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  • Game Narrative Review: Grim Fandango

    [02.07.13]
    - Patrick Delaney

  • Breakdown

    Grim Fandango's linear narrative is divided into four acts, each covering a year in Manny's journey to find Meche and ultimately reach the Land of Eternal Rest. While searching for the woman he loves, Manny discovers that a criminal empire led by kingpin Hector LeMans is stealing Number Nine tickets from virtuous souls and selling them to the undeserving. Transforming from a lowly travel agent into a globe-trotting freedom fighter, Manny travels, quite literally, to the ends of the earth to find Meche and end LeMan's reign of greed.

    By the end of the game, Manny gets the girl, kills the bad guy, and pretty much saves the day. If that sounds like a standard adventure story, that's because it is. Grim Fandango's narrative cleaves to tradition, but the story is far more than the sum of its parts due to a stellar cast of intriguing and delightful characters. From the good-natured and excitable Glottis to the demure and resilient Meche, every actor has a part to play and is imbued a distinct personality that sets them apart from their neighbors.


    Special attention is paid to developing character arcs. Over the course of the game, Manny evolves from a good-natured corporate suit into a jaded, disillusioned maverick. Though Meche never loses her kind nature, three years in the hostile Land of the Dead force her to grow a tough outer shell and even threaten Manny at gunpoint. When the game ends, you feel like you've spent years getting to know the cast.

    Even characters of necessity are infused with charm. Need a balloon animal to solve a puzzle? You'll have to brave the acidic condescension of the balloon vendor. Want to smuggle yourself into a restaurant basement? Take advantage of the snooty waiter's extreme claustrophobia. Though some characters are more integral to the plot than others, all are interesting and none want for individuality and spark.

    In addition to creating a complex and consistent universe and populating it with intriguing characters, Grim Fandango's narrative pacing also does an excellent job of introducing the player to an especially unfamiliar world. It's important to keep in mind that Grim Fandango's Day of the Dead setting is a far cry from the Anglo Saxon and Asian tropes most gamers are used to. A gloomy spaceship or a stately dojo is familiar territory, but put the player in an art-deco high rise overlooking a fantastical Mexican metropolis, and things can quickly become foreign and disorienting.

    To ease the player into Grim Fandango's rich and complex world, the narrative cunningly parcels the puzzles and conversations so that the player's journey starts small and slowly increases in scope. Manny's first assignment, checking his mail, only requires a walk across his office. As the puzzles ratchet up in intensity and the narrative expands, Manny must leave his office, explore the building, wander around a city block, leave the city, and eventually move to another town. By the time Manny has traveled nearly halfway around the world in his search for Meche, the player feels almost at home in the Land of the Dead.

    Despite remaining linear through the entire game, Grim Fandango's narrative manages to convey a sense of scale and community usually associated with open-world games. By constructing a coherent, fleshed-out world with its own set of rules and customs and filling it with eclectic, three-dimensional characters, Grim Fandango's narrative transports players to a universe both fantastical and familiar at the same time.

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