I started feeling nostalgia at a young age. It is a sentiment usually reserved for older people, but moving twice during my childhood made me prone to nostalgia in my early teenage years. Passing by an old house would trigger memories of the place: scents, tastes, activities, and friends. Moving so often helped me see time in a more concrete way, given the brutal sense of change repeatedly forced upon me. I’d get to a new place and life would be different, never to be the same again. Everything I loved -and hated- about my old home was gone. It became time for new friends, new projects, new goals, new successes, and new failures
Like anyone that played them in their early years, I attribute a good number of my memories to videogames. Whether it was finally receiving Warcraft II (1995) as a gift for Christmas, or finding the Master Sword in A Link to the Past (1991), games became an integral part of my past, and how I remember it. Being such a young medium –even more so back then– videogames have evolved extremely fast. Warcraft II does not make sense anymore (why would you not be able to select more than nine units at the same time?), and finding the Master Sword could only achieve this sense of gravitas today if it were in three dimensions with a touch of lens flare shining on the blade.
We are one of the early generations that lived their childhood with videogames. If you are searching for a reason why there are so many remakes and remasters of old games appearing on the market these past few years, this is it. Gaming is not the same as it used to be and aging players often long for the “good old days.” Not only were games different back then, but they also constituted most of my free time. I used to have time to get lost in games; now they’re breaks between daily chores.
It is bizarre, then, going back to a game that I never actually played when it came out. This year Grim Fandango got its own remastered version. Many people consider it a classic, and it has also made its mark in the history of videogames as the last ‘true’ game of the adventure era. While adventure games never completely disappeared, the philosophy of design responsible for the classics from it –most of them by Lucas Arts or Sierra– vanished after Grim Fandango. By resurrecting Sam & Max, Telltale Games tried their hand at it, but the smaller scope inherent to episodic releases made them feel different than their older counterparts. They felt off.
I might have never played Grim Fandango before, but I was raised on adventure games. It will be sacrilegious to many, but The Curse of Monkey Island (1997) is my formative game; it occupied that place (terrible for some, incredible for others) where adventure games had abandoned the verb system, yet still had not moved on to tank controls in a genre that many still called “point ’n’ click.” The Curse of Monkey Island is the third game in its own series and most fans tend to have a negative opinion of it as it rewrites the canon of the franchise for the sole purpose of making a sequel possible.
Whatever, it is my childhood game, fans be damned.
The Curse of Monkey Island is segmented in six chapters. The second and fourth one each consist of a massive island that you can explore as your heart desires. They are also extremely hard, forcing the weirdest of weird adventure game logic puzzles onto players. Need to fix a boat? Why not use this biscuit cutter you found in a tree earlier on to make a plug? A bottle is too hard to open with your hand? If only you had some stronger muscles…
Playing this game was —often— frustrating as hell. Like any adventure game, getting stuck for hours on end was par for the course. I did not have reliable internet access, which meant that walkthroughs and FAQs were out of the question. The best tips I got were from friends at school, and adventure games were far from being the most popular genre with the rest of the nine-year-olds in my class.
But I was a kid, and only had one game to play at a time. It meant that I was either playing The Curse of Monkey Island or I was not playing videogames — at all. I had a lot of disposable time too, so bashing my head against an obtuse puzzle for hours on end was something I could feasibly do.
Getting stuck in an adventure game always ends with you inspecting everything and trying to combine every object in your inventory with every other object. By the time I finally figured out where I needed to go, I knew the geography of those islands like the palm of my hand. So much so that I can still, today, map most of them in my head.
These were places. Real places. Videogames tend to make incremental progression the basis of their gameplay loop. Thus, you are passing locales and progressing through them, but never stopping to inspect them further. Progression in an adventure game is a binary proposition: you either know the solution or you do not. In the latter case —which is more often than not— you are stuck revisiting the same areas over and over, to the point that they become routine. They become a place that you know so well. By heart even. A place that you live in until you find a solution and make some progress. Then they become part of the past.
Before starting it, I had no memories of Grim Fandango per se. I had seen previews of course, and it’s impossible to play games this long and not recognize the face of Manuel ‘Manny’ Calavera (he even has a cameo in Curse), but I had never played Grim Fandango before. Its puzzles were new to me.
A quick word on the update: Grim’s remastering is more about keeping the history of the game intact and playable to a new generation than making a contemporary reimagining of the old game. It is the same as before with a few minor changes, and thus has the same quirks typical of an older game. Namely, it has finicky controls –even with an updated interface– and the item management is as unwieldy as ever. If you are not constantly comparing the old version to the newer one, the updated graphics and music would not be apparent. Double Fine did a stellar job: it feels like the perfect memory of the game – if you had any.
Grim Fandango’s progression is segmented in four chapters. The game only started to click with me during its second chapter, notwithstanding that the transition between chapter one and chapter two which has become one of my favourite ellipsis in a videogame, ever.
The second chapter takes place in the city of Rubacava and –like the locals on Curse’s island– it offers a big open area, chock-full of detail, and brimming with puzzles that can be tackled in any order you want. It is also filled with characters that you can engage with, most of whom have a ton of conversation options that are not even necessary to the progression of the game. These characters exist, and they live in Rubacava.
When you start exploring Rubacava for the first time it feels overwhelming. The city seems massive, and every corner of the map links to a new place filled with new possibilities. It is hard to wrap your head around what you can do at first, so much so that you lose track of your main objective. Grim Fandango is not an easy game by any means, but it is still easier than most adventure games. That being said, I have spent a massive amount of time in the city of Rubacava.
By the time I was done, I knew the city and its many intricacies. I had exhausted every possible conversation option with all of the people that live there. I wandered around for hours solving puzzles without knowing how they would add to the main story. I was a resident like any other (although it’s possible I was the only one with a purpose). Suffice to say, I lived there.
And then I found the solution to the last puzzle and moved away.
No other chapter in Grim Fandango is as big and open as the second one is, but they all offer enough possibilities to feel like complete places. They offer options that surpass the mere progression of the game, because adventure games are not about progression.
I was obviously not nostalgic for Grim Fandango, but it made me reflect on the philosophy of game design it came from. A philosophy that was more interested in creating believable places –the living, breathing world so many marketing departments seem to talk about– than having a strong progression loop to go through.
The remastering of old games is a bizarre concept. Playing them often feels more like staring at an old photo than playing a game. They are triggers for our memories engineered by nostalgia. The quest for nostalgia is a fickle one. By definition, your memories cannot be relived. They are stuck in the past for you to reminisce about. Your friends, your projects, your goals, your successes and your failures, never to be lived again, but somewhere inside you –stuck deep down your brain– ready to fill you with emotions about things that will never happen again.
Adventure games don’t make much sense in my life anymore, not right now anyway. I am the kind of person who plays as many games as he can, wrongfully assuming quantity that quantity provides extended cultural value. A game that purposely blocks my progression (as adventure games do) is the exact antithesis of this.
And I love adventure games for that very reason, as I loved playing Grim Fandango so many years after its original release because it made me realize this. What I had lost in my quest to play as many games as I can, what videogames had lost by trying to constantly put the player in a state of progression, is that by impeding your progress, adventure games force you to inhabit their world. They create memories. They create nostalgia. You might never be able to replay them, as you will always remember the solution to their puzzles, but that’s the point. I might never be able to live in Rubacava like I did once, but I sure will always remember the place fondly.
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