Grim Fandango survived for 15 years on a mess of ancient storage devices that are about as easy to access today as eight-track tapes.
The frozen bits and bytes that combined to form the Land of the Dead and populate it with characters like Manuel "Manny" Calavera were released to critical acclaim in 1998, when Grim Fandango arrived in retail stores inside of boxes holding CDs. It was a time before widespread broadband and direct download services made purchases easy and games evergreen. In time, like all retail products, new boxes arrived and demanded shelf space. To those who hadn't purchased LucasArts' PC adventure game, Grim Fandango effectively disappeared.
Inside the LucasArts archives, the source files got backed up, categorized, shuffled and handed down.
Despite its official unavailability, Grim Fandango remained in the hearts and minds of many players, some of whom would go on to hold high-ranking positions at influential video game companies. A dedicated group of enterprising programmers even kept it running on modern PCs by reverse engineering its 3D-focused GrimE engine. But officially, and for more than a decade, Grim Fandango was relegated to BitTorrent and eBay, without a sanctioned way to purchase or play it.
It remained in suspended animation until one day, not very long ago, a group of Grim Fandango advocates got together to see if they could change things. United by their passion for the game, their frustration at its disappearance and their belief that it would thrive today, they worked out a plan.
And not long after that — after some awkward miscommunication, after everybody agreed and the deals got done and the papers got signed — developer Double Fine Productions producer Matt Hansen drove to LucasFilm, the parent company of LucasArts, to retrieve some old physical media. He left with a storage tub full of outdated technology.
Matt Hansen left LucasFilm with the source files for Grim Fandango.
Double Fine enlisted the help of an old LucasArts employee to help them unearth the data. Then, disc-by-disc and file-by-file, the San Francisco-based development studio founded by Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer started making the adventure game again.
Today, more than 16 years after its release, Grim Fandango returns, officially, on modern hardware. And it wouldn't have been possible without the coordinated efforts of those advocates at Disney Interactive, Double Fine, LucasArts and Sony Computer Entertainment, many of whom played and loved Grim Fandango when it was first released — and some of whom built the original game.
Polygon spoke with Tim Schafer, who wrote and served as the project lead on the original Grim Fandango, vice president of publisher and developer relations at PlayStation Adam Boyes, whose efforts culminated when he took the stage at E3 2014 to reveal Grim Fandango Remastered, and representatives from LucasArts and Disney Interactive to learn how, after so many years and false starts, they resurrected the beloved adventure game and brought the Land of the Dead back to life.
Tim Schafer is worried about bit rot.
While he's happy to know that fans of his games have kept them running, he's also worried about the original files. Anyone can save and back up data — and LucasArts had a process for doing so — but, over time, that data becomes less reliable. Backing up isn't like chiseling the rosetta stone. Over time, storage media like floppy discs and tapes degrade, as does the information written on them.
Schafer is one of the video game development industry's few rockstars. More Paul McCartney than Axl Rose, he gained prominence in the 1990s at LucasArts creating now-classic adventure games like Day of the Tentacle, the Monkey Island series and Full Throttle. They distinguished themselves from their contemporaries with their quirky characters and Schafer's baked-in wry sense of humor. He left LucasArts in 2000 and founded his own studio, Double Fine Productions, where for the last 15 years, he's created games like Brutal Legend, Psychonauts and Broken Age, the latter a modern adventure game that shattered Kickstarter records when it arrived on the crowdfunding platform in early 2012.
Though his trajectory at Double Fine was aimed at doing new things, Schafer also wanted to revisit old things. He knew and appreciated that Grim Fandango was still running, but he also knew that what ran was imperfect. He learned of grating bugs, like one that prevented Grim Fandango players from clicking on a character a second time. The game remained playable, but that bug left huge plot holes for old and new players alike. Plus, the longer they waited to do anything about it, the more the laws of physics would exact their toll on his games' saved data.
Schafer wanted to fix that. He and Double Fine tried for years to bring an updated version of the game to modern hardware. He imagined the video game equivalent of a Criterion Collection Blu-ray, with special features but without the walkie-talkies of E.T. or the supersaturated animals of the Star Wars Special Editions. But things never worked out with LucasArts, the original developer that also controlled the intellectual property for the game.
