Saturday, July 15, 2006

From now on, we soar. Like eagles. Yeah. LIKE EAGLES... ON... POGO STICKS.

Back in the day, adventure gaming was more or less synonymous with computer gaming to me. The first games I ever played were text adventures, pulled off an old 5 1/4" floppy with a title like "GREAT ADVENTURES II." These weren't the big-name Infocom adventures, but were of a similar mode. One cast you as a crew member on a submarine immediately prior to a massive explosion; another stranded you on a desert island; another was a James Bond-style adventure set in the frozen tundra. Embarrassingly, I never beat any of them, but I still spent hours playing and falling in love with the vivid words they evoked through their text.

A little later on, I was introduced to the most cutting-edge games of my life, the glorious Sierra adventure games. I started with the original Hero Quest, sort of a hybrid adventure/RPG game, and the first installment in Quest for Glory, the favorite series of my childhood. All of the Sierra games I played were pure gold, though. Space Quest III remains possibly the funniest game I've ever played. King's Quest didn't wow me quite as much, but King's Quest IV was a phenomenal pure adventure game, and KQ III was incredibly satisfying. Later on I played with the earlier Police Quest games (pre-Daryl Gates), which injected a relatively realistic level of grime and tension into the genre. Don't get me wrong, I would play the occasional RPG or action game, but adventure gaming was my first love and I was a loyal customer to Sierra.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, there was another company called Lucas Arts. I had minimal contact with them, confined only to the NES version of Maniac Mansion and occasional shoulder-surfing of Justin playing Monkey Island. Both Sierra and Lucas Arts basically had a core engine that they built different games around, and which evolved over time. One major difference was that it was almost impossible to die in Lucas Arts games, while death was omnipresent in Sierra's games, which proudly bore the motto "Save Early and Save Often." Lucas Arts also entirely sidestepped the typing phase, which I have mixed feelings about. I love the early Sierra games (pre-KQV) which allow you to move the character with the arrow keys and enter commands by typing; it was a nice bridge between my classic text adventures and the new world of graphic gaming. The advantage of the textual interface is that it allows a lot more creativity, more easter eggs and more humor - you're basically sparring with the text parser, which becomes a kind of intermediate narrator in the story you create. The downside of the text interface is that it can become a game of "Guess What The Programmer Was Thinking" or "Find The Exact Right Word" - you can't say "end table" or "table", you need to say "nightstand" for the game to understand what you mean. This led to endless frustration that, in the days before the Web, could mean being permanently stuck on a new $50 game.

Even the earliest Lucas Arts games had a very different interface. Near the bottom of the screen was a list of all the valid verbs you could use - "Talk", "Take", "Use", and so on. You would move your cursor over a verb, then click on the object, and - poof! - instant interaction. It was a very different flavor than the Sierra games, one I didn't care for as much because of my background, but for people first introduced to Lucas Arts games, old Sierra games seemed like pointless exercises in masochism.

At some point Sierra went off the rails. You can point to a lot of moments as where it all started to go wrong: the abandoning of the text interface (KQ5), the adoption of a Myst-inspired "there's only one type of cursor" (KQ7), trying to imitate Hollywood (KQ7 again and Phantasmagoria), Ken and Roberta selling the company to Cendant, Ken and Roberta leaving the company. Regardless, most people seem to agree that the company was still great in the early 90's and almost totally irrelevant as a developer by the end of the century.

At this point I declared the adventure game dead, mourned, and moved on with an increasing focus on RPGs. But my skewed, Sierra-centric version of history didn't fully appreciate that Lucas Arts had continued to thrive after Sierra had begun to decline. Today the company has pretty thoroughly transformed itself into a creator of Star Wars action games, but for a lonely time they carried the banner of the graphical adventure in proud solitude.

I periodically dipped back into their repertoire when I got the chance. Escape from Monkey Island (TM) was one of my first games for the PS2, and while not one of my favorite adventure games it is still of high quality, marrying a delightfully absurdist sensibility to reasonable puzzles.

