I think about the flowers in Grim Fandango a lot. Sixteen years after its initial release, Grim Fandango is still an unusual video game, one that you’d never see a major studio attempt. The flowers are a big part of that. Grim Fandango makes you look at flowers differently.
Grim Fandango is a game that mashes up the classic film noir aesthetic with a world inspired by Mexican folklore about the afterlife. Its protagonist, Manny Calavera, is a travel agent in the Land of the Dead, greeting souls as they arrive from the Land of the Living (in his friendly Grim Reaper attire), and tries to match them up with the best afterlife travel package he can. But like most film noir protagonists, he makes one bad decision that leads him to cross paths with a woman he never should’ve met, and the ensuing four-year journey is one of the most celebrated adventure games ever made, one that seemed like it would be left to fade into obscurity—until it was miraculously rereleased two weeks ago as Grim Fandango Remastered.
It is absolutely worth playing. It’s also infuriating.
In the years between its release and the present, Grim Fandango‘s legend grew until it somehow became the Last Great Adventure Game. (For the uninitiated: Adventure games are a slower sort of game that emphasized storytelling and difficult puzzles over action. They were like interactive storybooks, but with better jokes). While that seems a bit hyperbolic, there’s a lot of truth to it—LucasArts, the game studio largely responsible for making the 90s the Golden Age of Adventure Games, would start to shift away from the genre after Grim Fandango failed to meet expectations. The rest of the industry was eager to leave them behind, too, as Halo arrived and first-person shooters began their mainstream conquest.
Playing Grim Fandango now feels strangely dissonant. Just about everything that everyone loved about the game is there, just as good as it was in 1998. The music! The writing! The voice actors! It’s all wonderful. But man, it is so hard to play.
Even in the remastered version, which includes a variety of ways to control your movement, all of them feel really clumsy, and in turn make it hard to figure out where you need to go and where you can go. In addition to that, the game’s interface is almost nonexistent—this isn’t’ inherently bad, but it makes for a clumsy inventory system and makes it easy to miss items that you absolutely need to pick up. You have to come to Grim Fandango with a little bit of patience set aside for dealing with the controls.
You need a lot of patience for its puzzles.
Puzzles are the point of adventure games, and the stranger their solutions are, the more satisfying the game usually is. But while adventure games have technically made a comeback in recent years thanks to Telltale Games’s adaptation of The Walking Dead, the byzantine puzzles of the adventure gaming’s Golden Age is still on the fringes of the genre’s revival, in small indie games like Machinarium.
Grim Fandango‘s puzzles are hard as hell. They are frustrating. They are wonderful. They should be solved without looking up the answers on the Internet (there is one exception: the signpost puzzle from the end of Year 1. Screw that puzzle. Look that one up.) The puzzles are a stark reminder of video games as they don’t really exist anymore: experiences to be taken slowly and pondered thoroughly. Challenges that seem obtuse until you set the game aside for an hour, a day, a week, until you come back and everything makes perfect sense.
I never did tell you about the flowers.
In the commentary track of Grim Fandango Remastered, director/lead writer Tim Schafer talks about one particular problem that doing a story set in the afterlife presents you with: How do you threaten the lives of characters that are already dead? The answer he eventually came up with was a simple stroke of genius: You pump them full of life. Guns in Grim Fandango don’t fire bullets, they fire seeds, which quickly sprout into flowers, stifling the “life” of their victim, turning them to soulless blossoms. In the world of Grim Fandango, a bouquet of flowers is horrifying.
Ultimately, that’s why people love Grim Fandango, why it remains worth your time even as it remains frustrating and difficult—it shows you something you’ve seen your entire life, and makes you look at it in an entirely different way, a way that becomes altogether impossible to forget.