White Awake by Daniel Hill, Free for CAPC Members
White Awake brings us back again and again, gently but inexorably, to the truths that we’re so unwilling to face, steadily prying our hands from our eyes.
For a long time, there has been a Holy Grail of sorts among the gaming community—the game Grim Fandango. Constantly praised as the best adventure game, the most intuitive point-and-click interface, and the finest work ever produced by Tim Schafer (Psychonauts, Full Throttle, Broken Age), it has long been sought after by those familiar with its legend. However, the game had not sold well on its release by LucasArts in 1998, and as a result it was discontinued (along with most of LucasArts adventure line) a few years later. As it had only been available on discs, and those who had them were reluctant to part with them, copies of the game became elusive and expensive.
However, Sony, which recently purchased the rights, re-released a re-mastered version of the game this past year, making it finally available to many curious fans, including myself. To my delight, I found it not only as whimsical and well-made as its reputation suggested but also surprisingly powerful in its treatment of death and life. Grim Fandango, through its gameplay and narrative, offers not so much an image of the afterlife as a depiction of this life, where characters must come to terms with the finality of death and look forward to a new salvation. What that new salvation will look like is a mystery, but merely the journey is important.Grim Fandango is not really about the afterlife . . . It is, instead, about simply accepting the fact of death, and about welcoming new experiences and new life wherever they present themselves.
Grim Fandango is a bizarre point-and-click adventure game, set in the eighth underworld of the Land of the Dead. The eighth underworld is remarkably mundane, and little is required of each soul, save to journey across it to reach the ninth underworld. Manny Calavera, the game’s protagonist, is a Grim Reaper—an especially bad soul who must first work off his misdeeds by working for more deserving souls, whose good deeds can merit them various “travel packages.” However, when he discovers a saintly woman named Mercedes has somehow been robbed by her ticket, he embarks on a quest to find both the woman and her missing ticket, reasoning that it will grant him his release from the underworld.
In terms of gameplay and art design, the Grim Fandango is excellent. Adventure games—particularly those in fantasy worlds—often suffer from having contrived or ludicrous puzzles that are too difficult, but Grim Fandango’s puzzles (with a few exceptions) are easy and natural to figure out. The characters are engaging and amusing—Glattis, Manny’s driver, is especially a hit—and the overall world is fascinating to behold. It resembles an odd hodgepodge of old noir movies and Aztec mythology. The highly stylized art means that the quality of graphics is irrelevant, and while the game is far from lush, still there are surprisingly beautiful moments in the game.
Grim Fandango is not a spiritual reflection on the afterlife, nor should it be taken as one. The Eighth Underworld is merely set dressing: the drama of the souls robbed of their ticket to paradise is largely a device, though at times a very compelling one. In fact, Fandango’s afterlife is essentially another life, where people live, work, and even die—via an odd process called “sprouting,” where the skeleton is seeded with fast-growing flowers, a process that somehow kills the already-dead soul. The afterlife in the world of Grim Fandango is actually a very unjust place, peopled with criminals and con artists, governed by no one save an apathetic gatekeeper, who states, “The Gate opens, the Gate closes, it does not help.” In this death-as-life world, there seems to be little to glean about death or salvation.
However, there are certain important lessons to glean from the game. There is a chief virtue in the Land of the Dead—the willingness to set the old life aside and pass on to the new one. In the game’s beginning, newly dead (and morally bankrupt) soul Celso Flores pleads, “I don’t want a travel agent. I just want to go home.” Manny replies, “Why, Celso, you can’t go home, you’re dead!” Flores represents one side of the Land of the Dead—people who honestly don’t want to accept that they’re dead. Despite the fact that Manny describes the seventh underworld as merely a waypoint for the souls journeying to the land of eternal rest, many souls seem more interested in running restaurants or shipping lines or even criminal empires than truly moving on to their rest. One of the central villains, Domino, puts it this way: “We’re not interested in getting out. We’ve figured out how to make the Land of the Dead work for us.” Domino, and many souls like him, don’t want to let go. They don’t want to move on to eternal rest. They instead focus on creating petty empires in twisted mockery of the “Land of the Living.” Celso Flores is, in fact, found in the game’s final act, still in the city where he started in, while Manny has already gone to the gate and back.