In the 2000's, after its 90's-era golden age, LucasArts underwent a series of rhythmic turnovers in upper management. Simon Jeffery served as president from 2000-2003. Jim Ward replaced him at the helm from 2004 until his resignation in 2008. Darrel Rodriguez filled the presidential role until his departure in May 2010. Paul Meegan succeeded him but left the company in August 2012, when he was replaced by the team of Gio Corsi and Kevin Parker. LucasArts' leadership changes didn't help Grim Fandango's chances of being remade at Double Fine.
"We tried from time to time," Schafer says, "and it would get close, but it wouldn't happen for one reason or another. Every time there'd be a change — you know, like a management change, we'd try again."
In October 2012, Disney announced its $4 billion acquisition of LucasFilm, the parent company of subsidiaries like LucasArts, and Schafer decided it was time to try his luck again. They discovered progress on the game, but not of the kind they were looking for.
"When we were trying to get ahold of them and do something with them," he says, "we heard, 'Well, there are other interested parties who are also pursuing them.' And we were like, 'What?'" Schafer says with mock shock and laughs. "We were completely filled with a sense of moral ownership. We really thought that we should be the people who should be bringing it back, because I had firsthand knowledge of the games and original intentions and so forth."
Disney, Double Fine and LucasArts were the obvious candidates to bring Grim Fandango back. Its fourth partner, Sony, was not.
Around the same time that Double Fine was exploring again, Adam Boyes, the vice president of publisher and developer relations at PlayStation, was also thinking about Grim Fandango.
Since early 2012, Boyes and his team have worked with every developer and publisher in North and South America that wants to bring a game to Sony devices. And in early 2013, the veteran of Capcom and Midway had old games on his mind.
"I've always had a massive lovefest for the stuff I played when I was young," Boyes tells Polygon.
He thought about the dormant games he loved in his formative years, perched in front of four-color games on his 286 and 386 family PCs. Boyes realized that, in his position at PlayStation, he and his team had the ability to find out their current status.
His thoughts flowed to LucasArts. Once a giant in PC gaming, the developer and publisher had largely moved on from creating games like X-Wing and The Secret of Monkey Island during its tumultuous 2000's. But surely, Boyes figured, the company still retained the rights to those intellectual properties.
"I was like, 'I wonder what happened to those things?'" he says. So he and his team started making phone calls to Disney and LucasArts, inquiring about the status of old IP like Grim Fandango.
In the days when Grim Fandango Remastered was little more than a dream discussed over cocktails, Boyes spoke to John Vignocchi, VP of Production at Disney Interactive Studios and a longtime fan of LucasArts games. Vignocchi's contacts and enthusiasm helped move the process along.
"As a kid, I literally grew up on LucasArts titles and attribute a lot of my own sense of humor to the writing in Grim, Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Day Of The Tentacle, Sam and Max, Indiana Jones and more," Vignocchi tells Polygon.
"I was too young to appreciate how clever Grim was specifically, but I remember that I really enjoyed it. In retrospect, Grim and those older adventure games are a lot like our films at Disney: While fun for a younger audience because of the writing and adventure, it has those winks-and-nods that make it fun for adults, too. It's a lot of fun to replay through it now as an older gamer."
In April 2013, Disney announced its plans to close the game development arm of LucasArts and focus on publishing. One of the casualties of that closure was Gio Corsi, who'd been tapped seven months prior to co-lead the studio. By July 2013, Corsi was working at PlayStation with Boyes, and he brought his knowledge of LucasArts with him. So when the folks at PlayStation started contacting the folks at Disney and LucasArts, Corsi was a natural asset.
Schafer says that Double Fine COO Justin Bailey had been talking with LucasArts for about a year, only to learn that "other interested parties" were also inquiring about Schafer's old games.
"We were like, 'Who? Who is trying to muck up our deal?' And Adam kind of raised his hand and was like, 'Me. Me. I am,'" Schafer says in his meekest voice.
