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One of the main reasons that LucasArts’ Grim Fandango remains a cult classic is its brilliant use of dialogue. As with any well-written piece of fiction, every word works hard. The theme and plot are reinforced with every line, but not in a way that feels heavy-handed. Conversely, most lines are amusing, but not so crammed with jokes that they’re obnoxious.
It’s a very subtle balance, and one that many point-and-click adventure games tend to get wrong by providing an excess of one-liners (possibly in an attempt to mimic Grim Fandango’s effortlessly cool style).
Take this series of lines from Don Copal, protagonist Manny’s boss, from the opening of the game:
“All right you boneheads, thank your lucky stars and get to your freakin’ cars! We have a mass poisoning on our hands! Too many dead to assign specific cases, so all clients are FIRST COME FIRST SERVE! So as you sow, so shall you reap, and as you reap, so shall you receive your commission!”
This dialogue provides the player with so much. We’re informed of the entire conceit: Manny is a reaper who works for commission. Boneheads is a reference to how Manny and his fellow characters look -- they’re all calaca-like skeleton figures – and it’s also a light-hearted dig that conveys the brusque personality of Copal. Further, it suggests the era; ‘bonehead’ is a term more commonly used between the twenties and fifties than today. This matches with the game’s film noir style.
Then there’s the humour in the lines. Absurdity is the basis of most comedy, and it’s absurd to hear someone so giddy about a mass poisoning. It’s a serious matter, and yet for these characters it’s an exciting opportunity that makes them happy. That contrast is innately funny.
To be able to convey so much in only four short lines is an immensely impressive feat. As the game continues, the dialogue remains one the game’s central joys, which is important considering how frustrating it can be when you’re stuck in a point-and-click game. Keeping the player amused even while they curse the game maker’s twisted mind isn’t easy, but it’s just another example of why Grim Fandango’s dialogue is second to none.