Deserving souls, on the other hand, are filled with an earnest desire to pass on. Manny is the first example of this. Though stuck in a job where he must work off his sins before he can even start on his journey, he wants desperately to leave and pass on to his eternal rest. Similarly, Mercedes, the “perfect soul,” leaves Manny’s office immediately on being told there is no travel package, stating that she has a long walk and needs to get started. Another of Manny’s clients, who is portrayed as irascible and unpleasant, expresses a desire to upgrade his travel package, and finally states that “this world’s for suckers!” He, unlike Celso, is found at the end of the world, waiting at the gate. These good souls accept that they are dead, that their time in life is over. They have no wish for the things of the eighth underworld; it is to them a temporary home. The chief good in Grim Fandango is the desire to pass on, to leave the old world behind and embrace the new world.
This good is expressed through the medium of travel. It is no coincidence that Manny is a travel agent, that the entire purpose of the eighth underworld is to be traveled through, and that the journey itself qualifies one for entry into the eighth underworld. Travel is about seeking out new places, new people, and new experiences. The game is split into four parts, each of which ends when Manny has traveled to a new destination, with its new people, new challenges, and new experiences. The willingness to put old things behind—like Manny’s job, his diner, and his ship—and pass on to new things—like the quest to save the lost souls—is the central salvific device in Grim Fandango.
The sanctifying effect of this travel is shown in the character of Manny. When we first meet him at his job, Manny is a cynical, cheating bureaucrat who will do anything to get ahead of his co-workers. His travels, though, change him from cynical bureaucrat to cold but caring restaurant owner, to considerate ship’s captain, to loving hero—changes that are often demonstrably linked to the travels Manny has undergone. The people Manny meets—Mercedes, Glattis, Lola, the Angelitos—inspire new feelings of empathy, of responsibility, and of sacrifice. By the time Manny’s travels have taken him to the gate at the end of the world, those same travels have changed him from a man who only sought release to a man willing to forego his own salvation for the aid of others.
This explains much, including the sequence at the gate at the end of the world. The worse the soul, the longer the journey must be. The Gatekeeper will not allow perfect souls if they have sold their ticket, because it implies that they did not truly wish to move on. Similarly, souls that have worked to buy an illegally obtained ticket have not undergone the sanctifying effect of travel—they have remained stagnant and do not want to change, and therefore are damned to hell.
In its own way, Grim Fandango is making a comment about the finality of death and the necessity of accepting it. At the end of the game, when Mercedes asks Manny if they will be together in the next world, Manny replies: “Nobody knows what’s gonna happen at the end of the line, so you might as well enjoy the trip.” Grim Fandango is not really about the afterlife—as Manny points out, and as the game’s bizarre nature suggests, no one knows what it will be like. It is, instead, about simply accepting the fact of death, and about welcoming new experiences and new life wherever they present themselves.
Christians have always recognized the presence and reality of death, not as something to be sought after, but also not as something to be feared. We are to welcome it when it comes, not cling to the things of this world, which are ultimately passing. Instead we see it as the gate to another world, which is indeed a mystery to us. However, we also, like Manny, must enjoy the trip that we experience in this life, learning to be content with whatever state we are in as we await our final home. We have our own journey to undertake, a journey that we must neither rush nor avoid. God’s work of sanctification, of making us holy, must be completed. We must take the adventure God has given to us, understanding that he uses it as a means of making us anew.
It hardly needs saying that the afterlife will not resemble the neo-noir pseudo-life presented in Grim Fandango or its salvific plan of a simple journey to the other side. Christians should take the game’s setting with a grain of salt and instead look beyond to the more complex truth at its heart. Death is not to be feared, but also life is to be enjoyed, as the puzzles and challenges it presents us with are part of God’s plan to bring us closer to him.
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