Boyes admits to the faux pas with ease.
"What I didn't realize is that I had never asked Tim's permission to go digging around asking about his old stuff," he says. "So there was this sort of funny moment where I got a phone call from Justin over at Double Fine, and he was like, 'Yeah, you know how we've been talking about this Lucas stuff?' and I'm like, 'Yeah, yeah, of course.' and he's like, 'Have you been negotiating with them or talking to them directly?' and I'm like 'Yeah?' and he's like, 'Were you going to tell us about that anytime soon?' and I was like, "Oh, I'm so sorry! I totally forgot!"
With the news and apologies out, the companies scheduled a meeting.
"So we met with them, and instead of going to war, we decided to be friends," Schafer says.
Boyes describes the meeting as "a scene out of Grim Fandango" with lights half-lit, furrowed brows and an unstated worry that he was a suit there to "steal" the game from its creator.
"[Schafer] was like, 'What are you trying to do with my babies?' and I'm like, 'No! I'm a huge fan! The idea was always to work with Double Fine on these,'" Boyes says. "I'm one of those big believers that, I don't think you can really remake something without involving the people who created it — or at least have their blessing."
For Sony, hashing out the details of what would become Grim Fandango Remastered was a straightforward process. According to Boyes, Sony didn't want the IP. They just wanted to help bring the game back, particularly on Sony platforms.
"I like to say that we were just the helpers or the partial facilitators," he says. "But, realistically, it's still Disney's IP and Tim's making it."
The timing seemed right, and Sony was in a position to make it happen.
"I think that, with a lot of these things, when you add the power of a platform to a conversation, and the support that a platform can bring, it sort of legitimizes the project," he says.
To Boyes, a project like this becomes more viable when you frame it as "a PlayStation story" and can point to games like The Witness and No Man's Sky as well as Sony's marketing ability. It adds up to proof that Sony can back an idea up.
Though he didn't say whether or not Sony backed the game financially, he explained that there are reasons that Grim Fandango Remastered became a PlayStation console and handheld exclusive. Boyes likened the deal to Sony's Pub Fund, a program that provides companies like Guacamelee developer Drinkbox software with support, including funding and profit sharing, in return for exclusivity on Sony platforms. That exclusivity can be timed, as Guacamelee showed.
After so many years and so many failed attempts, Schafer found himself surrounded by allies.
"It seemed like, after all these years, it just felt like they really cared about the game and wanted to bring it out," he says.
But before anybody could rebuild Grim Fandango, Double Fine had to figure out how to resurrect it.
About a decade ago, Jory Prum found an old piece of computer hardware that he had no use for. On a hunch, he took it for himself and kept it in storage, just in case.
Prum is a LucasArts veteran who began his work as a sound designer just after Grim Fandango shipped, and he's sure he knows what got him the job.
"I used to have two resumes: a sound resume and a geek resume," Prum tells Polygon. "Michael [Land, LucasArts composer] had just gotten my geek resume when I came for my third interview … he looked at it and says, 'So, how come you know Macintosh assembly language?' and I'm like, 'Um, because it's useful?'
"But I know that because I actually did know that and had a lot of tech abilities, they looked at me as somebody who would help out in the department."
His tenure lasted from 1999 through 2000, when he worked on games like Escape from Monkey Island and a host of titles based on Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, which was released in mid-1999. His job was a culmination of a lifelong desire to work in the industry and at the company that created some of his favorite games and movies.
These days, he owns a recording studio just north of San Francisco, where he's worked with companies like Telltale Games — itself a studio founded by LucasArts veterans — recording sound and dialogue for series like The Walking Dead.
Last year, after Double Fine's Matt Hansen retrieved Grim Fandango's source files from LucasArts, that presented a new problem. Double Fine could get at what they had on floppy discs, but much of what remained was locked away on Digital Linear Tape, an outdated backup medium long used at LucasArts.
Composer and longtime Schafer collaborator Peter McConnell, whose credits include Double Fine's Costume Quest, Grim Fandango and the Sly Cooper series, needed to extract the information on those DLTs, so he emailed Prum for help.
