July 27, 2008
The Vintage Game Club has just finished the first chapter of Grim Fandango, and the responses are trickling in. If you’re looking for a quick summary, Michael has collected some excerpts from the forum on The Brainy Gamer; meanwhile, David has summarized his thoughts over at Malvasia Bianca, and I’ve written mine below.
I’m not very good at adventure games. I’ve played a couple of LucasArts titles (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sam & Max Hit the Road), a bunch of old Sierra games (Freddy Pharkas, Codename: Iceman, a few King’s Quest games), and three of the games in Cyan’s Myst series, and I was bad at all of them. Grim Fandango is no exception. Thankfully the game never punishes you for making mistakes, so my frustration is not compounded by getting killed or wasting important items. Even so, I found myself peeking at GameFAQs more often than I expected.
At the same time, I don’t think my incompetence is completely to blame, because to my mind some of the puzzles were pretty illogical. Michael “sparky” Clarkson wrote about this on the forum (and has also expanded his thoughts on his blog):
I thought the second puzzle was great, but the work order puzzle relied on what I think of as an illegitimate approach. The game world didn’t really provide any knowledge (although I may have missed something) that would enable you to solve the work order unless you act in a way that contradicts the character’s motives. Manny is desperate to get the order signed; unless he already knows what’s going on with Don it’s not reasonable for him to go outside. For the player, who knows that there must be some solution to this problem, leaving the building is reasonable, but forcing the player to use that knowledge breaks the immersion.
Grim Fandango is the culmination of years of adventure games, so I suppose it’s inevitable (and perhaps desirable for fans) that some knowledge is assumed. By this point in the genre’s development, it’s expected that the player will walk everywhere, look at everything, and try to pick up anything that isn’t nailed down. I managed to solve that puzzle only because I’ve played adventure games before, not because what I was doing made any kind of sense.
A ton of people on the forum have noted the game’s fantastic voice acting, and many are also impressed with the unique art direction, story, and characters. I’m of two minds about this. I agree that Grim Fandango is a cut above, but why are our standards so low? It seems to me that we don’t expect enough out of video games.
How is it, for example, that The House of the Dead 2 was released the same year but featured voice acting abysmal enough to spawn an Internet meme? Why is the voice acting in Oblivion, which came out two years ago, still not even close to Fandango‘s level? It’s not as though it’s a nascent field. And why are there so few games even now that have unique art direction or well-crafted stories?
The most obvious answer is that those aren’t the features that sell games. Grim Fandango, for all its critical acclaim, was a commercial failure; Halo’s story and characters have all the depth and nuance of a summer action movie, but the series has sold 20 million copies. With few exceptions, the bestselling video games are iterations of established successes, not wildly original ideas.
One of the interesting developments this week was Ben “10rdBen” Abraham’s exasperated departure from the month’s festivities; says Ben, “Any game that thinks its OK to have me flounder about for hours on end searching for some ridiculously obtuse solution to a puzzle is just not my kind of game.” The ensuing discussion led Michael to ruminate on whether puzzles have a place at all in contemporary video games.
I have issues with some of the puzzles myself, as I said above, so I can sympathize with Ben’s plight. At the same time, though, I love the rest of the game enough to want to see it through regardless of my complaints about the gameplay.
The thing is, if you rely on walkthroughs to solve the puzzles in an adventure game, that’s all there is — you’re not playing anything anymore. Interactivity is the defining feature of the video game medium, and removing it makes the experience into little more than watching a movie (albeit a very entertaining one, in this case). Luckily, word on the forums is that the frustrating puzzles in the first chapter are an aberration, so things are looking up for an adventure game chump like me.