8 March 2011

Games that made Me want to be a Better Person: Grim Fandango - by Mathew Stone

      Posted 03/04/11 08:20:00 pm  

My heart belongs to Grim Fandango, and no other. I’ve played and loved a huge number of games over the years, but this gentle giant stands head and shoulders above the rest. No matter how many jrpgs about a spiky haired androgynous teenager get released every year, how many times Call of Duty gets made, how many conversations I hear on the train about how Halo is The Best™, how many uninspired Tolkien knock offs sell a million copies, how many WoW killers come out, how often I meet people who sincerely think Gears of War is a good game, I can still say that there does exist something that makes it all worth it to me.

Yes, as long as I have Grim Fandango, I can sit here secure in the knowledge that Roger Ebert has absolutely no idea at all. It’s not just a game. It’s the game. It’s my game. The one that changed everything. The one that made me sit back and think that, yes, this is how games are supposed to be. This is what I want. This is special.

It isn’t perfect. Far from it. Many consider it the last nail in the coffin of adventure gaming as a genre. I would have difficulty arguing against that. The inventory system was woeful. The controls were clunky, uncomfortable, and onerous. A lot of the puzzles were ridiculously obtuse. There were some vehicle sections which were just pathetically handled.

I couldn’t care less. I love this game. I love it to bits. It affected me like nothing else did. Its charm is inescapable. If you made me pick one game out of all of them, then this is it. It is the most important game in the world to me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

People like noir characters. You can file that away with the other truths in your archives. Dragons steal princesses, your mother is always going to call you stupid names, smoothies are good, and people like noir.

It isn’t because of the lingo. It isn’t because of the coats. Nor is it because of the hats, the cigarettes, the detective work, the wise cracks, or any of the rest. It’s because of the characters. The characters in noir works nearly always have interesting juxtapositions in their personality. There’s almost always a contrast between strength and vulnerability, something I touched on briefly before with Beyond Good and Evil. Likewise, there’s usually a contrast between morality and immorality, cynicism and naiveté, courage and cowardice, levity and solemnity, trustworthiness and untrustworthiness... I could go on.

Take Vimes from the Discworld books. It’s a completely different setting to your usual pulp crime fiction. No prohibition era 30s gangsters with all that goes in hand with that. Vimes is a great character. Right from the start, one of the first traits we learn about his is that he has a powerful conscience, despite the horrible rut he’s in.

He’s the captain of the pathetic city guard in a mock Dickensian metropolis. The government introduced a guild for the thieves – literal organised crime – so the city guard have very little to do, and they’re essentially a bad joke. They get a new good cop recruit who does things by the book ,and through a lengthy series of events, they get back on top of things.

At one point early on, the new good cop recruit goes into a tavern and decides to arrest everybody forever, which they aren’t really overly excited about, so fisticuffs ensue. Vimes runs up with the other two shambling husks of the guard, and they stand outside unsure how to progress. We get a lot about his character right here. This is supposed to be one of the most violent taverns in the city, the generic hive of scum and villainy, and their force consists of three fat, unfit, poorly trained cowardly drunkards who haven’t seen combat in years.

Even so, Vimes hears a voice in his head – the voice of a younger Vimes that he’s been trying to drown with alcohol – saying something along the lines of “that’s one of your men in there. Alone.” So they slowly head in, to further assess the situation.

Point being, this is really good development for his character. We learn that he’s a realist, in that he thought it was stupid to fight a fight he didn’t think they could win. We learn that he’s changed over the years, in that his younger self was braver, and more naive than his current self, so something has happened to ingrain some cynicism into him. We learn that he’s ashamed of himself, because he’s trying to drown out his problems with alcohol; we also learn from this that he has moments of cowardice. Instead of facing his problems head on, he tries to ignore them and convince himself he’s doing fine.

The most important thing we learn here is that despite all of his problems, he still knows right and wrong, he still knows who he is, he still has a sense of duty, and underneath everything he’s still a good man. He braves up to go in, even though he’s almost certain it’s not going to end well for him.

That’s powerful characterisation, and it’s pretty typical of these sorts of characters. They often engage in immoral behaviour, but they’re not necessarily immoral people. They have their good qualities, and they have their bad qualities. Too often it’s one or the other, but when you contrast the two together, your characters feel stronger, more vivid, more interesting, and more real.