Prum became familiar with the medium during his LucasArt stint, where the tapes were in heavy usage, and backing up was company policy. According to his research, DLT tape warranties boasted that their data would be viable for 30 years. The problem wasn't with the tapes, though. You can have all the tapes in the world, but that won't do you any good without hardware to read them.
That's when Prum's off-hand decision a decade earlier paid off. First thing in the morning on the day after he received McConnell's email, he headed to his storage unit and discovered that the hardware he held onto was, as he suspected, a DLT drive.
"The funniest part about this was, of course, I'd never even used this drive," he says. "I never plugged it in. I found it. Ten years ago, 11 years ago when I was starting to build my recording studio, I was taking all these trips of stuff out to the dumpster in the parking lot. And on one of the trips, there was a DLT drive sitting on top of the dumpster. And I'm like, 'Huh. A DLT drive. That could be useful.'"
It went straight from the dumpster to his storage where it sat, untouched and unused.
The DLT drive isn't the only old hardware that Prum keeps around. Just in case, he's got a PowerMac G4 with a SCSI interface, the kind with which the DLT hardware connects. So he fished out the right cable and plugged it in. The drive whirred to life, and the computer read the magnetic media inside.
Around that time, he also got an email from Matt Hansen, who had a tub of old LucasArts media. He brought 13 tapes to the studio. Some of them were labeled. Others weren't. The first four loaded without incident. The rest did not.
Inspired by his love of LucasArts and Sierra adventure games, Prum was determined to figure out what was wrong.
"To me, restoring those tapes was like an adventure game puzzle," he says. "That's the way I look at those things. It's a challenge. It's a puzzle. 'OK. How am I going to get this to work? What tools do I need? What computer do I need? What software? What's going to happen if I can't read the tapes? Oh, look! Half the tapes don't read.'
"The problem is, it's a puzzle that nobody else has the answer to."
Undeterred, the guy with the geek resume called the DLT drive's manufacturer, but found no help. So he scoured the internet, bought two more DLT drives and set out to uncover the content on the tapes. He worked the drives so hard that they overheated, and he had to let them cool down and start again the next day.
Using a program called Retrospect, he rebuilt the catalog files for each and, bit by bit, recovered Grim Fandango to the tune of nine hours per tape, including restoration. (The unlabeled DLTs, he discovered, were not related to Grim Fandango.)
When he was finished, he handed his work off to Peter McConnell, who took them to Double Fine. With the original files restored, the developer could assess its options.
The question before Double Fine was easy to pose: How do you remaster a modern classic? Its answer relied, in part, on what people like Jory Prum were able to recover. Ultimately, though, it became a question of what a proper remaster is. And to Tim Schafer and Double Fine, that was always about the source material and authorial intent.
Since its release 16 years ago, Grim Fandango has attained a legendary status as the arguable apex of a genre. It fit squarely within LucasArts' tradition of creating ever more advanced, best-of-breed adventure games, but it also fit into an established pattern of declining genre sales. Schafer says that the game was profitable. But for all of its advances and critical praise, Grim Fandango became an argument against further adventure game development.
At its release, Grim Fandango was the logical evolution of a genre that grew up inside the PC gaming technological revolution of the 80s and 90s, and it represented some firsts for LucasArts. It shifted from the 2D sprites of Day of the Tentacle, the Monkey Island series and Full Throttle to a new engine with 3D characters. It evolved past the point-and-click trope and let users control Manny manually — with a keyboard, gamepad or, as the manual points out, one of several flight sticks. It was, in short, everything that came before, but cranked up: more characters, more story, more technology underpinning it.
Grim Fandango also marked the end of an era — or at least the beginning of the end. As interest in adventure games waned — or was overshadowed by up and coming genres like shooters and strategy games — Grim Fandango also became a swan song for the kind of games that developers like LucasArts and Sierra spent the last decade-plus perfecting. In the following years, LucasArts moved on to other genres, and Grim Fandango's creator moved on to his own company. His first project there, 2005's Psychonauts, was a platformer.
