s, the style of the Art Deco period and the unmistakable lines of the Aztec empire. The music is also remarkable. Composed by Peter McConnell, it features performances by real musicians playing in small combinations. The freely available soundtrack was positioned as "Big Band, BeBop and Bones."

While it sounds ambient upon first listen, the music accounts for a great deal of the game's immersion. As you play the game, the music is an always present, always welcome element. If you turn the music off, the experience suffers. As you alternate between playing the game and listening to the soundtrack, you begin to fully appreciate the complexity and synchronization of the game with its soundtrack.

Invisible Hand
In the free market, art equals capital. It can be manipulated, but good art has staying power and will retain value, simply because it is good art.

Grim Fandango had been in print since its release, selling for $10 in jewel cases from publisher LucasArts. Just recently, the game is no longer available, even on Amazon. Retail supplies have dried up, and now used copies of the game are selling on eBay, with a marked increase in final bid price.

The reason this game is still sought by people so many years after it first came out is because it's a true work of art made up of ineffable elements. It's a game about music, ambience, characters, dialogue, moving clouds.

I will return to Rubacava, to walk the streets, knowing it will be just as I imagined it. The music will play, the water will ripple, the moon will shine. I will have an aesthetic experience brought about by an architectural space. And, perhaps, you will, too.

N. Evan Van Zelfden expects great things for the future of games. Games are the greatest art form to date, he asserts. This is why he plays games, writes about them, and continues to work in the industry of games.

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