What Is Gris: Overcoming Grief?

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If you haven’t heard of Gris, then you may have missed this game’s release. Gris is an indie platform-adventure game from Nomada Studios, published by Devolver Digital. Nomada teased the game for some time, primarily through Twitter, and then released it on December 13th, 2018.

The story of Gris is somewhat vague. There’s no dialogue to help you through the plot, just visuals, and music. When playing Gris, you never even meet another human-looking character. Symbolism is what communicates the story in this game. Despite that, I found myself faced with overwhelming emotion when playing the four or so hours it takes to beat Gris. Gris is about something many people can relate to: overcoming grief and dealing with trauma.

Gris
Credit: Gris, Nomada Studios

Note: This analysis and review isn’t exactly spoiler-free. However, I think the plot of Gris is vague enough that spoilers won’t mean much. If you want to be safe and experience Gris for yourself, I recommend giving it a go and then coming back to this article.

A Watercolor World

The first thing that got my attention in Gris is its visuals. Gris uses hand-drawn animations to portray qualities specific to ink work and watercolor. The player character, a girl in a dark dress, appears to be drawn mostly with ink. Meanwhile, the background is washes of watercolor. The colors of each environment you travel through in the game change throughout.

The game starts in black and white. Immediately, I thought of the title, Gris, which is French for grey. You move through three specific environments in the game, learning new abilities along the way to help you navigate. By the end, you have a set of tools that help you get through the puzzles. The environments, which function like levels, break up into chapters titled only by color.

Credit: Gris, Nomada Studios

First is Red, a harsh desert-like world, followed by a forest level called Green and a water level called Blue. These levels, in my personal analysis, mimic the girl’s travels through stages. They are her states of being, mentally.

Gris‘ Unique Visuals

The enemy of the game is a shifting flock of birds, which usually represent freedom, but in this game, chase the main character. The way the flock animates resembles a viscous liquid. To me, it looks like ink. It changes shape, from a giant bird at one point, to an eel in the water, and then finally a reflection of the girl herself. The black ink of the creature is also the same black as the girl’s dress. It is her negativity, a fear that haunts her and chases her and beats her down.

Gris
Credit: Gris, Nomada Studios

The visuals in this game are absolutely stunning. Along with Journey and Abzu, Gris is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. It combines a spectacular soundtrack by Berlinist with unique and expressive artwork to become a memorable experience. In my opinion, these qualities are enough to carry some of the things about Gris that fall flat, which I will expand on later.

Vague, But Universal Storytelling

Like I mentioned before, the story in Gris is vague. The visuals and soundtrack are the only things that give us clues. There is no dialogue, and there are hardly any characters. When I realized what the game was about, it made sense to me.

Throughout the game (once before every chapter begins, I think), the player character stands in the palms of large, decaying statues. The statues are all women with long hair, crying. On one level, the player character walks across the floor of a room full of these statues. The statues were curled up, covering their faces, and some holding their faces in their hands. I don’t want to spoil the ending of Gris, but these statues come back in an important way. They are monuments to the player character’s sadness and pain.

Gris
Credit: Gris, Nomada Studios

The vague storytelling in Gris isn’t a downfall of the game. Though some players might wish for more specificity, I think the openness of the narrative allows players to relate. The player character’s pain is something we can all empathize with in some way.

Is Symmetry A Weakness?

Gris employs pretty standard puzzle mechanics. The game requires the player to navigate 2D side-scroller maps, which are all pretty intuitive as far as direction goes. I was never confused about where I had to go or what I had to do. In order to create pathways or gain new abilities, the player has to collect bright, twinkling lights, which I will just call stars. These stars, once collected, follow the player character. Some obstacles require only two or three stars to pass, some require six or seven. The level design in Gris splits the stars equally.

Once in a map, you will generally be able to go further left or right to collect stars, and you can always go back to where you started. This symmetry makes goals very understandable. Once again, I never had issues knowing where I needed to go. However, I found that after some time, this got a little repetitive. I was never bored because the visuals and soundtrack kept me engaged, but some of the puzzles felt a little chore-like.

Gris
Credit: Gris, Nomada Studios

The other mechanics revolve around the player character’s dress — this amorphous, dark shape that flaps around her as she moves. The “abilities” you get in the game change the shape of the girl’s dress, giving it new attributes. For example, one ability the player learns changes the shape of the dress into a square. The girl becomes heavy, and the weight of her new shape allows her to break through floors. There’s a lot of pretty geometry in the game that reminded me a little of Monument Valley (in the best way possible).

Should You Play Gris?

Overall, Gris is extremely well worth playing. If you like animation, or if Gris looks your speed, try it out. It’s available on PC, Mac, and Nintendo Switch. I especially recommend it if you enjoy Monument Valley, Journey, or Abzu. If you’re a fan of indie games and good soundtracks, you’ll also like this one. The wonderful watercolor world of Gris really pulled me in, and the story of the girl coming to terms with her trauma and overcoming the grief associated with it was subtle and impactful.

I think it’s a very solid game, and the strength of the visuals is able to balance out any gameplay shortcomings. The game takes about 4-5 hours to play and can be downloaded through Steam, or through Nintendo for the Switch. To make sure you don’t miss any other games this winter, here are some titles we’re watching.

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