Fans tend to be forgiving when it comes to old adventure games, talking about favorites like Grim Fandango the same way they’ll talk about a beloved, yet aging and incontinent pet. Please excuse Rover if he pisses all over the floor. He was a great dog ten years ago and we just can’t imagine life without him.
In other words, please excuse the adventure game logic of Grim Fandango. It’s not supposed to make sense and we didn’t know any better in the 90s. And in fairness, I understand the appeal. It’s not often that I play a game and find myself running around wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do with this turkey baster full of dirty hookah water. Aesthetically speaking, Grim Fandango is pretty great.
Yet here’s the thing. I actually knew exactly what I was supposed to do with that turkey baster, but I still had to look up an FAQ after fifteen minutes of failure only to learn that I wasn’t implementing the solution properly. Old adventure games don’t have a problem with logic (though there are some truly bizarre flights of fancy). They do, however, have a problem with execution.
That’s the takeaway after playing Grim Fandango Remastered. I enjoyed the game, and it’s easy to see why it’s proven to be so enduring. The characters and sense of place are extraordinary (Tony Plana’s Manny may be one of the best voice performances in the history of video games), with a story that remains suspenseful right up until the end. It reminds you that Tim Schafer’s reputation is well deserved.
But the gameplay is absolutely maddening, mostly because it actively discourages a rational approach to puzzle solving. In other games, solving a difficult puzzle requires that you engage with it until the pieces click into place. You keep trying new ideas until you succeed, throwing away the ones that don’t work to try the ones that do. If not the hookah water, maybe that liquid nitrogen will do the trick.
The same is not true in Grim Fandango. In fact, the logical approach might make things worse. You can be in exactly the right place with exactly the right item at the proper moment in a complex sequence of events and somehow fail to advance the story because you were standing two pixels to the left of the spot you were supposed to be squirting the water.
That’s the trouble. Like other adventure games, Grim Fandango is essentially a series of buttons that must be pressed in the proper order, but the visual overlay doesn’t quite line up with the mechanical infrastructure. The things that you can interact with are visually indistinguishable from the things you can’t (that’s especially true for puzzles involving the scythe), which means the logjam isn’t the puzzle itself as much as it is the code you never get to see. You have to distinguish the items that are buttons that open doors from the dead tiles just pretending.
It results in a lot of wasted time spent pursuing the wrong idea after abandoning the right one, which is the opposite of how it’s typically supposed to work. The normal process of elimination takes you farther away from the solution the more time you spend with the puzzle because you never know the precise nature of the holdup.
I suspect that’s what people are really complaining about when discussing the logic in adventure games like Grim Fandango. The solutions themselves are indeed quirky, but the whimsical humor is one of the reasons that people remember those games so fondly. It’s charming to make your brain use odd items in unexpected ways.
But there’s no way to correct course when you don’t know what you’ve overlooked, and the game refuses to tell you what’s wrong as you stumble around the surface world trying to guess at the skeleton beneath. Playing Grim Fandango is like searching for a hairline fracture on a comatose patient without the benefit of an X-Ray. You can get close, but you’ll never be able to see the break beneath the skin.
Grim Fandango is excellent, but I’m glad I played it with the help of an FAQ in 2015 instead of on my own in 1998. I don’t feel guilty about using a strategy guide for information that the game can’t be bothered to communicate. Grim Fandango deserves a reappraisal, but it’s worth remembering that narrative games have a better chance of success when players are able to make it to the conclusion.