I’ve often found it difficult to be truly critical of adventure games from that era, even of the ways they were obviously flawed. Despite the number of modern games driven by the engine of nostalgia, it can be difficult to replay the games of your youth—not just emotionally, but technologically. The short answer is yes, although the long answer is both more complicated and more personal. A slick, brilliantly-scripted fusion of Day of the Dead mythology and hard-boiled noir, Grim Fandango was directed and scripted by Tim Schafer, the man who also helped give us The Secret of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle and more recently, Broken Age. I was wrong, of course, as I would be many times about many things in the intervening years, but Grim Fandango remained the high-water mark.
While LucasArts had clever dialogue down to something of an art by 1998, I was struck by how Grim Fandango played with those conventions. While most of Manny’s grim reaper schtick is played for laughs, I was surprised to find glimpses of horror.
Of course, there are problems, the kind that plagued so many games at the time, the kind that perhaps didn’t seem like problems when we had nothing to compare them to. Like many adventure games of its era, Grim Fandango‘s puzzles run the gamut from clever to bizarre to stupid. The tank-style keyboard controls are their own separate headache—several times, I held down the key to move to a new screen and ended up running right back to where I started after the perspective shifted. It’s a strange thing to play a game like this, one that you once knew intimately and intuitively, after so much time has passed. It reminds me a bit of the way I think about the neighborhood where I grew up, years after my parents sold the house. About a year ago, I had an argument about someone with adventure games, one that I knew on some level was not really an argument about adventure games. There are ways that I constructed parts of identity around around games like this, layering some of the fondest memories of my adolescent life over them like papier-mache strips around a balloon.
One of the great joys of playing Grim Fandango again was the way it obliterated those fears, both about the blindness of nostalgia and about what happens when you pull back the veil. There’s something compelling to me now about this nakedness, the way that the bumps and the cracks of its age reveal the shape of the canvas it was created on, like an interactive snapshot of everything that was beautiful and flawed about that era of games. Many players, myself included, have mourned and canonized these formative childhood relics through our adult lives, placing them on pedestals and bathing them in the halcyon glow of memory, the way that beloved and unexamined things so often are. I get defensive, the way people get defensive about sports teams and hometowns and their families.

Part of what makes Grim Fandango Remastered‘s appearance on PlayStation 4 and Steam (the version I played) so exciting is the original game has been difficult or impossible to play on any modern system, consigning it to a tragic sort of obscurity.
Grim Fandango remains a gleaming jewel, albeit one in an antique setting, a ring that holds great meaning for me but doesn’t slide so easily on my finger anymore. Even today, it still occupies the kind of precious, enduring space in my heart otherwise reserved for lost loves, dead pets, and movies that make you cry every time. At one point, you end up trapped in a rambling conversation with a woman who has an item you need. At one point you venture into the land of the living to reap a soul and encounter several members of the still-breathing populace, their faces twisted collages of body parts cut from magazines. Some of the more technical issues feel jarring to modern gaming sensibilities, in ways that no amount of dynamic lighting can fix.
During a particularly odd sequence that involved anchors, I managed to find the solution through brute-force trial and error, even though I wasn’t sure what I was doing or why even after I succeeded. More than once, I stood directly next to a character and tried to give them something, only to watch Manny follow a strangely circuitous route before presenting them with the item.
You realize there’s still a map of this place deep inside you, and when you move through it again you can almost feel the shape of it, the connections between the familiar streets, hallways and rooms unfolding slowly in your mind, like blood rushing back into a limb. When I close my eyes I can still trace my way through those streets in my mind, the way my road turned steeply into a hill where my brother and I loved to skateboard as kids, then slouched down to the high school where the older kids smoked by the chain link fence, before pooling in a cul-de-sac outside the house of that girl I was friends with for a little while, the one whose name I can’t remember anymore.
It was about what they had meant to me, about a brief but incredibly formative time in computer gaming that not only felt like it belonged to me but one that seemed like it would go on forever. And therein lay the fear of replaying: What if I cut open the carapace of memory I had built around this game and found it shriveled at the bottom, or worse found it empty, as though the thing I loved had never really been there? The game didn’t change, but the world around it changed, and maybe more importantly, so did I.
Grim Fandango is an artifact of its time, an exceptional piece of interactive art wrapped inextricably around the technology and conventions of its time in a way that reveals both their limitations and the brilliance they were capable of producing. Now that this beloved game is finally playable and polished to a sheen, can it really live up to the hype we hear from others and that we’ve created in our memories?
As I got older, adventure games only got better; their graphics, stories and puzzles became more sophisticated, their worlds more immersive. It can be daunting to revisit the media of your youth, especially the things you’ve lionized the most. As she yammers on from anecdote to anecdote, the four dialogue options at your disposal change, offering thematically appropriate barbs for each insipid subject she chooses.

You can polish the hell out of a beautiful car with problems under the hood, but Turtle Wax doesn’t fix the engine. The inventory system is a bit unwieldy: The only way to access the items you pick up is to watch Manny take them out of his coat, one by one. Occasionally, when I was navigating with the cursor, Manny would simply refuse to run, plodding across the screen in what seemed like deliberately slow steps. Much like the design of the game itself, the issue was often a matter of perspective—what I couldn’t see from where I was standing. What if I looked at it with more mature eyes and thought—or realized—it was ugly or boring or stupid, what would that take away from me? I’m more experienced now, more discriminating, and my eyes feel like scalpels, slicing through the skin of nostalgia to reveal both the successes and the missteps. Do the awkward controls and weirdly impossible puzzles sometimes make me want to bang my head against a wall? Whether we admit it or not, we do not like to see the flaws in the things we love, because we fear it will diminish them and the people they have made us. By the time I was in my late teens, as far as I was concerned adventure games had always been the most important and impressive genre of computer games, and they always would be. And so I approached the remastered version of Grim Fandango with a bit of trepidation, fearful that my adult gaze would somehow cut the strings of my memories: Could it really be as good as I’d remembered? This happens more frequently in areas that zoom out for a distant, bird’s eye view of our hero, meaning he was slowest when reaching the next screen already took the longest. The moment you click on them, Manny walks across the room, shifting the perspective so the books are no longer visible. After all, memory is a funny thing sometimes; we remember things not as they were, but as we were.
Another puzzle ate 30 minutes of my life as I tried over and over to present a ticket to a ticket-taker, only to learn that I had to give it to an identical man on the other side of the room—a side of the room that I had no idea existed.
But I feel strangely comforted by both how much I still love the game and all the problems I now see in it, and by the knowledge that like so many hometowns and sports teams and families, the things closest to our hearts, the things that make us who we are, can be both imperfect and still worth loving. Rather than any sort of visual cue that there was a space to explore, I finally discovered it through a flurry of frustrated clicking, which felt a bit like a metaphor.

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