Even Mal from Firefly is built up very similarly to this. He’s more of a cowboy than anything else, sure, but he definitely wouldn’t be out of place at all in a noir piece. There’s one episode, Out of Gas, where we get an excellent moment for his character.

In the episode the ship runs out of air, a whole bunch of shit goes down, which ultimately leads up to Mal being abandoned on the broken ship, getting shot, and having to fix it by himself. He passes out, but when he comes to, he’s in the medical bay, getting patched up, with the whole crew waiting around.

Everybody has their little moment with him, smiles and all that, but as he’s about to fall back under, just before he goes to sleep, his eyes snap open and he asks in an almost weak little voice if everybody’s going to be there when he wakes up again.

This was just a brilliant scene. That after everything that’s happened to him, especially after he’s been built up as, most of the time, being a bitter misanthrope, all he cares about is whether or not the people in his life are going to be around when he comes to is beautiful. He’s reaching out to the people he cares because they’re important to him. He so desperately wants to be a hardened, cynical, callous robot, and at a lot of times in his past he had to be, but this shows that even though he’s been through that much, he’s still soft. He isn’t a monster. He just cares about these people, and wants to know that they care about him too.

This is why the noir characters, typical and atypical, are always so strong. They’re relatable. They’re good people in a bad way, and we like that. They’ve got morals, but they’re not beating you over the head with insipid parables. They treat concepts of right and wrong with the complexity they deserve. There’s no banal game morality system bile floating around, no “stealing is bad so you get bad points” bullshit. They’re open ended situations, with ambiguous and contemplative conclusions.

That’s what Grim Fandango has in spades. If Majora’s Mask was a series of vignettes, then Grim Fandango is a straight up character study. They ram Manny’s character in your face at every single opportunity they get. Almost every single line of dialogue gives us new information about him. The game is just bursting at the seams with Manny, and it’s great. In about two seconds, you learn almost everything you need to know about him.

Manny’s a loser. He’s a travel agent, a bad one, and he’s in a rut. He’s depressed, and he’s sarcastic, which we get when the receptionist tells him the boss wants him to stay late – Manny makes a quip about how he’s not going anywhere.

Then, we have the opening gag. Manny wears stilts to work to intimidate his clients. This sets up the tone of the game really effectively. There’s going to be jokes, sure. How ridiculous is wearing stilts to work? However, that’s not all it does. We find out that there’s more to Manny. How cynical must he be if he thinks people are going to treat him differently based on his height? Or is it just that he has absolutely no self confidence, and that he’s unhappy with who he is, and how he looks? It’s actually pretty disheartening that he feels the need to do this. I mean, again, how ridiculous is it that he wears stilts to work? And how ridiculous is it that he’s taking this seriously?

So it does two things. It tells us that, yes, this is going to be a comedic game, but it also tells us that Manny is both going to be the butt of some of the jokes, and that he’s more than he at first appears to be. He has depth.

He’s the loser, sure, but think of, say, any of the characters from The Big Bang Theory. They’re all loser characters. Geeky. Socially awkward. Obsessive. Introverted. Interested in math and science. See, they’re boring already. I’m bored, you’re bored, we’re all bored. These aren’t good characters. At all. They’re as derivative and clichéd as you can get. They’re dull stereotypes with no personality past “lol I’m a nerd.” It’s pathetic.

Manny’s a loser, through and through, but he’s nothing like that. He’s sarcastic. He has a particular way with words – always quick with a suave, clever line. He’s observant. He’s unhappy. He has no social life at all, but he isn’t socially awkward. He likes nice suits, bad cigarettes, and good alcohol. He has a clear conscience. He isn’t afraid to stand up to people. He has a poetic side to him. He’s unpretentious.

They did so much with his character, when in essence; he’s just a working shmo. He has a bad job that he doesn’t like, and his boss hates him. That’s about as average of a set up as you can get, but because he’s go so much more going on for him, it works. He doesn’t stray into The Big Bang Theory territory where you can summarise everybody as lol geeky, or Scrubs territory where every character has exactly one dimension; he’s the angry one, he’s the quirky one, she’s the yuppie one, he’s the stupid one.

