I’ve mentioned this in the past but I’m a big fan of Adventure games, particularly the point & click variety. I love solving puzzles, going to interesting locales and meeting strange new people—something I also enjoy in real life. I like the complex stories, the narrative and even more when these two and the gameplay mesh together.
But one thing I’ve noticed over the past few years as I’ve gone through dozens of these titles is that the protagonists of these games, those we control, whose inventories we use to frantically click everything on everything, aren’t really heroes most of the time. In fact, their actions seem borderline villainous. Cheating, stealing and lying are commonplace in adventure games and more often than not, the solution of a puzzle means the destruction of someone else’s livelihood if not their lives altogether. Continue reading Point & Click Villainy – Are Adventure Protagonists really Heroes?
A few months ago, an acquaintance and I had an interesting conversation on WhatsApp over the subject of remakes. And as I played through the Grim Fandango remaster and saw the slew of once-mobile games being re-released on Steam, I couldn’t help but go back to that conversation and see not only my points validated, but the other’s as well.
Remakes & Remasters are very similar in that they take an old property and give it a fresh coat of paint and make it accessible to new generations. The major difference is a Remake can, and most likely will, change elements of the game from gameplay to plot—such as Tomb Raider Anniversary or Gabriel Knight 20th Anniversary—while the Remaster will generally just upgrade visuals and audio and maybe add a new control scheme—Grim Fandango and Monkey Island Special Editions.
But both bank on nostalgia. Of these two, the target audience isn’t the new generation but the old one, those that played the game when it originally released. They will want to get the new version in hopes of recreating the feeling they had while playing it the first time—and be ultimately disappointed when that doesn’t happen.
Take the Tomb Raider reboot, a topic I’ve almost run into the ground these past few months. On release it moved over 3.4 million units—impressive, unless you’re Square Enix, in which case it’s a ‘disappointment’. How many of those 3.4 do you think were new players and how many were die-hard fans of the original Tomb Raider series? I’d be willing to bet that at least 70% of those were classic TR players.
I’m not completely against Remakes/Remasters, there are circumstances when I welcome them. Grim Fandango is an example, as it was impossible to easily purchase the game before this re-release. But if you can still buy the game and it still runs in modern computers without much issue, then the remaster/remake starts leaning towards nostalgic cash-grab.
Remakes & Remasters are easy, my acquaintance said and after careful consideration I had to concede the point. Even if you have to remake the game from scratch—by which I mean art, voice, coding, etc.—the truth is a lot of the work is already done. You already have a script, a sequence of events and a completed design that you know works, so there’s no need for reiteration.
I use the term Rehash but I mean sequels, new entries in a series and anything that is not a new IP. From Mario to Call of Duty, rehashes keep bringing you similar experiences over and over. And much like the previous two, there’s not a lot of risk involved in their release. The only way a developer will go for a sequel is if the first one sold well or at least met expectations. Based on the first title’s numbers, it’s easy to predict how much revenue the next one will generate. Thus, it’s safe from a business point of view. If the game has a particularly strong following, then it’s even safer to release a Rehash than a new property.
We can see evidence of this in the many cases of games modified to be part of a given series, because it ensured people would buy them. Devil May Cry 2 and the American Super Mario Bros.2 are two of the most famous cases. The former started out as a brand new IP before they panicked, slapped Dante on it and released what is the most reviled entry in the series. The latter released in japan as Doki Doki Panic, but since the actual Super Mario Bros. 2 released in Japan was so unforgivingly difficult, the American market got a heavily modified version of DDP, which might explain why the plot of that game made little sense!
