Artistry and honesty come together wonderfully to make a small game working through big feelings
Quite frankly, Gris is still stunning me, despite it being days since I last touched it. It stunned me when I first saw its key art, it stunned me when I first sat down to play it months ago and last week, it stunned me as it continually built a singularly beautiful and simple experience out of a feeling I could never even begin to parse through. Gris may get by on its inescapable beauty, but I can’t help but constantly think on just how much more is there than just its look.
Which isn’t to say Gris shouldn’t be stared at forever. When you start, the game is nothing but black and white, minus yourself. Even then at the outset of your odyssey and at the height of our character’s despair, there is an elegance to the monochrome color scheme. The world looks incomplete and devoid of life but never feels hopeless so much as it does just feel mellow or numb. It seems almost resigned to its fate. But as you push on, your goal comes together.
When you chance upon a statue of a woman, or rather the remains of a statue of a woman, Gris, the titular character, floats upwards, contorts in pain almost and restores the color red to the world. It emanates from her and bleeds from the sky and into the ground. Suddenly, the world looks a lot different. It looks a lot more beautiful, a lot more realized but also a bit harsher. The game revolves around this: going into an area and upon completion, coloring the world a different shade. A central hub binding all these locales helps tie it all together, as its identity mostly overwrites the existing color scheme to reflect not only the place you just came from but the phase of the journey Gris is in and her state of mind. In other instances, closer to the end, these colors blend and layer to create a rich, fulfilling look that reflects a journey well spent and worth embarking on. It’s almost unfair how simple yet effortlessly the game weaves its story into its beautiful art.
Speaking of story, Gris never quite fills you in on the details of what’s brought our character to this world. Very strong illusions are made to a story about dealing with the grief of a loss but the game doesn’t ever want to tell you outright. As a matter of fact, the game is wordless, with the only sound your character makes being close to a hum. It’s a game purely driven by providing a visual language that’s distinct but discernible. This came through in a particular way: most things are lively if not entirely alive, even if they shouldn’t be. This is especially aided by the masterful animation by Nomada Studios that is present in every frame of every movement made on the screen in the three to four hours it took to complete the game. As you explore the world, Gris comes across little blocks that sprout legs and scuttle and stumble their way through the forests. Rocks in an early desert environment sprout arachnid legs, and even at the start when there is nothing but ruins, some thing that I can’t quite put my finger on swims through the sky, almost as a sign that no matter where you look, there is life and there is possibility. It’s a persistence that motivates our protagonist to push through even the starkest odds and bleakest of moments, because even those come to life.
Gris is a simplistic game on a mechanical level. You explore levels looking for balls of light that often form bridges you can cross to get from place to place. This is also technically the mandatory collectible you have to pick up to make it to the game’s end. This and returning the color to the world are your only goals really. To accomplish that, you gain the occasional ability like the double jump and the ability to take the shape of a block but these abilities are few and rarely anything more than a new way to interact rather than a game-changing feature. Slowly but surely though, Gris becomes competent again, after being rendered powerless at the start. Despite this strength, she doesn’t ever have to harm to be strong or competent. She becomes able to face the darkness that plagues her or at least escape its clutches instead. It’s always a close call but you always win out. Even as it takes different shapes and forms, Gris reminds you that you absolutely can face your demons, even when you think you’re going it alone or that you can’t possibly do it and especially when they seem demonstrably powerful and massive. Her grief takes the shape of a handful of creatures who force you to use your few skills in tandem with them to overcome the odds. An encounter with a bird made up of dark matter forces you to consider how you could possibly bend it to be its own undoing considering you can’t attack it. The result is a graceful encounter that serves to illustrate what a smart and emotive game Gris frequently is.
It’s not the most demanding game. As a matter of fact it’s not at all. Clocking in at a short runtime and making a death state an impossibility, Gris is a game all about being in its moments as fully as you can possibly be. To that end, it’s also an intentionally easy game with little excuse for wandering off the beaten path. Though you will find collectibles that are occasionally hidden away in places asking a bit more of you, nothing is unattainable or seemingly that. Gris may be a platformer but it’s one less defined by that genres proclivities than most. Instead, it serves as a framework to convey an ease and accessibility that, hand in hand with its lack of a “game over”, ensures that whomever finds themselves playing it never finds it pushing back on them. Instead, it greets all who play it with open arms and a warm hug.
By the end of my time with Gris, I was yearning to go back. Like all good art, there’s probably more there than meets the eye and more insight I can gain from it. The idea of going back worried me though. I like the idea of my time with it being a one and done deal. To deny it the time and love it deserves is to do it a disservice however. I want to play this game endlessly. I want there to be more of that world to explore, but I also know that it’s perfect as it is.
More than anything, I love how uncompromised it feels. Gris feels complete and honest in a way that’s rare of art let alone a video game; The fact that it’s masterfully both is the highest compliment I can pay it. It’s reflective of the place you go to when you have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. It’s a game that, in some of my darkest days of late, has been a bit of a beacon of hope. If something as splendid as Gris can come out of something so dark, maybe there’s hope after all.
Gris was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch with a code provided by Tinsley PR.