Game of the Year
In 1998, GameSpot selected Grim Fandango to be their game of the year. It marked the end of an era for adventure games, and though they are still produced, this was the high-water mark for the genre.
No other game has come close to its perfection. Once, I told a videogame magazine editor I considered Grim Fandango the finest game ever made. “Yes,” she replied, “But I enjoyed playing Half-Life more.”
If the game had any flaw, it was inherent to its genre: Adventure games are completely lacking in actual gameplay. “But,” I said, “Half-Life is just one thing, just sci-fi. Grim Fandango contains all of the human experience.”
And that’s the thing about Grim Fandango. The story, fiction and writing contain the whole human experience, but the game elements themselves: art, music, sound, design, location – they encompass the whole of great art.
Grim Fandango thrusts you into the story. It’s impossible to describe well, because it’s the most bizarre story ever told. But it all begins to make sense, as you follow the lives of people living in the Land of the Dead, a world not unlike our own.
To wit, you start as a travel agent selling after-life travel packages to lost souls. After learning something is horribly wrong, you join the underground, later becoming a busboy, a casino owner, a sailor, a middle-manager and in the end, just a soul heading for the ninth underworld, for your eternal rest.
The writing is exceptional, with a depth of humor, wit and elegance rarely found in games. Tim Schafer provides over 7,000 lines of sparkling and memorable dialogue. The characters are unforgettable. And the fiction makes excellent use of an excellent setting. The story makes you believe such a world could exist.
If you were to enter a university to study architecture, you might be required to describe “an aesthetic experience you have had that was brought about by an architectural space or sequence of spaces, either interior or exterior. Try to link the nature of the experience to the nature of the space.”
If you were an average student, you would write about how the Eiffel Tower makes you feel, perhaps your tour of the Hoover Dam or the feeling of pathos summoned by the Vietnam Memorial. If you were particularly bright, you would write about finding yourself in a little piazza with a fountain at its center. Amid young shade trees, you sat on a brick wall and watched the stream of water for six or eight hours. And then, you might reflect that time is malleable.
Whatever example you would describe, you wouldn’t write about a videogame. A mere videogame, even if it contains architectural elements isn’t enough to cause an aesthetic experience, is it? Can the power of architecture – architecture that doesn’t exist in the physical world – still cause the reaction of people existing in that physical world?
The answer, without shame, without question, yes, a videogame can.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Architecture is frozen music,” a quote which is brought out and dusted off for every single discussion of (either) craft. Steven Poole took it a step further: “If architecture is frozen music, then a videogame is liquid architecture.”
Two things are clear. First, Goethe would have loved videogames. And second, there is some connection between this idea of architecture and music. Games provide a powerful combination of the two, and other elements, too. There is play between the fact that game elements are fixed and rigid, yet non-existent and malleable. Games form a kind of lucid architecture. Real cities are built in real time. But a virtual space can be constructed with buildings springing up at will. Those who build worlds exercise this lucid architecture.
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.
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.