However, depending on the franchise—or the developer in Nintendo’s case—rehashes can be a double-edged sword. While it’s true they carry significantly less risk than a new IP, the longer a series runs, the higher the expectations. Failing to meet them can lead to catastrophic results for that IP. One example is what happened to Ubisoft last year with Assassin’s Creed Unity. After Black Flag, the expectations for a new Assassin’s Creed were at their highest, so when Ubisoft released an unpolished game, the resulting outrage and backlash was so strong they had to give away DLC and even entire games for season pass holders. Nowadays developers & publishers use DLC sales to make to get as much profit out of a title as possible, so you can imagine just how much money was lost because of Unity’s failure. For me, it killed all love I had for the series. And if I’m not alone in that sentiment, it compounds the problem Ubisoft faces for its next Assassin’s Creed. A scorned fan is a scary thing in the videogame industry.
Rehashing does allow refinement of a series’ formula. It’s the reason all 3D Mario games are nearly perfect, and how Black Sails was the culmination of Assassin’s Creed’s design, or even the Call of Duty games—I’m not a fan of them but I have to admit they are very well designed, because each iteration has helped polish out the base concept and mechanics.
This is why you rarely see new IPs from major—big-budgeted—developers, because it’s too risky. It’s much easier to rehash, remake or remaster something than giving you a completely fresh idea. Even smaller studios often go this way because it’s an easy way to make money—I apologise if this comes off as a tad too cynical.
As the videogame industry and its corporations grow, we’ll see more sequels and remakes and fewer new IPs, because shareholders, board members and even just the five-man-studio will want to avoid risks as much as possible. And you can’t really blame them considering how expensive some of the latest games have been in terms of development costs. Last year I wrote an article about the insane budgets for most modern games—visuals and art being the most expensive part of any of them—and things don’t seem to be getting cheaper. Thus, it becomes paramount that there is a profit, or at least a return of investment.
(Image Credit: Just Push Start) Each Zelda is the same at its core, but the journey is always different!
(Image Credit: Gamespot) Without sequels, Nintendo wouldn’t have refined their concepts and this near perfect game wouldn’t exist!
(Image Credit: Stella’s Walkthroughs) At the time of release, finding and getting the original to work was an Olympian task!
(Image Credit: Gamezone) This game is a remastered remake! It only needs to be a sequel for the Triple-R-trifecta! Then again, Capcom is infamous for its rereleases! Street Fighter Anyone?
(Image Credit: GoG) Without the remaster the game would’ve been lost to us forever
(Image Credit: Blog Critics) Remastering a NES game? Sure, why not?
(mage Credit: What’s HUB) A fresh coat of paint and makeup! Did it need it? Up for debate.
The good news is that for every two developers that play it safe, there is one daredevil that takes constant risks with new ideas. Some are indie but there are many established studios out there willing to take a chance with a new IP.
And of course, there are those studios so big and so powerful they can take the risks without much issue. Blizzard Entertainment is an example, a company (in) famous for its “It’ll be done when it’s done!” attitude towards development and release. World of Warcraft, Diablo III and StarCraft II have given the company so much revenue they can take as many risks as they want. The recently announced and in development Overwatch is an example, a fresh IP in every way, including genre.
How does this affect us? Well, we need to keep an eye out for those new properties because they tend to fly under the radar of most big-name gaming sites, unless the developer is one of the big ones like the aforementioned Blizzard. On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t buy remakes/remasters of a game unless A) you can’t get it anymore or B) it doesn’t run on your operating system. The likelihood of the original being a superior game is quite high.
And as for sequels I think the only thing we can do is what we already do: play them, enjoy them and then complain about the developers not coming up with new IPs. It’s what we’re used to doing anyway and if there’s one thing my acquaintance has a point on it’s, “you can’t force gamers to do anything!” And yes, I do realise what that means with regards to my previous statement on remakes!
What are your thoughts on Remakes, Remasters, Rehashes and the state of the industry?
Originally released in 1999 Grim Fandango is one of the last adventure games released by LucasArts. It combines Mexican folklore with a Film Noir plot and stars the grim reaper himself…well, one of them anyway.
Fantastic world combining Noir and Mexican folklore.
Superb voice acting and music.
Revamped control scheme.
Clunky inventory system.
