by Stacy Moore
While scrolling through the endless selection of indie games, I found myself stopped on a hauntingly beautiful, watercolor-style image for a game called Gris. The image was a portrait of a girl, with a single tear streaming down her cheek, her eyes directed downward in sorrow. The game description from Nomada Studio, the makers of Gris, explains that it is about ‘a hopeful young girl lost in her own world, dealing with a painful experience in her life. The player helps Gris grow by solving puzzles and challenges, which move her through the seven stages of grief and return color to her black and white world. ‘Her progress through sorrow is manifested in her dress, which grants new abilities to better navigate her faded reality’. Storytelling through playable artwork? I was intrigued.
We meet Gris, in the palm of a cotton-candy colored statue, where she begins to sing. Quickly, and without apparent reason, she loses her voice. Just as this realization is made, the statue that had been supporting her high in the sky begins to crumble. She starts tumbling through the sky until she lands in a black and white desert, defeated, on the ground. The transition from the opening scene to the gameplay was so seamless, it took me a few moments to even realize it was time to bring Gris from her knees and begin to walk. After a few stumbles, she begins to run. Moving through her world is effortless due to the simple controls and the impossibility of demise.
Without the fear of harm, I found myself much more willing to try reaching every corner of the world. Climbing to the highest points and jumping off of the edges of the crumbled landscape just to see what I might find. The scenery begins grayscale and bare, but as Gris grows, the colors return to her world, revealing the surreal, layered landscapes to explore. Speckled with collapsed statues and broken buildings, Gris’ world looks like Roman ruins overrun by time and nature. As Gris grows and gains new abilities, the world evolves and more pathways are revealed. The journey takes you through monochrome deserts, abstract forests, sparkling pools, and frozen caverns. With each completed stage, you are brought back through the same central structure, but the colors, flora, and fauna have morphed. Gris is able to explore completely new environments, while simultaneously developing a familiarity with her surroundings.
Progression is measured by manipulating and navigating the environment to solve puzzles to collect stars. These stars follow Gris throughout the world, helping her until they find their home in the sky, marking the completion of a stage. Once she moves through the stages of grief, she regains her voice and can use the stars in the sky to ascend the depression she has been trapped in.
One of the first unique things I noticed about Gris was the lack of text and dialogue. In fact after the opening title credits, there is no language of any kind. And to be honest, I didn’t miss it. The musical score in Gris, performed by The Berlinist, replaces dialogue with a score that evokes the emotions behind the words without the need for words themselves. The soundtrack complements the gameplay in such a beautiful way, that often I found myself emotionally moved by the enormity of the momentous tranquility.
The puzzles of Gris are unique as well. While they generally follow familiar patterns of testing the player’s timing and ingenuity, what really sets this game apart is the whimsical twist on common world elements. Trees that change shape every few moments to allow Gris to climb through the forest, or an underground collection of mushrooms that illuminate the path temporarily when jumped on. When the player returns to the central temple after a new color is introduced, there are just enough tweaks to the environment to guide you in the right direction. Old pathways are now inaccessible, and previously unreachable ones are now open to Gris due to her newfound capabilities. There is never any question as to where she could or should go.
The scenery in Gris is a moving, living work of art. Each scene could easily be framed in a gallery. Every interaction with the environment is flawlessly executed and purposeful. But even the background pieces of the environment with which there is no player interaction are in motion and full of life. With each color returned to the world, a new realm of artwork is revealed. There were countless moments of solemn appreciation for the beauty and thoughtfulness before me.
While I believe Gris is an undeniable masterpiece in visualization and storytelling, I can’t say that it will change the way you think about platform games. Completed in one sitting, I found myself a bit disappointed that the game was over so quickly. There certainly were puzzles and challenges that left me stumped for far longer than they probably should have, but overall I did not feel at any point that the game was truly difficult. But perhaps this is all a part of the underlying message of the game. Gris’ struggle to regain her strength and rise above the sorrow, although challenging, was never impossible.
Overall I found that the puzzles were time-consuming and challenging enough to instill a sense of accomplishment once completed, but flowed quickly enough to prevent interruptions to the storyline. After the game is completed, there is an option to return to the individual chapters and attempt to accomplish any of the numerous hidden challenges that you may have missed. However, I wasn’t compelled to replay the game from start to finish. Once you have figured out the solutions to the puzzles, the rather linear gameplay can become tedious.
Despite its brevity, Gris is far and away one of my favorite games of all time. The depth of the relatable story, exquisiteness of the water-color worlds, flow of the puzzles, and intensity of the music all come together harmoniously to create a wondrous environment. From the moment it starts, Gris steadily builds into a complex and powerful gaming experience that is sure to leave you touched and inspired.
Gris was developed by Nomada Studio, published by Devolver Digital, and is available on MacOS, Windows, Nintendo Switch, and iOS. The soundtrack was contributed by The Berlinist, and is available on Spotify and iTunes.
The opinions in this post are expressly the views of the author and do not reflect the views of their employer(s) or any entities that they might otherwise be affiliated.
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