Disclaimer: the following article contains spoilers for the game Gris; if you are sensitive to them, please play the game yourself and come back to this article. Furthermore, this game deals with the heavy and complex emotions involved with grief and contains some brief instances of nondescript nudity, nothing unlike what could be found in any art museum.
When someone starts talking about the idea of video games as a whole, some of the ideas that may first come to mind are, in light of recently popular titles like Among Us, the time spent with friends, points and high scores in online matches, or the mastery required to meet a challenge. All of these ideas are accurate for the most part and stem from our base understanding of what any kind of game, digital or physical, involves, but rarely do we ever consider them as art or that they can be artistic like a painting, a novel, or a film. In fact, in the past decade, some developers have tried creating more artistically significant games, although their wish to make their game feel more like cinema presents their greatest common downfall of these projects, reserving gameplay as filler and passive cutscenes for story. Since films are an inherently more passive medium, they do not coalesce well a game’s more interactive nature. However, a select few games, like Gris, recognize and take most advantage of a game’s interactivity to tell their stories.
Developed by Nomada Studio and released in 2019, Gris puts players in the shoes of the eponymous character Gris as she repairs a broken, surreal world journeying through the five stages of grief. Unlike most games, Gris tells its story wordlessly and entirely through visuals and pure gameplay. Albeit a brief experience, since someone can easily finish it in one or two sittings, Gris delivers a very well organized experience, meaning Nomada put much thought into every minute detail and interaction and what it could mean in regard to each stage of grief. In particular, this design of ethos shines in the portion of Gris dedicated to anger.
Since anger is the second phase in these five stages, naturally this area of the game comes second, presenting itself as a sprawling desert dominated by the color red. Even a superficial understanding of color theory would already reveal that red is often associated with strong emotions like anger, so the color palette alone helps relay the meaning of this area to the player. As for how the player interacts with this section, Nomada splits it into two halves: one for platforming and one for puzzle-solving. In the first half, all the player has to do is navigate Gris to the end whilst braving random sandstorms that will lift her off her feet, occasionally knocking her off platforms and forcing the player to make up for lost progress and to wait out the storms in safe zones. Eventually, towards the middle of this section, Gris will gain the ability to turn her garments into a weighty cube, thus helping her smash obstacles and push against the storms.
However, before the second half truly starts, the player will encounter a destructible floor and will naturally smash into it, since when the developer gives them a hammer, everything in the game turns into a nail, and will do so without thinking much of the consequences. This course of action will guide Gris deeper and deeper inside the ground to then smash every pot in the empty room in sight, releasing a swarm of black butterflies that carry her over to the top again. The black butterflies never come back again for the rest of this section, but they do present a looming threat for the rest of the game. From here to the end of this stage of grief, Gris ascends to the top of a temple full of windmills by smashing contraptions into place so they start working again before she reintroduces the color green, vegetation, and serenity back into her world after crying in the palm of the broken figure of her mother.
Because these events transpire without any verbal input from the story, the developers allow a very wide freedom of interpretation of the work, especially with the added dimension of each player’s unique experience due to its interactivity. For the most part, Gris does hold to this ethos of turning each stage of grief into a meaningful interaction so they can be experienced firsthand in all of its complexity and nuances, although it does break away from this a few times due to the game lacking any kind of fail state. Most people who play video games tend to look down on titles like Gris, reserving the pejorative term of “walking simulator” for them or writing them off as pretentious. While this may be true for some of these artistic games, Gris could not deliver its message nearly as meaningfully if it were a short film because Nomada places so much meaning inside the very ways the game works, thus exercising a game’s greatest strength to tell a story.
Thumbnail. Gris. 14 Aug. 2018. https://nintendowire.com/news/2018/08/14/beautiful-indie-platformer-gris-arrives-on-switch-this-december/
Fig. 1. Samuel Kleis. Resting in hand.
Fig. 2. Samuel Kleis. Red desert.
Fig. 3. Samuel Kleis. Sandstorm.
Fig. 4. Samuel Kleis. Black butterflies.
Fig. 5. Samuel Kleis. Green forest.