I won’t deny it. I was excited when I saw the news for the Grim Fandango remake. I remember playing it when I was younger, about a year after release, in 1999. I borrowed the game from a friend—you know, back in those days where DRM and serials weren’t a thing.
I’ve been playing the game recently, going through it once more and I realised I didn’t remember a thing about it. I couldn’t remember the solution to even a single puzzle, which to be honest is perfect for a review. So let’s get to it.
Grim Fandango puts you in the shoes of Manuel “Manny” Calavera, an agent for the DOD, The Department of Death. As an agent his job is to find the recently deceased and depending on their personal history get them the best deal possible on their trip to the afterlife. If the soul has been especially good, they can get a direct trip on the Number Nine express train to the Ninth Underworld. If there are dark spots in their bio, the options range from lying in a coffin shipped by mail to a walking stick for the long journey.
At the start of the game, Manny’s been in a slump, only getting bad clients and cheated out of new ones by his colleague, Domino. Deciding to take matters into his own hands—and yours—he intercepts one of Domino’s clients and claims her for his own, thinking she’s assured a spot on the Number Nine. But it turns out his bosses rigged the system and have stolen everybody’s tickets. With Meche, his would-be client, now lost in the underworld and the conspirators pursuing him, Manny sets out to find the girl and stop the bad guys…but mostly find the girl.
The story is a traditional Noir plot. There are conspiracies, intrigue, betrayals and deceit at every corner. But it is a Tim Schafer and LucasArts game so there is plenty of comedy as well, mostly from how surreal the world and locations are. Unlike other LucasArts games there aren’t many pop-culture references, instead they take jabs at familiar Noir tropes and poke fun at how we all imagine death and the afterlife to be. It is however a darker game than other in the Lucas catalogue.
The story plays out in four acts or Years, each with a different location, new characters and new pieces to the conspiracy. I loved the Year transitions. Years 1 and 2 end with Manny in a precarious position, stuck at a dead-end café and a broken down ship respectively, but the opening cinematic for the following one show him turning those around—the Café into a successful nightclub and casino called Café Calavera and the ship into a mercantile vessel. And all of it without losing sight of his goal of finding Meche and get her to the Ninth Underworld.
Manny as a character is one of the best in adventure games. He’s both selfish and selfless at times, he cares even if he has to manipulate and cheat. He’s not an angel, but he’s not evil either. In essence, he’s a very human and relatable character, with strengths and flaws. The supporting cast on the other hand is a collection of extremes and Noir tropes, from the sultry femme fatale to the extremely greedy villains. But that isn’t to say they aren’t as interesting as the main one. Each has their unique personality and they make you want to know more about them. Glottis, for example is one of my favourite characters. He’s a Mechanic Demon, first acting as Manny’s driver and on the way becoming his loyal companion…and comic relief. Meche starts off as the typical good girl, but shows more strength and determination you would think she had. The central characters all grow during the story, and that is rare in adventure games.
Grim Fandango’s visual style takes its inspiration from Mexican “Dia de los Muertos”—and in fact it is that exact day at the start of the game, the only time when the dead can visit the living. All characters look like Calaca figures, walking skeletons. When Manny reaps a soul, what comes with him isn’t a ghost but another bony figure. Environments area mix of 1930s aesthetics, such as you would find in classic film Noir, and Aztec architecture. There are high-rise buildings and race tracks with Aztec colour tones and even temple-like structures in the last act, but there are also more traditional Noir locations, such as the Poet’s nightclub The Blue Casket or even Café Calavera. The locations and character designs draw you in as much as the voice actors and music do.
The game uses static environments with 3D objects and characters and fixed camera angles. The remake improved on the character models, though considering they’re all skeletons there wasn’t much to improve. Mostly they just made the faces more detailed. But they also improved on the lighting, and this bit adds a lot more to the game’s atmosphere, especially at the start. Now light streams through Manny’s blinds, falling on him in stripes as if it were the office of a Noir detective.