Tangent: adventure games live or die on the strength of their puzzles. Almost every other game can be played or replayed on a sliding scale of difficulty: your level of talent determines how often you beat your opponent in Quake, how high a score you get in Civilization, how many side quests you complete in an RPG. More than any other genre, though, adventure games have a very binary structure: either you solve the puzzle, or you don't. If you do, you get some more story and gameplay; if not, that's it. You just can't go any further or see any more of the game. Contrast this with, say, a FPS, where even if you can't get past one particular section you can still replay earlier parts of the game, have some fun at it, increase your skills and your stats, and later be able to tackle that section again. In an adventure game, if you can't figure out how to open up the locked door, you're just stuck.

The best adventure games provide wonderful puzzles. In my opinion, the ideal adventure puzzle has the following characteristics:
1. Unique. One nice thing about adventure games is they are the least repetitive type of game; each puzzle should have its own solution.
2. Integrated with the story. I hate games where you play for a while, then suddenly need to open a treasure chest by putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Puzzles should arise organically from the game's plot ("How do I get past the security guard without being recognized?") rather than simply added to make things more difficult.
3. Be logical. The absolute worst kinds of puzzles are the ones where you have no way of knowing in advance that a solution will work. "Oh, so I had to put the toothpaste on the chandelier so a mouse would come and chew it down? Huh." Poor design forces the gamer to try every possible combination of actions and items to find the one magic solution that will work, which inflates the length of the game without providing any more pleasure. By contrast, a logical puzzle will allow the player to think, arrive at the proper solution, and then use it.
4. Have help available. This is difficult to do well, but the ideal puzzle will be solvable on its own, and have extra guidance available if you need it. Perhaps a character in the game will offer suggestions, or carefully examining other items in the room will provide clues for what needs to be done. This sort of help provides a nice solution between just knowing the answer and looking for it online.

Puzzles make or break the game, but each game is distinguished by its tone, setting, and story. Even though Space Quest, King's Quest and Police Quest used the exact same engine, each series felt very different because Sierra was so successful at creating an atmosphere in the game. The games weren't just a series of puzzles; they were puzzles that existed in an alternate world, one you would come to know quite well over the hours you spent in the game.

While Sierra was successful in this, in retrospect, their settings are very derivative and genre-based. King's Quest is a typical generic fantasy setting, Space Quest offers a sci-fi environment with a heavy debt to Hitchhiker's Guide, Police Quest is a standard police procedural cum revenge story, Gabriel Knight is gothic horror. Their creativity comes in the way the designers subvert the genre, such as having a female protagonist in King's Quest IV or the self-referential story of Space Quest. Still, the formula is basically the same: take a setting that the player is already familiar with, then tweak it.

I think this is what impresses me most about Grim Fandango: its utter originality. I cannot think of a single other game with a setting remotely like the one it has, nor a movie or book. There are some pastiches of elements that may be familiar, but the broad impression is totally and delightfully strange. This isn't to say that it's inaccessible; after several hours of gameplay, this bizarre world felt more real to me than the more familiar settings of Daventry.

And the puzzles? Those are rock solid as well. There were exactly two times over the course of the game when I needed to look online for guidance; one of those turned out to be a bug caused by Windows XP with a relatively simple solution. They were still challenging - it wasn't unusual for me to spend over ten minutes trying to figure out a particular encounter - but much of the game was structured in such a way that I could pursue something else if one particular avenue was giving me trouble.

The overall structure of the puzzles surprised me, in a good way. I guess I'm used to each game having its own types of puzzles. Sierra and early Lucas Arts games tend to focus a lot on inventory, getting the right items and figuring out where and how to use them. Myst features mechanical puzzles where you interact with your environment. School Simulator 1000 requires you to accomplish tasks in a particular order to succeed. Anyways, what's different about Grim Fandango is it really switches up the presentation of the puzzles, which in turn provides very different gameplay experiences. In the first major section of the game, you have a handful of locations and a lot of potential inventory items. In the third major section, you have almost no inventory at all; the puzzles there depend more on careful observation and reaction than on figuring out what to use where. This kept things feeling fresh throughout the game, and probably helps ensure each player will have opportunities to excel and be challenged.

