This post contains spoilers
Gris is an ode to grief. Presenting itself simplistically though not minimistically it draws a balance between the emotional stages of its protagonist as she moves gracefully forward through her own personal tribulations.
The artwork of Gris is balanced somewhere between etherealism and emotional rawness, something that the artworks of designer Conrad Roset distil. Other inspirations draw from the landscapes with the surrealistic world, drawing from asian influence. This is most clearly seen in the final levels, where lotus flowers bloom alongside cranes and circular geometries hint at the Dharmachakra and reincarnation after suffering.
In an interview by Andrew Webster (Verge), the games director Roger Mendoza, speaks about how Iwagumi aquascapes were the choice for the level design, and that is clear with the games lack of textures, and simple colour palette that is contrasted against strong lines and the silhouettes they create. The animation itself is as fluid as the watercolours that disperse across the screen in brief bursts of emotion. Slowly building in complexity as Gris revives her own emotions. The simplicity of it all, allows the game to emphasise its symbolism, making them all too obvious. A trait that has led many to criticise the game for being too heavy handed, and yet there’s enough range to fully elucidate a range of psychological stages without obscuring the games message behind an idiosyncratic presentation. In short Gris’s symbolism works because it is simplified and not obscured.
The symbolism is presented in a variety of ways. Foremost is the use of colour. As Gris journeys through the world her emotionally numb state is offset by the stages of grief. The game begins as a bland monochrome, tonality is reduced and everything is represented by white, ostensibly the colour of innocence and purity which could be congruent with our introduction to Gris, but also to blankness or nothing. The failure to manifest emotion that leaves her as a blank slate. This transitions to reds, the ambiguous colour of both love and rage. Here with Gris entering the anger stage it is a harsh colour, melding with the blacks to create shades of carmine and sangria. Gris’s new ability “heavy” has her colliding against the environments, using force to move forwards. Whether it’s against the winds of her own discontent or obliterating the statues that demarcate her memories. Eventually the anger fades into lighter tones, melding with the white state of calmness into rose and salmon pinks.
But despite Gris’s development her emotions are still stilted and so she enters into a green forest world. Green the complementary to red, here repressents recovery and growth, a chance to replenish herself after the previous destructiveness she undertook. Making friends she bargains with them, enticing them with apples and other food, and the tenuous connection slowly builds into a proper bond. Initial reformative acts of kindness (in the giving of apples) result in her invitation to their abode and a chance to live out the old adage “a friend in need is a friend in deed”. Gris bargains with herself as well, leaping into the air grants her the ability to ascend higher her dress spread out like wings, but ultimately as all things need to descend she falls, but it is a controlled fall, a negotiation with her weight to descend lightly and gracefully to the ground. It is here too that she meets her first externalised foe. A giant blackbird that screeches at her, causing her to tumble backwards, her own song being lost all she can hear now are the screams that impede her progress. Her act to defeat the monstrosity is with an exterior sound. The tolling of a giant bell, usually rung at times of joy or for funerals here the bell sounds the deathknell of the bird, allowing it to dissipate into fragments. However as a realisation of Gris’s mind, as surrealist landscapes are imaginings of interior worlds, the Blackbird does return, though it also now is capable of lending aid.
It is this robustness of Gris’s mind. Her negativity that turns to her strength that lies at the heart of Gris’s themes. Though the game is about depression and grief it is also the tale of overcoming it. The acquisition of Gris’s new abilities and the players persistance in driving her forward are the clearest indications of this. Gris as an avatar of the player, has no choice, like people who suffer from such mental states, the march of time offers them no choice either but to persist against the mental hardships they face. And whilst many of these hardships are of the mind, just as Gris landscapes present her with obstacles and puzzles to overcome, so to is her mind a source of strength. The world offers assistance, both in the landscapes. In the windmill the scaffolding actively assists her by extending as she approaches, her own mental scaffolding that provides her with the ability to move forward, or in the figures she meets, the small apple creatures or the red birds that allow her to jump further than she would reach alone. They are welcome reminders of the robustness and strength of the mind when facing difficulty.
