Grim Fandango is an adventure game, in which the player controls Manuel "Manny" Calavera ('calavera' being Spanish for 'skull') as he follows Mercedes "Meche" Colomar in the Underworld. The game uses the GrimE engine, pre-rendering static backgrounds from 3D models, while the main objects and characters are animated in 3D. The player controls Manny's movements and actions with a keyboard, a joystick, or a gamepad.
Manny must collect objects that can be used with either other collectible objects, parts of the scenery, or with other people in the Land of the Dead in order to solve puzzles and progress in the game. Unlike the earlier 2D LucasArts games, the player is informed of objects or persons of interest not by text floating on the screen when the player passes a cursor over them, but instead by the fact that Manny will turn his head towards that object or person as he walks by. Manny can engage in dialogue with other characters through conversation trees to gain hints of what needs to be done to solve the puzzles or to progress the plot. As in most LucasArts adventure games, the player can never get into a "dead-end" situation, due to the death of the character or another limitation, from which progress is impossible.