Snazzy, beloved noir adventure game Grim Fandango is getting resurrected: better graphics, new controls, new music — the works. Not so long ago, however, the game was seemingly lost to time, and Double Fine had to go on a journey involving chains of people, stolen hard drives, and lost code to save it.
Originally released on PC in 1998, Double Fine's Day of the Dead-themed noir mystery has been out of commission for more than a decade. In the intervening time, it's become harder and harder to even get your hands on a copy of the game; let alone get it to work on a modern operating system. Dedicated fans have found ways to emulate the game, but for many the hassle has been just too much. The best-case scenario has long been a new version rebuilt for modern systems.
Happily, that best-case scenario has come to pass: the game is currently being remastered for PS4, Vita, and modern PCs. However, remastering a game isn't as simple as whipping out a computer, tightening up the graphics on level three, and calling it a day. To really get it right — to make sure the original game is preserved in full — creators need to do some serious digital archaeology. Games aren't just creatively arranged webs of 1s and 0s. They're the machines and settings that were used to create them at the time—not to mention the people. To make matters worse, the gaming industry isn't great at preserving its history, and that was an especially big problem back when Grim Fandango was made.
"It's frustrating because if we had just saved the right files, it'd be so much easier", Double Fine head (and original Grim Fandango project lead) Tim Schafer told me at his company's Day of the Devs event in San Francisco. "The producers and the programmers and everyone on the team has been calling up [people]. Going through official channels and unofficial channels."
Grim Fandango was originally made in the late '90s, and time, people going their separate ways, and the full-on closure of LucasArts scattered many of its pieces to the wind. LucasArts is where Tim Schafer and many other adventure game luminaries got their start, the house that pumped out classics like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Full Throttle. Grim Fandango dropped toward the end of LucasArts' famed adventure game run, during a time when the genre was said to be dying. Recovering its parts, then, was a challenge, when it was even possible.
"We've been doing things like, 'I remember this one artist who left [the company] early, and maybe he stole a hard drive [containing crucial data],'" he said. "We've just been calling people saying, 'Did you... did you save anything?'"
You may be thinking, huh, this doesn't sound entirely legal! Stealing is bad. Well, Schafer's pretty sure this is all still on the up-and-up.
"We don't want to get anyone in trouble [by naming names]," he confessed. "You're not supposed to take stuff when you leave a company, obviously. They don't want to come out and be like, 'I did it!' Most stuff we've gotten through official channels. Nothing illegal is going on."
The gaming industry is rife with personnel changes and layoffs, and some people snatch up whatever they can before taking one last stroll through the big revolving door. For some it's a way of holding onto their body of work, but it also further drives home the point that many gaming companies do a bad job of preserving their past.
"A lot of people I know, when they've left companies, some of them grab everything they can", said Schafer. "Others are like, 'Eh, I'm just gonna leave that here,' and they often wish they'd taken more. Because then a company will fold or change owners or not care anymore, and the people who care about the old stuff moved on."
"A lot of it is the mental state you're in when you're making a game," he said, explaining why many studios neglect to keep every last shred of a game's creation. "You give it your everything, and you're completely exhausted. On the last day you wrap it up, send off the final build, and then you're like, 'Ugh, I never want to see that again.' So it's hard to be like, 'OK, now we need to talk about archiving.' You try to get the team to take care of that, and it's like being at a family gathering where you want everybody to take a group photo. You're like, 'Everybody get together!' and they're like, 'Shut up, we're having fun.' But you're like, 'You'll thank me in 30 years if you just get together and let me take this picture.'"
For Grim Fandango specifically, Schafer and co. have had to go down a chain of ex-coworkers and people who've worked at LucasArts over the years. They would start with company archivists, which led to another person and another and another until… they ended up at their old stomping grounds.
"I got another name and another name and eventually walked out of Lucas with a tub of tapes that were in this format I'd never even heard of before", said Schafer. "But we found out that one of our old co-workers collected obscure drives, and we were able rebuild a lot of it. We were able to get a lot of the frames of the original cut-scenes un-compressed and a lot of the Pro Tools sessions of the music."
The latter is especially key since Double Fine is re-orchestrating large chunks of Grim Fandango's soundtrack. They need the originals as a point of reference. But even then, Schafer admitted that Double Fine couldn't get everything. Some parts of Grim are simply lost, buried beneath the sands of time or probably, like, some cobweb-strewn boxes of old Star Wars VCR tapes. So they've had to make do, get creative.
"There's a barrier of going in and breaking certain things in the code," explained Schafer. "Like, we don't want to go so deep that all the sudden the whole thing falls apart. We're repainting all the textures for the characters. That's something where we couldn't find the original high-res versions of those textures, so it's faster to just paint them again ourselves."
"There's an emblem on [character] Salvador Limones's hat, and it was so low-res that we couldn't tell what it was," he added. "And I still haven't figured it out. We were going back to the original concept art to try and find out. In those cases it's up to our artists to use a bit of creative freedom combined with research."
Schafer also confessed that he's forgotten some of the puzzles he helped make back in the day. "It's so embarrassing," he laughed.
There is, however, one more resource Double Fine's been able to draw on: fans. Longtime Grim lovers who've reverse-engineered aspects of the game themselves, usually without the benefit of original hardware, settings, or anything like that. Just smarts, dedication, and an un-abiding love of kooky skeleton men.
"It's interesting," said Schafer. "A company can take care of its own history, employees will sometimes take care of a piece of its history, and then sometimes fans will do the job. Like, they're the ones who kept Grim running over the years with things like [emulator] SCUMMVM. Fans kinda walk the line with that stuff. They make sure they're not pirating the games—just providing a way to play them."
Fan projects kept passion for Grim Fandango alive, something for which Schafer is extremely grateful. Some fans went even further than that, though. Some made the game better.
"There was a guy, Tobias Pfaff, who made a point-and-click version of the game, which is something we didn't do at the time because I was so into console games", Schafer explained. "I was playing Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII, and I just wanted to push characters around with a stick. Clunky tank controls! But looking back, I'm like, 'Why didn't I even make point-and-click an option?' So Tobias did that, and we had him come in and he volunteered to share his code with us."
"You don't really see that in films", he added. "Like, the original versions of films sat in a vault and rotted until Martin Scorsese came along and saved them. With games, they're out there, and fans who are smarter than us at this stuff have reverse engineered them and taken them apart and made them run again."
Grim Fandango's remastered version will be out next year on PC, PS4, and PS Vita. If it does well, we could be looking at more remasters of LucasArts classics, or even a Grim Fandango sequel. Probably don't get your hopes up too much for that second one, though.