Note: This post was first published on December 24, 2017 on my old website.
I once called Day of the Tentacle the best adventure game of all time, and I do believe that game's puzzle design is the best in the genre. And I critiqued some of Grim Fandango's puzzle design in a previous post. But those criticisms are so insignificant and nit-picky compared to what Grim Fandango does overwhelmingly well.
First, it doesn't merely borrow the Mexican Day of the Dead as an aesthetic. There is more going on here than employing a neat (and convenient for early 3D Modelling) art style. It uses this style to create a vast world, and as a leaping-off point for all its themes--morality, death, and what happens after. The setting here is inventive, compelling, and operates by an internal logic that makes the stakes of the story clear.
Second, it's masterfully told. Learning the rules of this world through the unfolding narrative is a pleasure and also an act of confident, expert storytelling. The rules that govern one's passage through the land of the dead, the method by which a soul can be destroyed (raising the stakes on the whole affair), the difference between demons and the dead--all of these are presented naturally and without reams of exposition.
Third, it deploys visual references to other works of pop culture in a way that highlights the themes of the story and doesn't contradict the world it's established. When Manny Calavera appears in his white suit in Rubacava, running a casino and doing his best Rick Blaine, it's not just a light-hearted wink at Casablanca, it's using the allusion to Casablanca to give us insight into Manny's state of mind.
He's a willing resident of a town where most people feel trapped between the place they're leaving and the place they want to be, believing he's lost the woman he loves, trying to deny his own capacity to love in the first place. This is how you do references (if you must): If you miss the reference, the story is still there and it still resonates, but if you get the reference, it gains an extra dimension.
The list goes on: the game's use of time permits character development that most games can't manage. Manny is one of the greatest game protagonists ever written--a distinctive, flawed personality whose journey is not merely physical but emotional and spiritual as well.
Nothing demonstrates this better than a scene from near the end of the game. Much of the plot centers on a set of stolen train tickets, the kind that are given to the genuinely saintly in life, and take the dead straight to the end of the line (whatever that is.) Manny, for reasons he does not remember, was not granted any kind of ticket. And as a result of this, he goes through the game surrounded by a shield of cynicism. The world is random, he thinks. No one knows why they end up where they end up, and everyone's ultimately in it for themselves.
And then, near the end of this quest to recover these stolen tickets, one of Manny's allies is "sprouted" (that is, their soul is destroyed.) But they find the tickets before they die, and one of these tickets flies to them. Huh, Manny says. This [redacted] must have really been good, in life (and also, presumably, in death.)
In many ways, Manny is like most of us. He is in the middle of life's way, whether he's caught in the travel agency's limbo or on his own moral journey. In spite of evidence to the contrary, he doesn't think he's a bad guy. In fact, he knows he's not anywhere near as bad as the actual bad guys. But in building his moral standard around himself, he has decided that no one, really, is good.
It takes a journey through the land of the dead, guided by a loyal speed demon in pursuit of good woman whom he's wronged to show Manny that genuine goodness exists and just how far he has yet to go.
In this sense, it's not Casablanca or Glengarry Glen Ross or the Film Noir genre that Grim Fandango most resembles, but Dante's Inferno.