There’s something that doesn’t quite sit with me with the premise of this piece, despite making some interesting points.
It’s hard to recommend a game this old without being able to say why it’s important, without being able to say that it represents some seminal moment where a new idea emerged into video games. Grim Fandango was not such a moment. It is very much an artifact of its era, one that I love. But I can’t make a case for it as required reading, because it finds itself at the dead end of its ideas.
It’s this bit.
Firstly, this very idea of ‘required reading’ - it’s something I very much dislike in discussions of art. The idea that something becomes important enough that you absolutely need to have seen/read/played it in order to be able to effectively take part in discussions feels like a kind of intellectual gatekeeping. Required reading suggests that if you haven’t, you are somehow unequipped.
Secondly, even if I give a charitable interpretation of ‘required reading’ as someone saying that it’s something they highly recommend people play because of its significance, I feel a bit weird about the idea that we judge what counts as this on the criteria of ‘importance’, what influenced later work. It is indeed interesting to discuss why someone was influential and what things were influenced by it. And something being that kind of watershed moment in the development of an artform is definitely a reason for it to be talked about, and re-played for its historical value, arguably.
Buuut… is that really the only reason something should be required viewing/playing/reading/whatever? I like the first Back To The Future for all I think that it has a ton of flaws in its themes and characters. I think it’s just a fun ride and it’s always been a favourite of mine. But more than that, it’s often a film that is taught in film schools because it does a particular thing really well - it’s really tightly edited. Nearly every moment in the film is doing something to advance the plot. It’s really lean, it just does that particular thing super well. And that’s enough for it to be ‘required viewing’ according to a lot of people teaching film.
But break it down, and it’s pretty obvious it’s not really an important film. It isn’t doing anything with editing that was never done before or set the stage for future film making. It’s just an excellent example of editing for plot and stands up as that.
Can’t we say the same about Grim Fandango? That it does certain things particularly well? If nothing else it’s a game whose writing still feels sharp, witty and human at a time when the most popular games - first person shooters were at the sophistication level of the first Half Life. That’s not nothing. The ambition of its soundtrack too was quite something, and the art direction. I guess what I’m saying is if we have to have a concept like ‘required reading’, isn’t it qualifying enough that is does certain things really, really well?