Just because Schafer wasn't making adventure games didn't mean he'd left them behind, as evidenced by his determination to remake his old games. Now, thanks to Disney, LucasArts and Sony, he had an opportunity to revisit one of his best. And the first order of business was to figure out what Double Fine had.
File by file, the developers cataloged the information pulled from floppy discs and DLTs to recreate the original game as faithfully as possible. Now, what would they do with it? The answer is straightforward: Not much, because nothing much needed to be done. To Schafer, remastering should be about delivering the original game with the original intent, but tweaked to take advantage of modern technologies.
In the tradition of recent remastered products like those in the Halo series and LucasArts' own Monkey Island franchise, Grim Fandango Remastered will ship as a single product with two distinct but related parts. The first half is a canonical version of the original game, tuned to work on modern hardware. For the second half — the remaster — Double Fine took the original assets and updated them for a world full of modern technology and high definition displays. And nowhere was that more important to the developer than Grim Fandango's cast of 3D characters.
"We could always just keep going and going," Schafer says, "but in the time that we had, we wanted to focus on stuff I thought would matter most to the players, which are the characters.
"We wanted to focus on stuff I thought would matter most to the players, which are the characters."
"The backgrounds still hold up. Typically, it took a day to render them, at the time. They were rendered in Softimage, and they were rendered as high res as we could, and they don't look as dated as the characters. The characters were rendered on the fly in 1998, so they all look like the original Tomb Raider. That's where you're looking most of the time, anyway, so we focused on that. We focused on making Manny look good, making his sections look right, making his lighting look right."
To make Grim Fandango feel more modern, Double Fine developers started with the original images that formed the texture of the world. By today's standards, those tiny images look blown up, blurry and pixelated. By recreating them at significantly higher resolutions, Double Fine was able to retain the original look and feel of Grim Fandango without much noticeable alteration. They didn't stop there, though.
Grim Fandango's influences are as plain as the skull on Manny Calavera's shoulders. The adventure game is built upon a foundation of classic film noir sensibilities and pulpy detective fiction. Strong shadows and art deco inform the design, while punny, Raymond Chandler-inspired dialogue and characters fill its mysterious world. In the late 90s, LucasFilm pushed the technological envelope, but technology also limited what it could do. In a chiaroscuro world, for example, it wasn't always possible for characters to cast shadows on the ground, let alone on themselves.
With a light touch and modern capabilities, Double Fine added a bit of color to the world.
"One of the programmers made the mistake of saying, 'Now we have dynamic lights,' so he could do stuff like, when [Manny] lights a cigarette, it could light up his face. And I was like, 'Oh! We've got to do that!' and he was like, 'Oh — I don't know if we can. Like, we could do it, but I don't know if we have time.'"
Schafer kept on the programmer, and that lighting appears in Grim Fandango Remastered. Light touches like that are the guiding force of Double Fine's remaster. Characters will cast shadows now. When they walk up to a window, venetian blinds will cast shadows on them, too.
Improvements don't stop at the visual, though. The game's composer, Peter McConnell, wasn't happy with some of the digital samples he used to create the score, according to Schafer. While they were able to recover the original Pro Tools sessions for the audio, Double Fine also rerecorded the score with full orchestration, thanks to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, with whom the developer also worked on Broken Age. Grim Fandango Remastered players will hear the score in a new way during the game's credit sequence.
Double Fine did update the game with one significant nod to modernity, though: Grim Fandango Remastered players will have new control options, beyond the tank controls that shipped with the original game. In a nod to modern control schemes, and as a tacit acknowledgment that some have trouble role-playing as tanks, players can now make Manny move wherever they point their analog sticks. Double Fine even enlisted the help of a Grim Fandango modder, Tobias Pfaff, to bring point-and-click controls. The PS Vita version will let players tap to move.
Though rethinking the controls required extra effort, it fit within the overriding goal to modernize the game unobtrusively.
