Tim Schafer on the return of video game classic 'Grim Fandango'
Grim Fandango is the stuff of video game legend. One of the last great titles from the golden age of adventure games—a genre that emphasized storytelling and puzzle solving over action—Grim was hailed as one of the category’s very best upon its 1998 release.
Unfortunately, a series of unfortunate events soon coincided to force the game out of print. Adventure games became a niche genre, so Grim was never reprinted in the US, and all sequel plans were nixed. Two years later, Grim‘s director, Tim Schafer, would leave LucasArts, the studio where he made Grim Fandango and other classic adventure games like Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, to form his own shop, Double Fine Productions. The rights to Grim, of course, stayed with LucasArts—and then seemed lost forever when Disney bought all things Lucas and shuttered the storied developer for good.
Then, a surprise announcement was made during Sony’s E3 press conference last summer: Tim Schafer and Double Fine were bringing back Grim Fandango.
In advance of Tuesday’s long-awaited remastered re-release, Schafer sat down with EW to talk about revisiting Grim Fandango, storytelling in video games, and what still makes Grim special after all this time.
EW: A long time ago you made a game called Grim Fandango…
Tim Schafer: Oh yes. I’ve been hearing a lot about that lately.
You haven’t had access to this game for a very long time. How does it feel now that this is finally happening?
It’s so exciting. It’s like a second chance at life for the game, because it never had a digital release. It was only released on disc. Then it went away, and got re-released a couple of times in the UK and Europe, and that was it. You had to find it on eBay or torrent it to play it.
Luckily, the fans kinda kept it running by doing things like residualvm.org, but it was still very hard to acquire legally for people who wanted to play it. Plus there were bugs in it; it was a victim of bit [of] rot over the years … it’s great to make little fixes like that. But still, we really wanted to keep the game true to its original form. Like, if you’re making a Blu-ray of Casablanca, you’d want it to look amazing and sound amazing, but you wouldn’t want to change it. That’s the way we’re approaching Grim.
Grim still feels surprisingly new, with its mashup of film noir and Mexican folklore. Because you can do anything in video games—
But people don’t. People mostly do the same things over and over again.
At Lucas[Arts] we were kind of raised in this tradition of alternate fantasies. We never wanted to do high fantasy, because it had been done and pretty much covered by Tolkien. So why do all games have to go there?
So, you know, we like things like pirates, bikers, and Chuck Jones cartoons. We like everything. And the world is so broad, and there’s so many great creative works out there to be inspired by other than Tolkien. Not to take anything away from Tolkien, but we wanted to try other things. Tolkien himself was inspired by legends and folklore and Norse mythology, things like that. So we wanted to go to those resources. We went to mythology. Things like Brutal Legend were even inspired by norse mythology. In the case of Grim Fandango, the Day of the Dead for Mexican folklore.
Is it important to you and your team to constantly broaden your creative horizons?
Yeah, there’s just so many great amazing movies and books and music. You’re always kind of going into that for inspiration. Some people might think, “Oh, you mean you’re just stealing ideas from all these things?” And I mean, yes, but no. Whenever you experience a great work of art, you can’t help but ask yourself, “Well, why does that work on me? Why does it make me feel that way?” That technique, like, “Oh, that was really amazing, and I want to have a character like that.” By the time you’re done incorporating it into your world, it doesn’t feel like you lifted it from someone else’s.
What do you want people to feel after playing Grim Fandango, then?
I just like the stories of an everyman, like a regular person, getting sucked into a dark and mysterious world by making one mistake. Like Manny [Calavera, the game’s protagonist]: He stole a lead from Domino [Hurley, an antagonist], and that took him down this path that is all new for him. I like those kind of stories. They make you wonder about what you would do in these situations. Would you make these same choices?
As far as the Day of the Dead—I just love the themes that whole holiday explores, which is our relationship to death. Is the Grim Reaper really this scary monster thing that comes for us, like it is in some cultures? Or is he just this kind of friendly equalizer? Rich, poor—death comes for us all. When people die, how do you handle that? Do you collapse in tears whenever you hear their name, or do you smile and think fondly on them?
And that’s what the little shrines you make on the Day of the Dead do. You collect items that the person would like and put them out. That’s just such a beautiful ritual, to every year remember the dead loved ones in your life—and think about not just them, but what they liked, what kind of food they liked, what kind of music they liked—and gather it all together. You say you’re inviting the dead to come back to your house, but even if that’s just a symbol of inviting them into your memories again, I think that’s just a beautiful thing. I think the themes of death and our relationship with it are there in Grim Fandango.
When did you start delving into the Day of the Dead folklore?
I took a great folklore class at UC Berkeley when I was there in the ’80s—Anthropology 150, Forms of Folklore. We studied all kinds of folklore: jump rope rhymes, and myths, and legends, and recipes. Anything that was passed down through the oral tradition.
One of the things we studied was Day of the Dead. That’s where I heard about the ceremony, where people take over the cemetery and light candles everywhere and think about their dead loved ones. I always liked that holiday, and started collecting books with the images of those little paper mache skeletons dressed up as doctors, fireman and dentists, and thought, “Wow, you could have a whole world of these! I want to go to this little city where everyone’s a skeleton.” And there comes the game.
Does it feel like the game is coming out for the first time all over again?
Just when I tweeted out the message that Grim was available for preorder, I felt so strange. Like, “Oh my God, we’re selling this game!” I wasn’t very involved in the selling of it the first time, and this is the first time I’m financially involved in it. It’s great, because we’re making it in the context of the modern world—socially connected and people talking about it and being able to share it on something like Twitter is a funny way to revisit the old game. Hopefully, people who were too young to play it when it first came out can experience the launch of it.
Was there anything you were self-conscious about when Grim released that you’re also nervous about people discovering now, for the first time?
People can get stuck in the game. That’s always been kind of a limiting thing for adventure games. I think adventure gamers love it. Like, “Oh, I’m stuck. This is a hard puzzle. Let me bang my head against this wall until it stops.” Because that feeling when you finally break through is amazing.
But a lot of people aren’t used to that. Games are so easy these days, it seems like. There’s definitely a lot of hard games, don’t get me wrong—but [gamers are] not used to being stuck. They’re not used to, like, “Wait a second, I don’t know what to do now.” A lot of times in adventure games, you have to just poke around until you figure out what the deal is. You don’t know what’s up, and you have to go explore until you find out what’s up. Usually by talking to every character all the way through, by using objects on people, you can get hints and you figure out what to do. But people now are just used to a tutorial box coming up telling them what to do, or a flashing red X on the map telling you where to go to. Stuff like that.
I expect to get some reactions from that. But also, I’m hoping that the modern Internet will provide a way where people can share that information and get through it together.
You’re not worried about people just cheating through puzzles?
Well, I am, but I think it’s great that that’s there as a fail-safe. Because if you buy a game, and you just can’t get through it, you’re mad. But people know if they really got stuck, they could look it up. The trick is, once you look up one hint, you tend to look up all the rest of the hints. You just need people to look up one hint and then no more.
Is that stuck feeling what you want people to feel in your games more?
I don’t know. It’s definitely something that adventure gamers like. It’s not something that everybody likes. I think part of the secret is making that stuck-ed-ness entertaining—they don’t know what to do, but they’re having a blast trying to figure it out. That’s the sweet spot, to make people delighted by their own confusion.
Grim Fandango Remastered is available Tuesday, January 27 for Playstation 4/Vita and PC/Mac/Linux.