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  • Game Narrative Review: Grim Fandango

    [02.07.13]
    - Patrick Delaney

  • Strongest Element

    The strongest element of Grim Fandango's narrative is the way Manny's expository dialogue creates an unspoken companionship between him and the player.

    Unlike previous adventure game protagonists who could often employ all five senses via menu commands, Manny's means of interacting with his environment are limited to observation, conversation, picking up items, and using items. That means if Manny's not talking to someone, the vast majority of his lines are reflections on the outside world. For example, upon glancing at his office door, Manny comments "wasn't too long ago the name on that door was "supply closet"".

    In other games this could easily become boring and vapid: listening to the main character go on about his surroundings for ten hours sounds like a recipe for disaster. In Grim Fandango's case, however, it works beautifully. It works because the narrative understands that Manny's exposition not only informs the player, but also subtly builds a conversational relationship between player and protagonist.

    When the player tells Manny to look at something, be it an important item or an interesting piece of scenery, the unspoken question in the player's mind falls along the lines of "What is this, what does it do, or what does it mean?" Early in the game, Manny passes by a festival going on outside his office. If curious, the player can walk near the parade and press the action key, to which Manny replies "It's the festival of the Day of the Dead. Really more of a living person's holiday, but we play along." Though Manny's response is directed to no one in particular, what he's actually doing is addressing the player's question and opening a conversation.

    This rapport, with the player asking questions and Manny indirectly replying, creates a subtle but incredibly important companionship between Manny and the player. Unlike an FPS, the player is never tricked into believing they are actually Manny Calavera, yet Manny is not an isolated and removed protagonist -- like Lara Croft or Assassin's Creed's Altair -- through which the player lives vicariously. Rather, Manny's dialogue turns him into the player's friend, a relationship which is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate outside of video games.

    Unsuccessful Element

    Despite masterminding the theft of the Number Nine tickets and eventually becoming the game's final antagonist, Hector LeMans is never fully realized as a villain. Sure, he does all the things a bad guy should, including murder, theft, and running an empire of crime, but Hector ultimately feels shallow and forced. Introduced early in the story and then dropped until the final chapter, he ultimately does little to earn the player's hatred. For all his moustache twirling, Hector never actually reaches out and influences the player's world, making his character the weakest of Grim Fandango's cast.


    Highlight

    After spending three years and two thirds of the game searching for Meche, Manny finds her on a mining colony at the edge of the world. Unlike a typical Hollywood reunion, Meche's appearance is abrupt and unsentimental. The afterlife has been hard on Meche, and her sweet, charming nature has been bricked over by a hostile shell. For the most part, the details of how she arrived on the island and what she's been doing for the last three years are left a mystery.

    Normally, having an important character disappear for half the plot and reappear a very different person would be narrative suicide. But Meche's hiatus is a deliberate plot device which brilliantly serves two purposes. First, it mirrors real life. Hasn't everyone lost contact with an acquaintance, only to discover they've drastically changed during their time away? Second, by leaving much of Meche's story unknown, the plot provides a perfect set-up for a sequel without diluting the ending.

    By the time the credits roll, all the characters' stories have been resolved. Purposely omitting a large chunk of the plot allows a writer to plan for a sequel without resorting to a cliché cliffhanger ending.

    Critical Reception

    Grim Fandango drew considerable praise from critics, particularly for its rich story and memorable cast of characters. Reviewers felt connected to the narrative, sympathized with the protagonists, and found it easy to lose themselves in the immersive and nuanced Land of the Dead. According to IGN's Trent C. Ward, "[Grim Fandango's] world is a rich one, complete with its own laws, its own personality types, and landscapes."

    Reviewers also complimented Grim Fandango's ability to balance a dark mystery with a healthy dose of humor. As GameSpot's Ron Dulin said, "[Grim Fandango] derives its humor from its situations and characters... without making fun of itself, helping to create a believable world."

    Lessons

    • Expository adventure game dialogue (ex. "this is a golden key") is more than a boring necessity: it's a chance to form an emotional bond with the player by treating the dialogue as a conversation between the player and the game's protagonist.
    • Video game protagonists don't have to choose between being nondescript vessels for the player (think Gordon Freeman), or strangers through which the player lives vicariously (Lara Croft springs to mind). It's possible for a protagonist to be the player's companion, creating a narrative/audience relationship that is almost impossible to duplicate outside of video games.
    • Villains have to earn our hatred. Simply announcing that the antagonist is a horrible person is not the same thing as creating a memorable enemy who truly impacts and alters the protagonist's story.

    Summation

    Beautiful graphics and clever puzzles make for fun gameplay, but by themselves are often transient and forgettable. Grim Fandango rises above mere eye-candy because it treats its world like a real place filled with real people. It takes its characters seriously, tells a story that connects to human emotions, and focuses on forging a bond between Manny and the player. By constructing a deep and layered narrative that fills a convincing setting with hilarious, articulate characters, Grim Fandango achieves the nigh-impossible task of creating a world that is utterly unique yet entirely believable.

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