Recently I've been playing Grim Fandango, a puzzle adventure by LucasArts, and I feel it may be one of my favourite games. The game is situated in the Land of the Dead, where the souls of the recently deceased arrive after they depart from the Land of the Living, and depending on how virtuous a life they led whilst alive, these souls embark on a journey either for four years by foot, or by an easier, four-minute method - that is on-board the 'Number Nine' express train - to the Ninth Underworld where they will live (ha ha ha) for eternity. The Land of the Dead is, in this way, a sort of purgatory, where those whose lives were less than exemplary have to work off a debt, before they are given passage to the Ninth Underworld through the shape of a ticket.
This is where the protagonist, a travel agent named Manuel 'Manny' Calavera, comes in. He works at an agency called the Department of Death, which specialises in determining whether new arrivals from the Land of the Living are worthy of a trip on the luxurious Number Nine train, or more deserving of a punishing and treacherous journey across the Land of the Dead, where they are vulnerable to all sorts of perils, including a 'death-within-death' scenario. Manny's job is similar to that of the Grim Reaper's, although the game takes an almost satirical stance on it by making it more mundane and repetitive than it is generally perceived to be: Manny must travel to the Land of the Living and reap souls while there, then take them back to his office at the Department of Death, where the system will evaluate what path they deserve to take to the Ninth Underworld. Having not lived a noble life himself, Manny is destined to work off his debt this way, until he is deemed ready to move on to the Ninth Underworld himself.
When we come in, Manuel's boss, Don Copal, informs him that the quality of souls that he brings in is poor, and that unless he finds a soul worthy of a Number Nine train journey, he will be fired. Knowing that if fired, access to the eternal afterlife would be impossible, Manny steals a client (Mercedes 'Meche' Colomar) from a more successful agent, to satisfy his boss. But when his office computer does not designate her a ticket on the Number Nine train, in spite of her noble life, Manny uncovers a web of corruption in the department, in charge of which is crime boss Hector LeMans, who is hoarding tickets to counterfeit and sell to souls able to afford them. After another encounter with Don, Manny realises that Meche has run away, beginning the four-year journey across the Land of the Dead despite the fact her lifestyle dictates she should be a passenger on the Number Nine, so, feeling guilty, Manny leaves hoping to catch up with her and help her gain passage to the Ninth Underworld, hoping that in turn he will be granted permission to leave his purgatory.
The game takes place over a period of four years, and involves you talking to a number of characters and having to collect a number of items from the worlds of each year, and solve puzzles by using these items correctly. It is often reflected as one of the last vestiges of the graphic adventure genre, and as such it is a very difficult game, and can lead to heaps of frustration, but it is also highly rewarding, particularly when the cut-scenes roll, allowing for some proper plot progression (best alliteration ever). The puzzles are usually non-linear, meaning you don't have to complete them in sequence, which can relieve a lot of frustration if you're left confused by a particularly challenging one, but you'll need a lot of patience since you will have to come back to it later on. The difficulty of the game, and the wealth of tasks it presents for you to solve make it a truly epic adventure; your play-time will probably be over a day's time, which is refreshing given the swamp of shallow seven-hour efforts that smother the medium.
With such a vast length and with so many challenging puzzles to complete, the game could easily suffer from being dull, and seeming like a chore. It deftly avoids this with its diverse range of wacky characters who Manny meets on his travels, and with dialogue that manages to convey realistic levels of cynicism, wit, romance and longing. These are really just a few of the endless traits you could apply to the fantastic writing in the game, which is probably its strongest asset; a mixture of English and Spanish is implemented (a lot of the game's aspects are derived from South America; the language being just one of them), providing the characters with a richness that is vacant from many story-driven games. Each of the characters in the game is unique: from a world-weary clown, a zestful casino receptionist and a charming, cultured bar manager to a crazy mortician, a corrupt race-track owner and a sea-dweller who has no sense of direction, the diversity is almost self-evident. Despite the the large cast of characters, not a single voice-over is inconsistent with the rest; by this I mean they are all equally fantastic, giving every character an extra dimension, while remaining consistent with their personalities (some Latino actors were used, adding to the understated, multi-cultural aspect.)
The atmosphere and st.yle of the game are reminiscent of the film-noir movie genre, with a prevalent level of seediness and corruption coinciding with an abundance of charm. The storyline itself carries many elements from this genre, while the actions of characters, such as smoking, uphold certain film-noir traditions. Visually, the game is a marvel: the art-direction is utterly resplendent and surprisingly detailed; character models (designed to represent Mexican calaca figures, used in the country's Day of the Dead festivities) move over beautiful backgrounds, while the characters flaunt equally detailed and colourful costumes that pertain to their personalities. It is really so lovely to look at; you'll probably end up looking at certain shots for ages just taking in every aspect of the image. That is another aspect I've yet to talk about: when controlling Manny you do not have any control over the camera-angles; they are all pre-determined, stationary shots, and as such they perpetuate the cinematic aesthetic present in the game.
The music in the game is another strong feature, mixing jazz, South American folk and orchestral sounds and applying them in accordance with the location (for example: the sleazy, neon-lit streets of Rubacava are bolstered by a jazzy score, harkening back somewhat to the st.yle of film-noir; then in contrast, the streets of El Marrow, permeated with the sounds of festivity, as the annual parade celebrating the Day of the Dead marches through the city, are backed by a lovely acoustic score). The level of charm the game exerts would barely be anything without the glorious soundtrack, which evokes the right emotion at the right time and simply provides a languid mood.
With its eclectic characters and storyline, and its strong propensity to entertain (whether through bizarre personalities or intelligent dialogue), the game has a number of factors that distinguish it. The depth of the world, added to these other characteristics, ensures that it leaves a strong impression, as it humourously touches upon a subject that lingers ominously on our thoughts.
For a real life update, I had my guitar examination two weeks ago, and had my results back recently. I passed it with 93% and the highest certificate (Distinction >_>) possible. Je suis content.
Additionally, I'm now level 40. How exciting.