Words About Video Games

Grim Fandango is Adventure Gaming at Its Best (And Worst)

I played Grim Fandango (Remastered) this week for the first time. It's kind of a textbook example of everything that's amazing and terrible about adventure games all wrapped up in one memorable experience.

Playing it, it's easy to remember why the adventure game genre was once one of gaming's most popular. You simply wouldn't have found a story that so deftly blends humor and high stakes drama in any other sort of game for most of gaming's history. Manny Calavera's journey from down-on-his-luck salesman in the land of the dead to resistance fighter, casino owner, ship's captain, and most importantly, hero is worth the price of admission and then some.

It's also easy to see why adventure games faded into obscurity. Even in the remastered edition, with the benefit of controller support, the transition to 3D is an awkward one. The puzzles that work best are those that would have worked just as well in 2D, while the ones that require lining up objects in 3D space are invariably fiddly and tedious.

The puzzles are at once the best and the worst adventure gaming has to offer. Delightful when you can decode the game's logic and fit together the tools it has given you; irritating when you find yourself with a metaphorical set of pegs of different shapes and sizes and no holes to put them in.

Like so many classic adventures, you often find yourself in possession of a solution to a problem before you've discovered the problem. This works well enough when picking up the solution is as simple as picking up a glowing piece of coral and realizing not long after that you can turn that piece of coral into a grappling hook. It falls apart when both the problem and the solution are obscure, causing the player to lose the thread of what she's doing entirely.

For example, there's late game puzzle in which you're expected to move an ashtray at just the right moment so that a character taps hot ash onto her stockings and throws them in the trash--only to later find out you can trade those stockings for a gun. There are three problems with this particular puzzle: 1. you probably don't have any idea you need stockings; 2. it requires a specific timing, and the feedback isn't clear when you get it wrong, so you would well miss that you're meant to do anything with the ashtray; 3. you might not even realize, given the lack of graphical clarity, that the character in question is wearing stockings.

If it were only Problem 1, and the stockings were in an obvious place, you might pick them up any way, and it would be fine. If it were only Problem 2, again, it wouldn't matter--you'd know you needed stockings and that she's wearing them, so you might guess that you need to do something with the ashtray and you just haven't succeeded yet. If it were only problem 3, again, it would be an improved puzzle. You might guess she was wearing stockings, or at very least acquire the stockings easily, thanks to improved feedback.

There's nothing so egregious here as the famous cat-hair mustache from Gabriel Knight 3, but these sorts of puzzles are of a species--puzzles where you must go out of your way to build an elaborate solution to a problem you're not yet sure you have. It throws the player out of the experience of teasing out the thread of logic and puzzle-solving into the dreaded pixel-hunting and inventory-combining territory. The moment your player stops trying to think through your puzzle and starts trying to blindly click on every hotspot to find what they've missed, your adventure game puzzle design has failed.

But there's something else I was reminded of in Grim Fandango. I was reminded how these weird puzzles, when they are well signposted, really can work, and how dull a lot of the more recent adventures have become by comparison--striving so hard to keep the player on the thread of their logic that they lose the ability to surprise and delight.

I think if you enjoyed Grim Fandango when it came out, you will find it still holds up. And if you enjoy the adventure genre enough to forgive its foibles, it's a must-play. If you find adventure games tedious and frustrating, well, that's a shame. Because the story and writing here is top-notch, the genre references pitch-perfect, and the setting wondrously imagined.