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Five Game Design Lessons Learned Playing Grim Fandango Remastered

I have a special place in my heart for Grim Fandango. It’s a playable hero’s journey but with unionized bees, mad florists and squid-powered subs. Here are the top five favorite game design tips learned while playing Grim Fandango.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse here.

Image Credit: Double Fine Productions

Image Credits Double Fine Productions 

We all have favorite games and within those games, moments that make them special. Like many 90’s PC gamers, I have a special place in my heart for Grim Fandango. The cinematic world created by the Grim Fandango development team was a huge inspiration. It’s a playable hero’s journey but with unionized bees, mad florists and squid-powered subs.

Thanks to the release of Grim Fandango Remastered, I’m able to relive that journey. Like other LucasArts re-releases, Grim Fandango has an optional game commentary track players can activate during play. Listening to the creators reminisce about the game’s production is like having a backstage pass to one of my all-time favorite games. It’s like a GDC panel you can go to in your pajamas... while eating snacks. SCORE!

Image Credit: Double Fine Productions

Here are the top five favorite game design tips learned while playing Grim Fandango Remastered:

1. You can make your design better by standing on the shoulders of giants. During the commentary, design guru—Tim Schafer — cites a variety of amazing references in Grim Fandango. To name a few examples, Tim admits the game takes styling cues from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, has sets based on the 1969 children’s cartoon Frosty the Snowman, iconic costumes inspired by Casablanca, countless archetypes from other gritty film noir classics and even nod to Popeye the Sailor. Having varied sources of inspiration will not only make for richer worlds, but it makes your design research more fun. Inspire yourself and then inspire others by making something great when you’re done.

2. Good designers rise to the challenge of working with limitations. I listened to challenges the Grim Fandango team faced due to basic 3D graphics available at the time. It’s hard to engage players when your characters are basic geometric shapes with rough textures…or is it? Tim explained that seeing a paper-mâché skeleton got him thinking creatively. The rounded torsos of the skeletons with painted on ribs would be perfect for their new 3D graphic style. The debonair skeletal protagonist, was an elegant solution to a practical design limitation. Creating good designs means understanding yours tools and making them work to your advantage.

Image Credit: Double Fine Productions

3. Put a little bit (or a lot) of yourself in your designs. Grim Fandango includes a girl from Tim’s fourth grade class, a puzzle based on a college prank, his plucky production manager, and his darkest fear —winged spiders. While we may not have known directly, adding real experiences and characters into the game made it richer and more detailed. The Grim Fandango team developed a game filled with true-life experience that gives it a foundation of authenticity. So go out there, live some adventures and make some memories! You never know what might ignite your creative spark.

4. Just because you make a persuasive argument, doesn't mean it’s right. Tim talks a lot about how hard he fought for tank controls to help create a bond between player and on screen characters. When using tank controls, a player must use the character as central reference for movement. Players would identify as Manny and take on his perspective during play. Tim felt this control style was preferable than passive point and click interaction. While that sounds psychologically compelling, in reality it’s a huge pain to control. Tim admits in retrospect that while it was a great argument, the more cumbersome control scheme might not have been the right choice. Beware of your own amazing arguments getting in the way of a practical usable design.

5. Great design evolves, so go with the flow. Obviously, Tim Schafer did not wake up from a dream one night with the script of Grim Fandango fully-formed. In fact, during the commentary he shared how “sprouting”, the iconic method of death AFTER death in the Land of the Dead, was actually designed during production. Death and murder is a big part of many of the film noir classics like The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon used as references in the game. But what was left to terrify or instill fear into a character that was already dead? The team decided to brainstorm a solution, and created the ominous death by flowers we know as “sprouting.” While not an initial part of the design, it fits perfectly with both Day of the Dead traditional practices and makes for one heck of a creepy flower field in the game’s final act. So just remember, there’s nothing wrong with work in progress. Games like Grim Fandango are built by a team in an iterative and collaborative process.

Thanks for taking a nostalgic trip with me through four years in the Eighth Underworld with Manny, Glottis, Meche and the Grim Fandango production team.

Did I miss something? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Lauren Preston is geeky gamer with ten years professional experience in web and five years in kids gaming. Experienced in social game design, community management and creative production.

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