Otherwise pointless actions almost always tell us something about Manny. When you examine your scythe, he says he likes to keep it close to where his heart used to be. Just like the stilts gag, it’s amusing, and it sheds light on him. The tool of his trade is important to him. It has sentimental value. He has an emotional attachment to these sorts of things. What could have just been “it’s my scythe lol I use it to slice shit up?” became a whole lot more. Or when you examine the door to your office, he says something to the effect of “not so long ago, that door read ‘Janitor’s Closet.’”

The initial jolt of the game is that Manny wants a really good client – so that he gets a really good commission. Enter Domino, stage left. Domino’s the douche co-worker. He’s working out of Manny’s old, and much bigger, office. If you’ve watched Futurama, think about the episode where Fry goes to the support group for people who were cryogenically frozen, and he meets the super powered business executive from the 80s. Domino is essentially a toned down version of that.

The plan is, since Domino’s doing so well, he must be getting great clients, so Manny steals one of them. Enter Meche, stage right. She’s the love interest, and, in one or two ways, the femme fatale. Through a series of events, Manny can’t sell her any good travel packages, and she ends up with the same one that all of his terrible clients got. Then we find out that the company has been actively trying to make Manny get all of the worst clients, and unable to sell any decent travel packages.

The crux of the narrative is that where he works, The Department of Death, guide souls through the underworld. Depending on how good of a person they were in life, the journey is easier or harder. The scummy people have to go on foot, a several year hike through all the dangers of hell, while the saintly types get to ride on the luxury express train, The Number Nine, which only takes a few minutes to whiz past everything.

You uncover a conspiracy by a mafia chief who’s been stealing the tickets and selling them to the scummy types at a premium cost. Hence why Domino’s been getting the good clients – they’re giving him a cut of the profit for the tickets. All the while they knew Manny wouldn’t go for it, so that’s why he’s been doing so poorly.

However, Manny’s motivation in all of this is that Meche has to go through hell on foot when she should be on The Number Nine, and he thinks it’s all his fault. It’s a fantastic, incredibly honest reason, and I wish more games had something like this. It isn’t destiny chosen one rescue princess save kingdom aliens invading protect America shoot terrorists justice duty freedom morals good person naive youth coming of age quest whatever. Manny fucked up. Plain and simple. He fucked up, and he wants to fix it.

Which, again, is brilliant development for his character. We know he’s in a bad place. Shit at his job, boss hates him, co-workers are better than him, no social life, no friends, not much money, and pretty unhappy with his life in general. Despite that, and despite his general cynicism and world weariness, life hasn’t turned him into a bad person. He’s still able to identify that he’s done wrong by this woman, and his conscience is still telling him that he needs to make it right. At heart, he’s still a good man.

The rest of the characters are all colourful in their own way. Eva, the snappy receptionist who moonlights as a political revolutionary. Glottis, your driver, a literal speed demon who runs away with you. Salvador, the dashing head of the Lost Souls Alliance, the revolutionary movement. Olivia, the slut bag proprietor of a beatnik club. The list goes on.

This game taught me a lot about life. Maybe that plain lass at work who doesn’t seem to have any hobbies or interests actually leads a whole other secret life. Maybe the weird fat guy in the basement that won’t shut up about cars could actually end up being the best friend you’ve ever had. Maybe that dinky weird lass who wears a strange hat might end up being a fantastic, loyal employee.

More than that, it taught me about hope, in a way no other game has managed to do. It taught me that things can get better. To steal a line from Billy Corgan, that life can change, that you’re not stuck in vain. You might have been stuck in an awful job for years, you might be poor, you might have no friends and you might be pretty unhappy – but things can grow.

You might have to work your ass off, it might take four years from your life, but if you want it bad enough, if you throw everything you’ve got at it, it can happen. Things can change. You can run that casino. You can be the captain of that ship. You can get the girl. You can have a better, happier life. So long as you’re strong enough, so long as you’re brave enough to keep going, and doing the right thing, then you can have the life you want. You’re probably going to get kicked in the teeth a few times along the way, but if you keep at it, no matter what, then you don’t have to be so unhappy anymore.

Grim Fandango is the most beautiful game I’ve ever played, and I am a much, much stronger person for having experienced it. It changed my life, in the same way that The Count of Monte Cristo did. It is the game I hold dearest, and I don’t think any other will get closer to my heart.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
5 Mar 2011 at 1:15 am PST

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