The release of Grim Fandango was a bittersweet experience. While it helped cement LucasArts as king of the point-and-click genre, it would also prove to be the last from the company, with the likes of Sam & Max and Full Throttle 2 getting swiftly cancelled. As Tim Schafer is hard at work on a new high-definition update, we felt it was the perfect time to look back at the creation of the original classic.
Boot up a copy of The Curse of Monkey Island and, after not too much play, Guybrush will happen across the debut appearance of Grim Fandango’s player character, Manny Calavera. Passed out in a chicken shop, his face is expressionless in the way that only a papier-mâché skull can be. Alongside him sits a badge: ‘Ask me about Grim Fandango’.
Manuel “Manny” Calabera has gone on to become one of Tim Schafer’s best-loved creations.
“We were making Grim at the same time that another team was working on The Curse Of Monkey Island,” Tim Schafer, the game’s now widely recognised creator, recalls. “One of the guys wanted to put the Manny in because it’s not just a reference to Grim, but also to the first Monkey Island game where we had put an ad for Loom in the game.”
It turns out that the Loom ad found in the original Monkey Island was the doing of Schafer himself. However, as a connection between LucasArts’ back catalogue and the creative processes that went into Grim, this cheeky slice of advertising is small fry. For one, Shafer is fortunate that his previous title, Full Throttle, made enough money for him to be able to afford a new car.
“Full Throttle sold a lot more than a lot of our graphic adventures had sold at that point. It was the first big hit graphic adventure that sold a million units, which was a lot for a PC graphic adventure back in 1995.” This refresher catches us off-guard, undermining Shafer’s often-romanticised underdog status. In fact, he puts Grim Fandango’s very existence down to “political clout” granted him by Full Throttle’s success. “I’ve definitely made less money than [Epic Games’] Cliffy B. But if I’d really been as bad as they say, I don’t think I would still be allowed to make games; I think I would be gone,” he reminds us. Viewed from afar, the connection between Full Throttle’s biker gang story and the speed demon character of Glottis in Grim Fandango isn’t particularly difficult to trace. It was the one-two punch of real-world and game-world crossover, however, that really struck a chance creative spark.
The early design documents, showing off Grim Fandango’s distinctive look.
“At the time we were making Grim Fandango, I was restoring my old car, which had burned down during Full Throttle. I was at LucasArts and we all went to lunch and I started my car and everyone smelled gas… and it just burst into flames.” We can just about see the smile of wry amusement buried in the man’s beard.
“I couldn’t get anyone to fix my car,” he continues, “and so this old friend of mine, Paul – who I hadn’t seen since I was in high school – called me up randomly and said: ‘Hey, I saw your name on this game. Are you still making games? And what happened to your cool car?’”
Tim related his story of destructive woe to his mate, and the cogs that would grind out Glottis’s dialogue – indeed, much of his overall personality – were set to motion. “He decided to help me fix it up,” Shafer continues. “So I spent my summer driving up to his house and tearing this car apart. I would be like, ‘So, what’s the next step on the car?’ and he would just say stuff like, ‘Well, we should just get some beer and sit there and stare at the car and talk about how cool it’s gonna be.’ He would say things that I’d write down and put into the game directly as Glottis’s speech. He had this real innocent love of cars.” Shafer breaks out into a spiel of his best Glottis-speak, ending on a meaty ‘WHAH WHAH!’ “I’d put it, line for line, in the game,” he concludes.
The characters of Grim Fandango are distinctive and memorable. You’ll never forget meeting them.
The other side of Glottis’s inspiration is recognisable on sight: the illustrative work of ‘Big Daddy’ Ed Roth. Much of it depicting what Schafer regularly refers to as “a pure love of driving”, Roth’s artistic work was clearly as substantial a dish as film noir on Schafer’s plate of inspirational material.
Even today, just speaking of these images gets the man excited: “The back wheels are about ten times as big as the front wheels and there is smoke coming off every tyre and there are flames shooting out of the blower and the demon’s tongue is hanging out and the tongue has warts on it and it’s just like… it’s just like this car-driving monster! I just looked at his face and these… these monsters just always have this joy of driving.” The necessity of breathing interrupts his hyperactive speech. “Whatever you decide is cool when you’re eight years old just sticks with you forever.”
As memorable as he remains, Glottis is but a face amid Grim’s considerable cast, and influences on the game itself were equally widespread. “I guess I’ve always been the kind of person who takes in everything and then tries to chew it up and regurgitate it as a different form,” Tim says. “If you do it right, it’s not like you’re stealing stuff. You’re figuring out why that thing works, like, ‘why did I love Casablanca?’”
Clearly, Casablanca was also on Schafer’s list of inspirations. In fact, over the course of the game’s planning and development, he somehow found time to take in an inordinate volume of film noir. “It was definitely a specific point in my life where I was into specific things. I think they show a lot in the game,” he recalls. “I was really obsessed with film noir; I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler; there happened to be a film festival at the Lark Theater in Marin showing a whole bunch of film noir movies. I went every single night and saw every single one.”
A HD update is heading to Sony consoles. A PC version is bound to follow.
The result of all this film consumption was a keen insight into what people commonly perceived film noir as, and what it actually could be. “People think that film noir has to be about a private dick – a private eye – like a Sam Spade,” Schafer rolls his eyes. “But Double Indemnity, for example, is about an insurance salesmen who meets the wrong woman. So, I was like: ‘Let’s do that!’”
The insurance salesman in question would eventually grow into Manny Calavera. Drawing heavy inspiration from other films such as, notably, Chinatown and its plot of shady real estate business, the corruption eventually evolved into dealing with express tickets to the true afterlife – ‘Who actually wants a plot of land in the Land of the Dead?’ – and thus, in place of working in insurance, Manny was cast as a travel agent, doomed, as it were, by a considerable amount of spoon-fed bad luck.
“He just can’t catch a break,” Tim summarises. Caught in the middle of a mega-conspiracy, players get the pleasure of guiding Manny through one string of dilemmas after another until, with a lot of hard work behind him, he eventually does get a break.
It is here, in the guiding, that Grim Fandango really begins to noticeably stand out from the adventure games that had come before it. Featuring not only a pre-rendered 3D world, but also forcing mouse-hugging adventure game enthusiasts to interact with it through more tactile keyboard controls, Grim did everything it possibly could to anger the purists at a surface level. It was becoming obvious that there was much more to Grim Fandango than what first met the eye…