Play Stuff Blog

Been Here Before: Same Landscapes, Different Stories in Video Games  

In college, I spent much of Critical Reading loathing the professor’s love of American Romanticism and wallowing in my disdain for his assigned texts. Many of my classmates held similar sentiments, but we kept quiet during discussions of titles such as “Bodily Harm: Keats’ Figures in the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’” However, I will never forget the rapid-fire conversation about how individual experience shapes varying degrees of reality. We all had encountered many of the same things—holidays, historical events, tedious assigned texts, relationships—yet none of us recounted the tales in the same way. It quickly became clear that the individual’s perspective shapes the story. Just take a look at how these three games distinctively depict the land of the dead.

In 1998, Tim Schafer’s interest in both the Mexican celebration known as the Day of the Dead and film noir inspired him to create Grim Fandango, a graphic adventure computer game. Schafer told the San Francisco Gate he thought, “what role would a person want to play in a Day of the Dead scenario? You’d want to be the grim reaper himself,” and that’s how the main character, Manny, and the game play evolved. Many of Schafer’s scenes incorporated film noir techniques such as shadows and skewed angle shots that resembled those in Double Indemnity, Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca. The player guides Manny as he attempts to acquire more elite clients, described as virtuous souls who reach the Ninth Underworld of eternal rest more quickly than sinners. Schafer expertly wove together elements from contrasting places and times. He based the skeletal characters on Day of the Dead calacas.  The game’s landscapes include Art Deco skyscrapers, Aztec temples, and hot rods and demons inspired by the art of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.  With the South American folk music, jazz, and swing and big band sounds, Schaefer’s land of the dead makes me sing “fiesta.”

A little more than a decade after Schafer’s success, Limbo, brainchild of Art Jensen at independent game studio Playdead, hit the scene. Jensen created a “mood image” or “secret place” to sketch his ideas, which led to the backgrounds for Limbo. Unlike the retro-Hollywood feel of Grim Fandango, Limbo explored the underworld’s dark side. The game’s only tag line read, “uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.” The developers deemed Limbo a “trail and death” game, but Jensen refused to provide a tutorial text and instead hoped a player drew her own conclusions about the game’s meaning. Like Grim Fandango, critics commented on Limbo’s resemblance to a film noir. The game’s silhouettes and dark, grayscale graphics combined with a film grain filter set an eerie tone. The soundtrack of non-traditional music highlights other sounds in the environment, like the electric twinge of broken hotel sign, and solidifies the mood. Limbo does not evoke in me any thoughts of a colorful fiesta—I thank Jensen for providing the option to black out some of the gory scenes.

More recently, the Papa Team at Somethin’ Else released Papa Sangre, a first-person thriller iPhone game. Papa Sangre is a video game with no video. The player’s only resource for working his way through the land of the dead is audio. The Papa Team tells a player that he “is in the afterlife that takes the form of a malevolent, unpredictable carnival: imagine a Mexican graveyard on the Day of the Dead.” At first this reads much like Grim Fandango, but then the team tells the player that it’s a cemetery “with the lights turned out.  You’re the piñata for a host of partying monsters.” The team implemented binaural methods of sound recording. Two microphones create a 3-D sound sensation and what ensues is a series of clangs, clatters, growls, and scratches that arouse panic. Playing Papa Sangre reminds me of watching a scary movie with my eyes shut.

I assume that none of the designers mentioned above frequent the land of the dead, but it’s evident that each creator’s experience shapes the story and scenes that unfold in these breathtaking games.