I tend to not be a fan of voice acting in adventure games; if you're lucky the leads are decent, but the bulk of characters tend to be annoyingly voiced and/or feature bad accents. Here, I was regularly impressed by the talent they had on display. What helped wow me, though, were the characters themselves. There are about five major characters and several dozen minor ones, each of whom evolves over time, presents a unique attitude and set of goals, and who interact in remarkably dramatic ways. I tend to only remember a few remarkable characters from an adventure game (the hermit in Hero Quest, the wizard in King's Quest III, the witch in King's Quest IV, etc.), but the ones here were so vivid that even the minor ones are still sticking with me over a week later.

Bottom line: it's been a long time since my last adventure game, but I think this is easily one of the best I've ever played. It holds up remarkably well for its age, and should be valued both for its incredible originality and the strength of its gameplay. It may not make a believer out of you if you didn't already enjoy adventure games, but even hostile players may get a kick out of the fascinating world it presents.

One final note on the status of the genre. There are occasional gasps out of the adventure game - I've heard rumors of a new "Sam and Max" game coming - but for the most part these only serve to bury the hopes of a recovery. (See: the new Leisure Suit Larry "game".) There is still good work being done, mainly on two fronts.

The first front is the fan community. A surprisingly large number of devoted enthusiasts are actually writing games to replace those the companies are no longer releasing. Often they are unauthorized sequels to beloved franchises, like Space Quest and King's Quest, that failed to satisfy before they went away. Others are breaking free and starting new worlds from scratch. While these games lack some professional polish, they look at least as good as the classic adventure games did, thanks to the better tools people have today to program with. On the opposite extreme, even in the 21st century, many people are still writing new text adventures (now generally referred to as "Interactive Fiction"). Some of these are incredibly good, and provide an encouraging indication of the literacy of the gamer community.

The second front is the mainstream development community. While the adventure game as a genre is all but gone, elements from the genre have found purchase elsewhere and continue to thrive. Many games now offer a hybrid: Action/Adventure (like Onimusha or Prince of Persia), RPG/Adventure, Stealth/Adventure (Metal Gear), and so on. This tends to translate as a genre game that contains puzzles; in Onimusha, you'll fight a bunch of demons to enter a room, then need to figure out a mechanical puzzle to get back out. I'm still somewhat divided on what to make of these: sometimes it's a good way to deepen the experience and provide a change of pace in gameplay, other times this element just becomes a frustrating chore to get through before you can jump back into the real game. Ultimately I think it goes back to the strength of the puzzles: if they follow my four principles above, they enhance the game; otherwise, they're just a way of artificially extending the length of the game without providing more entertainment.

I want to talk about this game some more. Let's go into some

The game starts several decades after you die. Your character, Manuel "Manny" Calavera, is a travel agent in the Land of the Dead. He reaps souls, then sells them travel packages to cross the Land of the Dead. Good clients are eligible for a ticket on the Number Nine Express, a train which shoots them across in no time; bad clients need to make do with freight shipment in a coffin, or walking. But Manny hasn't had any good clients lately.

Every day of the game is El Dia de Los Muertos, and the visual design of the game borrows liberally from this Mexican influence. I think it's amazing that almost all the characters in the games are skeletons, and at the same time are so incredibly different; you know in an instant whether you are looking at Manny or Domino or Hector or Meche. Men have blocky cylindrical skulls while women have petite globes, and each character's holes in their skulls not only differentiates them, but also convey some of their personality. Domino's markings seem to communicate his utter self-confidence, while Manny's hint at a more complex mind.

Beyond character design, all of the architecture seems influenced by Mayan and Aztec heritage, but carried forward into the modern age. Large skyscrapers carry friezes of classic Aztec tableaus, a cat-racing stadium is shaped like a pyramid, and the color scheme everywhere is a desert mixture of browns, yellows and grays, shot through in the cities by festive splashes of bright primary colors. The neon you see near the end of the game is an anomaly, and correctly sends an impression of corruption.

