Last week saw the release of a remastered version of the 1990s LucasArts adventure game Grim Fandango on the Nintendo Switch.
I wrote an article for Shortlist magazine last year, explaining why it was my favourite game of all time. As that article isn’t online, I figured I’d celebrate the Switch release by posting it here.
Rubacava at night was a hell of a town. I still dream of it sometimes, even though it is nearly twenty years since I was there. Its towering art-deco and modernist buildings looked designed for moonlight. Cruise liners built like Aztec temples towered over the docks. The nightclubs and beatnik poetry clubs were populated entirely by calacas, the blank-faced skeletons from the Mexican Day of the Dead festival. Rubacava was a town known for its nightlife, which was ironic, seeing as everyone there was dead.
Rubacava was a location in the 1998 LucasArts adventure game Grim Fandango. I was working on a late-night TV videogames review programme called Cybernet when it was released. The job meant that I had to play a lot of games. In most of those games, you shot at stuff until you got bored. Other games allowed you to drive things or pretend to play sports, but the majority involved shooting things. It was hard, at times, to defend gaming as an imaginative or creative pastime.
But then came Grim Fandango. The game was set in the Mexican Land of the Dead, but it was styled like 1940s Hollywood. It placed you deep inside a noir saga of post-death corruption, in equal parts Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and Aztec religion. As you can probably tell from the description, this was not a game designed by a committee or fleshed out by a marketing department. This was a singular vision, which was not something 90s gaming was noted for. It seemed like the future of storytelling. It was a fully realised creative achievement. It was art.
Twenty years later, and Rubacava is still more vivid for me than the flat I lived in at the time. The town was so atmospheric, so beautiful and so unique that all those hours wandering its moonlit streets, puzzled and bewildered, seemed to somehow justify all the time lost to videogaming generally. It felt like gaming’s Sgt Pepper moment, the point when the bar had been raised and the medium would never be the same again.
But it was an end, not a beginning. It was the end of an era for mass-market adventure games. It was the end of companies like LucasArts creating original properties instead of relying on existing brands. The end of the idea that games could better novels and films in storytelling and originality. It is hard now to point to a successful, mainstream game that could be said to be its spiritual successor. The public, it turned out, did want to shoot things after all.
The game’s aesthetic of death and nostalgia should have been a clue: Grim Fandango was always fated to be an end, not a beginning. I found myself drifting away from gaming, unable to sustain interest in the endless identikit sci-fi, warzone or medieval fantasy scenarios they offered. But endings are also a celebration of that which will be missed. As the game itself reminds us, we’ll always have Rubacava.