"It was a lot of work, right?" Schafer says. "A lot of new icons had to be made and all this stuff, but when people are playing it, a lot of people are just not going to notice. The game's just going to work, and they're just going to be playing it. They won't notice that we completely rejiggered the controls to be intuitive."
As a bit of meta icing on the undead cake, Schafer also reassembled the original Grim Fandango development team, sat them down, heated up some microphones and recorded hours worth of developer commentary — further fulfilling his goal of giving Grim Fandango the Criterion Collection treatment.
The story of Grim Fandango's return is the story of a generation of developers and players who grew up alongside the rise of video games. They never lost their love for what they made and played in their formative years. And now that they're in positions of authority, they used their influence to work together and bring those games back for old and new audiences alike.
"It's just a bunch of likeminded people who want great stuff to come to fruition," PlayStation's Boyes says. "It's not just about making dollars. Of course that's a nice benefit. But for us, we are all in positions now … where we can affect change and allow these game to be rediscovered by millions and millions and millions of people around the world that have only heard of it.
"To me it's super exciting. It's literally my favorite part of the job."
"It's literally my favorite part of the job."
As important as the people were, they aren't the only factors. Grim Fandango Remastered was also a harder sell before the era of digital distribution. It was a more difficult prospect before companies like Microsoft and Sony opened up their platforms to more developers. And that was a less obvious move before the rise of indie developers. Although each of these happened independent of each other, they all contributed to this new world where games like this become more plausible.
Grim Fandango Remastered is also the latest proof that Disney's acquisition of LucasArts is producing releases that LucasArts could not or would not do during its independence. Within the last few months alone, LucasArts rereleased several classic games, including Star Wars: X-Wing and its sequel, Star Wars: TIE Fighter with more that followed. At the PlayStation Experience last December, ex-LucasArts co-head and current Sony employee Gio Corsi invited Tim Schafer to the stage to announce another joint Sony/Double Fine project: Day of the Tentacle Remastered.
Todd Dubester, Disney Interactive’s VP and GM of strategy, business development and licensing, says that Disney recognizes players' interest and the value in its portfolio.
"Longtime fans and new players keep telling us that they want to play classic Disney and LucasFilm games," Nelson tells Polygon. "Even though technology and gaming platforms continue to evolve, the characters and stories of these classic titles has endured. From our collaboration with Double Fine to launch Grim Fandango Remastered to the lineup of games like Tron 2.0, Toy Story 3, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, and [the] Star Wars: X-Wing series that we offer through digital storefronts, our portfolio reflects continued interest in classic titles across Disney brands.
"As long as there are passionate gamers looking to play our games, we'll continue to look for new partnerships and distribution platforms that are good for our business."
It makes business sense, which is the argument that fans have been making for years. People wanted to play LucasArts games — some so much that they reverse engineered software to keep them alive — but they couldn't. Now they can, and those plans became apparent at E3 2014 with Grim Fandango Remastered's reveal.
Despite his enthusiasm, Schafer was at least a little worried about announcing the game at E3 in a keynote presentation where more bombastic and less cerebral games tend to telegraph better. His fears were allayed when Boyes took the stage to reveal the game.
"It's funny because some people had heard about it and were like, 'What's Grim Fandango?' to some people a little bit more in touch," Boyes says. "And I was like, 'Oh, trust me. This is going to be a huge, huge moment at E3. And it was basically the biggest reaction. People just sort of lost their minds."
For Tim Schafer, having Grim Fandango thawed, reconstituted and ready to play is the culmination of a very old dream to bring a world he created to the widest audience possible. He's selling the game again, which he admits is kind of weird. But Grim Fandango Remastered is consistent with the vision he had in the mid- to late-90's, when he spent three years in crunch mode creating a game that fried an entire team. They never quite had the time to stand back and celebrate it. Until now.
"What we were working very hard to do is create a world that is real with characters who felt real and a living space," he says. "And not living because we simulated all the cars driving around or anything, but living because it felt like there were characters that knew each other and talked to each other and had existed before you got there and will exist after you go. If you make that place feel real to people, people will want to go back there.
"I hope that's part of it. I hope that means we've succeeded in doing that."