Yet Gris’s journey is not yet done, and she must still encounter the blue of depression. Sinking into the ocean, she drowns and yet still breathes. Her terrors transform as she sinks, what was once the bird is now an eel. An irrepressible force that chases her, barely staved off between bouts of rest. And it’s darkness surrounds her as she sinks deeper beneath the waters. Into areas darker and blacker. Again she meets assistance, a turtle offers temporary reprieval yet the depression still surrounds her.
All the while Gris still gathers the fragments of her memory. Small mementos the game hides and conceals about the world. Pieces of memory that cause her pain, that it may be easier to simply forget abandoned in the darkness. Yet there they still glow waiting to be retrieved.
As blue overwhelms her shifting in blackness and hollowness so vastly different from the white of blankness, Gris encounters the fourth and final colour. It is not entirely the complementary to Blue, being the more gentle yellow, that begins to illuminate her world again. The colours shifting and swarming into new blends, and varied hues and tones. Light has another effect. Unlike the obfuscation of depression, light illuminates new platforms, new perceptions of the world. Yet as the final colour it also introduces the most complex of areas. With her emotions restored Gris must now use all her skills again to proceed, not merely relying upon one emotion or the other.
The final level then is one of varied shapes, a city of the night teeming with flowers, its sculpted turrets shine against the distance offering new heights to ascend. But there is one more difficulty, that of her own distorted perception that still remains. For Gris can move across a boundary line to stand topsy turvy upon the ceilings. This too is another difficulty to be confronted, a way to confront her mirrored world yet still move capable of understanding more than one way of existence.
But the negativity of her emotions is still embodied within her temple. They may now give rise to blossoming flowers with the return of her voice, and allow her to ascend to the stars, yet the loss is always with her. Grief is unending and not even time can truly distil the pain. All that has happened is that through her journey Gris has found the mechanisms to cope with her grief. Her acceptance is one of defeat as she admits to her emotions, yet triumph as she is no longer subject to their vagaries.
Gris is a parable of the mind. A story that showcases the robustness of spirit and the capability of logic to confront even the most difficult of its own conceptions. Gris embodies this in her pursuit of a resolution, of continuing despite the adversities she faces. It is a persistence that is accomplished both as an individual (as a proxy of the player) and as a receiver of help, turning her adversaries into assistants or through discovering new friends.
The greatest weakness of Gris, is perhaps its difficulty. It is a very forgiving platformer. And whilst this could be argued that it means individuals should be kind and gentle with themselves, it also means that the difficulties Gris faces are not difficult to overcome, this lessens the nature of her achievements in battling herself and coming to terms with her emotions. The game has no death state, there is no point where you can’t stop playing, but where it should have created difficulty is in the platforming elements. As a puzzle platformer, the game needed more areas to explore rather than the linear experience it offers as well as trickier jumping sections to further illustrate her increasing abilities. With difficulty in games being a contentious issue, and a game like Gris being designed with only one difficulty in mind, it is a slight shame to see that the designers couldn’t further reward players with more difficult to access mementos. Only two offer a fair challenge, one because it is concealed off screen and so unlikely to be noticed and the other required a timed sequence of light, that was perhaps too forgiving. The other alternative being to offer multiple routes with one way indicating an easier path and another a slightly more difficult path.
- Gorgeous yet simplistic designs that are highly symbolic
- Fluid animations
- Puzzles are slightly too easy to solve
- Overall design is fairly linear, with options to take alternative routes unavailable
- Jump command was sometimes slightly unresponsive
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Nomada Studio
Platforms: Windows, Mac,
ESRB: E / PEGI: 16
Available from: Steam, GoG.com, Humble Store, Microsoft Store
Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.
If you enjoyed this post please consider liking it and/or subscribing for more content.