The game also features FMV both during gameplay, such as when opening the mailing machine’s door or the elevator in Rubacava, and for story cinematics. The latter mostly take place between acts or at significant moments, such as when you pull up the SS Lamancha. The remake doesn’t change anything about these, nor did they have to because they work perfectly well. In fact, the best thing about them is the original development team went to great lengths to make sure the characters and environment in the FMVs looked exactly as they do in the game’s engine—called GrimE and based on the Jedi Knight engine, no SCUMM for Grim Fandango—so that players always saw familiar faces.
Speaking of actors and music, there isn’t anything bad to say here. The sound design is outstanding. The soundtrack mixes the jazzy tunes you need for the Noir vibes with traditional Mexican music, in the process creating a new style that instantly brings the name Grim Fandango to your mind. Hell the music is so good there were moments I stopped progressing just to take in as much of it as I could. It’s the kind of videogame music you’ll buy the soundtrack and listen to it every day!
Voice acting is superb, particularly because most of the actors are native Spanish speakers, making them much more authentic and convincing, but also because as actors they give strong performances. I often complain how screams and shouts in games feel half-assed, but in Grim Fandango the actors give their all and remain convincing no matter the situation.
Finally, there’s the gameplay and this is where I have a problem.
I hate the inventory system for Grim Fandango. I sincerely do. Instead of the grid-like inventory used in other LucasArts titles or the horizontal list-like inventory of games such as Sam & Max, you can’t see all the items you have at once. Manny’s suit is your inventory and every time you need an item, you’ll have to scroll through the entire inventory. Worst still is that it doesn’t remember what the last item you looked at was, and it even gave me the impression that the item positions changed from one look to another. I knew an item, a piece of bread, was two items to the right when I first looked, but the second time I had to scroll even further. It ties nicely with the item-drawing animations, as the inventory is essentially part of it but it’s clunky and can make you waste a lot of time. It actually made me grateful there aren’t any item combinations, because that would’ve bene a terrible hassle.
As this is a LucasArts game, the puzzles are almost exclusively inventory ones and they are generally in the moon-logic realm. To be honest, I’m now convinced Schafer and his team were on peyote while designing some of these, because you would have to bombed out of your head—or be a long-time adventure gamer—to figure them out. For one puzzle you need to figure out the combination of numbers and days for a winning betting ticket using pieces of casual conversation, a plaque for a statue and the complaint of a worker. For another, you’ll drink alcohol with gold flakes just so you can have some stripsearch time with a sexy officer to get her metal detector. See what I mean?
As you progress, however, the complexity lowers and the last act has generally easy puzzles, which is slightly disappointing.
One of the best aspects of the remake for me is they built in a fan patch, released years ago, that changes the control scheme from the tank-controls the game originally had—inspired by Resident Evil, popular at the time of the game’s release—in favour of point & click controls. It’s much more comfortable though the originals are still present and work really well with the added gamepad support.
I mostly played the game using the original rendering, which you can switch to at any moment in the game’s menu, but I did enjoy the developer commentary. In commentaries we often hear from the designers and storytellers about something fun they did, but this commentary is from the entire team. From their field trips for environment design ideas to the struggles to program certain things in the game, to how many pieces of different engines they cobbled together to build Grim Fandango. As a software developer, it was fascinating to know the ins and outs of the development side of this great title.
Tim Schafer mentions something very interesting during the commentary. He states that the game happened because of the amazingly talented people that came together at the time, but also because they and he infused in the game a lot of what was happening in their lives. And that if they decided to make the game now, it wouldn’t even get close to what we have, even if they made it with the best of intentions.
Grim Fandango is a hell of a ride. There are grievances with some of its design decisions, especially with the inventory and the original controls, but they don’t really detract from the outstanding experience. It’s a folklore story with Noir soul, and one of the fines adventure games ever released. And I think Mr. Schafer is right, this game couldn’t be made today and have it make the same impact.