A look into the walls between the adventure genre and narrative.
Video games are full of paradoxes. Difficulty options imply that enjoyment stems from overcoming obstacles, but games methodically teach players how to overcome them. Some games offer respite from hardships of everyday life in fantastical settings, yet they engage players in repetitious busywork. Old school point-and-click games promise adventure, but puzzles and brain teasers stand in way of narrative progression.
Think about doors in adventure games. In genre pieces of new and old, players may use the ‘examine’ command to inquire about an object’s look, to which the protagonist would scrutinize said object to excruciating detail. Players may marvel at the size and beauty of hand-drawn gates, while the player character would only give hints about how to fling them open. The ‘use’ command similarly implies a world governed by a singular, utilitarian purpose, because player characters cannot feel a door knob’s funky shape, nor can they experience the mundanity of the material world: adventure game protagonists can only use doors to progress. This outlook reduces doors to gateways between worlds.
Through these utilitarian lenses, a locked door acts as an obstacle between player and narrative. But this conflict is extended by non-player characters who are typically portrayed as fierce protectors of their property. In turn, player characters must pick locks, break down doors, acquire items by thievery and deception. Even if these items prove to be useless, acquisition is necessary, because we may never know when an item may help narrative progression. This portrayal reframes player characters as cunning intruders, while us, players, have no choice, but to indulge in theft and excessive consumption.
These tropes show that adventure games often have a conflicted relationship with private property, but unabashedly embrace the acquisition of goods. Yet, Grim Fandango presents anti-capitalist rhetoric from the start of the game.
Grim Fandango thrusts us into the middle of office life. Motivational books and awards for work of excellence fill the office, as the protagonist, Manny Calavera, laments his late poor performance. The game takes place in a travel agency, but the clientele is the recently deceased, and instead of money, past deeds act as currency. Every undead is served based on how well they lived: some may be entitled to take a luxury cruiser, while others have to set off on foot to the afterlife; particularly corrupted souls, like Calavera, need to pay their dues in labor before they can pass on. Capitalism rules even afterlife.
The office politics are no different. Workers are pitted against each other, bosses skip days without repercussions, and performance evaluation is rigged. A few, favored by the system will reap the rewards, while most will tow away in soul-crushing jobs until only their rusty bones remain. Demons on the other hand, like Manny’s sidekick, Glottis, believe that they are created to do one thing: work. In the Land of the Dead, labor is considered a duty that purifies the soul.
Where does Grim Fandango go from here? In good ol’ adventure game fashion, the protagonist must use his wits and rely on trickery and deceit to get out of this oppressive situation. And why wouldn’t he, when the system is rigged against him? All goes according to plan: Manny snatches one of the clients off the hands of Domino, the boss’ favorite employee. But even though the client, called Meche, is entitled to one of the best travel packages, the system seems to ignore her good deeds. Manny looks into this error, to do well by her, and by himself, but by the time he gets back to Meche, she left on foot to the gates of the afterlife.
He then decides to leave the job, his only escape from endless servitude, to save Meche. This endearing, if a little cliche message about the power of love drives the plot forward. But what follows in chapter two is revealing of how Grim Fandango cannot escape the genre’s capitalist trappings.
Manny takes a custodial job at a port in hopes that he’ll encounter Meche. A year passes without her arrival. Meanwhile, Manny has been busy working. The passage of time is portrayed in a cutscene with a cut to Manny standing atop of a casino terrace: the whole city lays out at his feet, and upon entering the tower, the camera gets closer to highlight Manny’s fancy suit. He climbed the capitalist ladder in a blink of a cutscene.
But he’s willing to throw all his accomplishments away once he sees Meche leaving on a cruiser. Again, the game emphasizes the immaterial over the material. But Manny went from a dingy, small office to a spacious workplace, located at the top of a penthouse suite. He works as a casino manager, and his trade is exploitation and deceit. It explains his quick rise to success and why he’d be willing to throw it away in a heartbeat. The way he orchestrates his escape, however, speaks volumes of his newfound values.
The bees in Grim Fandango are portrayed as dock-workers who pride themselves on their hard work and only care about the well-being of their family. It’s a typical depiction of the working class as a diligent, but insular group who can be exploited: the bees sold their work-tools to feed their family, then found themselves out of a job. Manny learns about this injustice and decides to lend them a simplified version of the Communist Manifesto. Thanks to Manny’s help, the bees go on a strike, but get jailed for it. Manny helps them get out of jail, but only to steal their tools for his personal mission while they’re busy striking.
In good ol’ adventure game fashion, Manny’s theft is part of Grim Fandango’s grand narrative. In chapter two, each event serves Manny’s escape. He shares a secret letter with resistance sympathizers to receive a simplified version of the Communist Manifesto. He gives the book to the bees, so he can eventually steal their tools. Each hint encourages us to treat characters as tools in service of the protagonist’s personal mission. But we also get a glimpse of disenfranchised youth and the plight of the working class.
The soul-crushing nature of labor is a central theme of the game. On our visit of a tattoo artist, we witness that a private entrepreneur has no choice, but to work on drunken sailors to stay afloat. A public servant on the other end must do with they have: shabby tools that can barely get the job done. Their struggle is what unites them, as the tattoo-artist barely gets by and swears like a drunken sailor, while the coroner sees dead bodies even in their dreams. Carla feels similar, since guard duty makes her lonely and isolated. It exposes her to foster emotions towards Manny who occasionally visits during work, but has no interest in her. She invites him to have a bit of fun at the back room, but rather than engage with Carla’s proposition in earnest, Manny can only exploit her feelings to further his own goal of escape. Similarly, he must exploit Glottis’ drinking and gambling problems to further his mission.
Grim Fandango reveals the isolating and dehumanizing effect of capitalist labor on society, but it barely alludes to its systemic nature. Instead, the game points at individuals as the culprit of evil, while they put us in the shoes of a protagonist who relies on trickery, deceit, exploitation and excessive consumption to reach goals. Grim Fandango frames these actions as positive acts because they drive the story forward. It’s very revealing of a privileged position, from where people can be viewed as steps in reaching wealth and power, while it also highlights how the idea of progress acts as a divider of society.