PSX: Tim Schafer Brings Grim Fandango Back from the Dead

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Tim Schafer had a pretty good PlayStation Experience. Not only was he one of the most popular panelists at the show, but he had three games in the keynote: Grim Fandango Remastered, first revealed at E3; Broken Age, which will hit the PS4 and the PlayStation Vita when the second chapter releases on PC early next year; and the freshly announced Day of the Tentacle: Special Edition, a remake of his beloved 1993 adventure game. Throughout the weekend, Schafer couldn’t seem to go more than a few steps without being stopped by an adoring fan or appreciative developer.

And why not? If anyone deserves praise, it’s Schafer. Without his work at LucasArts during the ‘80s and ‘90s, modern-day gamers probably wouldn’t be enjoying the adventure game renaissance spearheaded by developers like Telltale Games and Schafer’s own Double Fine Productions. During a PSX panel on video game storytelling, industry heavyweights Neil Druckmann and Ru Weerasuriya both cited Schafer as a major influence on The Last of Us and The Order: 1886, respectively.

That’s not just flattery. Later in the same panel, Schafer argued that “story and gameplay and character are all the same thing… they all have to work, and they all have to support each other.” It’s easy to see how The Last of Us and The Order: 1886 build on that concept while still trying to push digital narrative forward. Schafer isn’t the only early developer to combine play with plot (Ken and Roberta Williams, who were honored at the previous night’s The Game Awards, also come to mind), but he’s one of the most renowned. Without Schafer’s contributions, digital narratives wouldn’t be as mature as they are today.

That’s why it’s so exciting to see his classic titles revived on present-day consoles. While Day of the Tentacle: Special Edition is still in early development, Grim Fandango Remastered was all over the show floor. After a few minutes with the title, it was clear that this was very much the same Grim Fandango that players know and love, but revised to make it more palatable for modern audiences.

For those who haven’t played it, Grim Fandango follows the story of Manny Calavera, a dead travel agent who helps the recently deceased navigate the Land of the Dead. It’s a game that fuses native Day of the Dead iconography with a film noir plot, and while some of the puzzles feel a little convoluted and obtuse, the core game is still as funny and charming as ever.

A noisy convention floor isn’t the best place to play a dialogue-heavy, plot-driven adventure title, but even so, the demo showed off some major improvements. With the remastered version, Grim Fandango has undergone a complete visual overhaul, thanks to a team led by art director Mark Hamer. When the original title first launched, it was lauded for its graphics, which featured 3D characters walking over pre-rendered 2D backgrounds. By today’s standards, they’re fairly crude. While Grim Fandango Remastered gives nostalgic players the option to switch between the old and new graphics, there’s not much point to doing so. On HD screens, the old 3D graphics are hard to look at, and the remake’s dynamic lighting systems and new animations give Manny and his skeletonlike companions a very cool Tim Burton-esque vibe.

The audio has also been remastered by sound designer Camden Stoddard, and while Schafer says that there’s no new in-game content, he’s recorded an extensive developer commentary to accompany gameplay. When players guide Manny to an object or location with commentary, an icon appears in the upper left corner. Simply press the left trigger, and Schafer’s voice starts playing over the in-game soundtrack. Some of the commentary isn’t particularly relevant (for example, Schafer goes into a weird amount of depth about New York’s old pneumatic messaging system), but it’s an interesting glimpse into the mind of one of the industry’s most influential developers.

With all that said, Grim Fandango is very much a product of its time, and its deliberate pace and dialogue-driven gameplay might be too slow for some. Still, younger players interested in video game history – or older ones looking to relive a beloved classic – should pay attention on January 27, 2015 when Grim Fandango Remastered hits the PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and PC.

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