The world operates with a fully-constructed mythology, about souls being judged for their conduct in life, each on a short or long journey to the far end of the Land of the Dead. A few details are vague (I'm still not clear on how the dead "buy" their travel packages), but the game deserves kudos for laying out the system, and then sharing in your outrage when the system doesn't work right.

Oh, and while I'm thinking about it, I LOVE the "land of the living." I'm a bit upset that we don't get to see more of it; it's so wholly alien from everything else in the game that I would have really enjoyed more than one opportunity to poke around in there.

The characters, like I said above, are excellent. I think that Domino is one of the most interesting adversaries I've ever come up against in a game. He's basically your business rival, which isn't something you see much of at all in any type of video game, but the combination of jealousy and distaste he conjures feel far more familiar to me than most villains' psychoses or violence.

I stand by my statement that no other work of media is similar to this, but if I had to pick one thing that FELT most like this, I would have to go with Casablanca. This is particularly evident in the second year, which contains some deliberate homages, but the arc of the game as a whole fits as well. Both convey the sense of observers in a foreign land, both have complex non-romances at their core, both praise friendship and feature villains who are a core of society rather than an external threat. The north African city of Casablanca looks quite different from the quasi Mexico of Grim Fandango, but neither are really intended to be permanent homes; both are filled with tourists and adventurers, people running away or running towards their desires, caught up with others like themselves. I dig it.

The language is excellent as well. I don't know whether I can describe the dialog as spanglish; it certainly features a mixture of English and Spanish, most of it with a Mexican accent, but the bulk of the words are English and even where they aren't you can pick up the meaning from the context. Again, it just adds to the atmosphere and the uniqueness of the game.


The best and most interesting games have multiple villains; can you imagine Final Fantasy VI if Kefka was the only villain, fully visible from the start? Grim Fandango sort of has one ultimate villain that you confront at the end of the game, in the form of Hector, but it also has a fantastic side-villain (Domino) and some good pseudo-villains (Nick the lawyer, Chief Bogen).

Domino is just fantastic. I really enjoy how you come into the game already having this complex relationship with him, and as indignity piles on indignity he gradually evolves from annoying co-worker to evil overlord. That's the great thing, though: if he, say, tossed YOU in the cell, it would just be a classic villain situation. By making you his employee, the anger and tension boil up even further; it's way more distasteful to think that you work for him than that he stuck you in a dungeon. I love his whole attitude, too... the whole "way to go, champ" dry sarcasm mixed with team-spirit, organizationally focused mindset are worlds apart from the megalomania and insanity that you see in most game villains.

Hector is more traditional in this respect - he is motivated by greed, and is traditionally callous about killing people who displease him - but he does everything with so much style that I don't really mind. I appreciated the unconventional way you kill him, too. Poetic justice is always the best.

The love story worked for me, which was surprising; I generally don't get much out of game romances. Again, I think the fact that it was a non-romance helps... since the game didn't really push it on you, you can get used to the idea before it actually blossoms into anything.

I would have liked to have learned more about Manny... he seems like a good guy, so I'm curious why he was stuck in his position. Still, none of the characters really talk much about their time among the living (with a few exceptions: the florist, and Meche's interview), so it may have seemed out of place. Still. It'll never happen, but it would be fun to play a prequel that covers Manny's experiences, from immediately after death until his appointment as a reaper.

Whoa, have I really gotten this far in the post without talking about Glottis? He's awesome. Lucas Arts has always been great at comic relief, and he had it in spades. Just an incredibly funny guy, and it's neat to see yourself get attached to him over time. Towards the end of the game, I actually started to feel a little guilty at all the ways I abused him.

That's all I can think about for now. Just a really solid game. The quality of adventure games had been declining for a while; it's nice to see there was a game out there that reversed the trend with something original and well-built.


  1. Brother-

    Try checking out AGD and their commercial game:
    . Not only have they remade KQ1&2 and QFG2 (sooooon), but seems like they may have hit that magic formula yet again.

  2. Way cool! Good to see some people still carrying the banner, even if they aren't major studios.