Walk, Don’t Run

Critically acclaimed, award winning … commercial failure. It is the game you meant to play but didn’t until it became hard to find and fell off the shelves, another single wailing the bargain bin blues: Grim Fandango. The crime noir, jazzy, art deco graphic adventure came from a hazy era when LucasArts’ catalogue was more substantial than a long list of Star Wars titles, and the ever familiar shooters of today were only beginning to get really popular. The adventure game genre was in its death throes, and Grim Fandango was its last horseman.

Achieving near universal praise in reviews, the game scooped at least nine awards within the year, including Computer Adventure Game of the Year (1999, Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences) and Adventure Game of the Year (1998) from both IGN and GameSpot. Grim Fandango was destined for a ticket on the Number Nine.

“The Number Nine?”
“That’s our top-of-the-line express train. It shoots straight to the Ninth Underworld, the land of eternal rest, in four minutes instead of four years. But very few people qualify – let’s take a look at your records.”

However, the sales records did not match the praise; numbers have varied widely over the years, ranging from nearly 100,000 to just shy of 500,000. Still, early on the consensus was the game was “sort of a flop.”

As many gamers eventually left their hearts in Rubacava and moved on, a dedicated fan community picked up their walking sticks and decided to wander around instead of heading straight for the Underworld, establishing homes for gamers who still gather to discuss a game rapidly reaching its 10th anniversary of release.

“You can’t go home, Celso; you’re dead. But you’re not alone.” – Manny Calavera
One virtual waypoint for the community is the widely popular Grim Fandango Network (GFN). Since 1998, the site has served as community central, site host, curator and news portal for almost everything Grim Fandango related. Founded approximately four years ago, the Department of Death (DoD) takes a slightly different approach by focusing on fan art, fiction and other original content. Ryan Williams (current webmaster, GFN), David Eggers (former GFN webmaster), James Isaac (founder, DoD) and Matthew Smith (from GFN hosted site Nightlight Productions) took time out to chat with The Escapist about the game whose community refuses to let it die.

“[Grim Fandango] was pretty much a case of love at first sight,” says Williams, who cites Glottis among Grim Fandango‘s “incredibly memorable and loveable characters” as a favorite. “There’s something very compelling about a giant, orange demon that has a gentle heart and unwavering loyalty. He’s also very funny, providing a lot of the game’s comic relief.”

Salvador Limones fan Eggers speculated a bit on the longevity of the community and its fansites. “The major LucasArts adventure-related sites seem to be very long-lived generally, and I think it’s a testament to the kind of games that company put out in the 1990s. It’s definitely easier to keep a site going when you know it is being visited and read, and people seem to just keep showing up.”

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Some fans were drawn to these corners of the internet by chance but brought works of their own that complimented the setting nicely. Smith, fan of Manny Calavera and creator of the podcast “Tierra de los Muertos,” explains. “My experience with the Grim Fandango Network came purely at the height of FandangoMania. … I’d been working in radio for a year at that point, writing and producing radio plays. I’d come up with a 10-part radio series called ‘Tierra de los Muertos’ (‘Land of the Dead’) and it was just entering the final production stages. The Grim Fandango Network was looking for some hosted sites to have.” The rest was history.

Boasting an extensive library of frequently updated fiction and art, the DoD boasts a substantial list of media – screen captures, concept art, translations and even downloads – to help ensure that the game can run on even the most modern systems. “Contributors to the site have also proved an amazing help collecting all the Grim Fandango content we can,” says Isaac. “You’ll have trouble finding anything Grim Fandango related not included somewhere on our site. There aren’t many games which still have enthusiasts producing fan content a decade after its release. The game also still has impressive recognition within the gaming community, with many current gamers having played or at least heard of it.” Grim Fandango consistently comes up in discussions of cult classics and ranks highly on perennial, yet firmly nostalgic lists of “sleeper games” and “underrated classics.”

Even when they can all agree on the widespread love of the game, there is a bit of disagreement between site operators on why the game performed so poorly in the marketplace.

Isaac and Smith speculate the reason for the lack of sales came down to marketing. “Grim Fandango was a difficult game to market,” says Isaac, “especially when up against big titles such as Unreal. The official trailer really couldn’t capture the unique feel of the game. To be honest, if the trailer was the first I saw of the game I probably wouldn’t have been compelled to go out and buy the game.”

Eggers takes the theory one step further. “It’s not easy to sum the Grim Fandango up in three words; with Full Throttle or Monkey Island for instance, you can just say, ‘It’s about bikers!’ or ‘It’s about pirates!’ The best I could do when pitching Grim to my friends was to say, ‘It’s, like, a murder mystery, except where everyone starts out dead.’ If that got their attention, I could delve into the Mexican folkloric elements and film noir sensibilities until their eyes started to glaze over. I’m not sure I have an answer apart from Grim just being a complex game.”

Williams disagrees. “I think it was largely a reflection of the times, where the adventure games that lined up a lot of computer owners’ shelves were starting to be replaced with shooters and strategy games. Although the game’s marketing is frequently used as an explanation, I’d personally disagree with this. The game definitely received a lot of love from LucasArts with regards to traditional advertisement, and the actual campaign itself was pretty intriguing.”

Still, like Glottis, the community’s loyalty is unshakeable. Over the years they have had to endure the periodic false rumors of a sequel, and most recently reports of a possible movie in the works.

“The idea of a Grim Fandango sequel’s definitely controversial in the fan community. Some people really want to see one, and others see the game as being a totally complete story with all loose ends tied up neatly,” says Eggers.

Even with a general reluctance in the community toward sequels, all fans have ideas.

“If I were given the resources to make a sequel to Grim Fandango, I’d ask them if they’d let me produce a re-master instead. I’d love to see the original with high-definition versions of the artwork, updated character models, high-definition audio, etc. Grim Fandango is a timeless classic, and I’d love to see it brought up to date in the future,” says Williams.

According to Isaac, “a lot of people talk about carrying on Manny’s journey from when it left off at the end of the game, but as far as I’m concerned his story has been finished and should be left as it is. What I’d like to see is the journey of a new character through the Land of the Dead. The story behind the game is incredibly original, and leaves much more to see and so many more stories to be told.”

When asked about future plans, Isaac says, “We do have a lot more features we’re planning on. Something to definitely keep an eye on is the Grim Fandango-based modification for Half-Life 2 which has its own section on the site. In a way, it’s our attempt at a sequel to the game.”

“The Grim Fandango Network’s reinvention as a museum and tribute to the game is a very big project. There are features and facilities I’d love to offer the community right now such as an incredible vault of fan work that I’ve painstakingly archived (we’re going back years and years here),” says Williams.

Grim Fandango lives on, like the wandering souls from the game, in the community that now supports it. Those who played the game left Rubacava but never quite shook the feeling it was a place worth holding onto. And now they’re taking steps to make sure it never fades from anyone’s mind. The community behind Grim Fandango is determined to walk, not run, to catch up with the long ride to the Underworld.

Nova Barlow is the Research Manager for The Escapist.

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