Gris – Beautiful and Honest
Gris presents itself as all about loss and grief and pain. It wears these motifs heartily on its sleeve and is dutifully unashamed of obvious metaphors or tired cliches. Gris can do this because it’s beautiful and honest and I think it kinda knows it. It can be a grey world, like its namesake, representing a worn soul that slowly finds its way to colour through sheer perseverance of will. It can show me broken statues and desolate buildings and say ‘this is inside you’ without earning a scoff or feeling insincere. I think in part, Gris can do this where others may fail because it’s not all sorrow and despair. At its core Gris is really about hope and although I try to avoid my name as a cliche at all costs I do mean that in more ways than one.
You take on the role of a girl named Gris who seems to have screamed herself to silence. The inky figure collapses into herself as her very foundations fall around her. She’s lost to the depths of her own torment and though we don’t know what happened to cause this I felt a sense comradery in her despair.
Every step she takes on this new lower surface is work. Any other button will cause her to collapse and the wind is strong and blows you away in bursts. It’s not the most fun way to start a video game and honestly, playing these first sections are almost frustrating. I could see what this was supposed to convey and I recognised her effort for the simple tasks but it didn’t feel real. It was too obvious, too simplified.
Then there was a moment where she collapsed on her own but somehow, soon had the strength to get up. I found myself wanting to tell her it’s not worth it, I thought to myself ‘stay down’ and realised at this point that my scorn was misplaced. This game knows despair well but what it really understands is hope.
The world was always beautiful but starts off stark and desolate. As you move through it and overcome challenges it unfurls to be less sad and more alive as colours were added and new environments were found. Though stylistically the lovely watercolour and ink effects permeate through the entire game, if you put the first and final levels side-by-side you’d be forgiven for not linking them. There’s growth within this internal world as you slowly overcome the barriers and bring back the colour, one by one.
Movements became lighter as I played. New abilities gave me strengths to overcome obstacles but more importantly, they made me feel like I was getting better. I was strong enough to brace the winds which could have knocked me back before and agile enough to jump to new heights. Things felt more possible the further I went and with more elements combining to form puzzles that became tricker and more intricate but I never felt ill-equipped to deal with them.
After a while, it all felt too easy, too simple and I don’t mean the puzzles. Though they’re light they’re just enough to get you thinking and always feel the right amount of challenge. I mean this stunning ability to climb out of the sorrow. The way she could just find the strength and fight and move forward for so long despite adversity forced me to disconnect. I felt almost let down as this game seemed to understand my own plights so well but then something else happened.
Creatures climbed up from the depths, forged of blackness and inky wind. They swirl around you and try to bring you back down. They don’t want to see you succeed. These felt so familiar like they were forged from my brain. They don’t feel exactly evil, more just like they’re acting on instinct and what they know or think is best. They see the road ahead and they’re the part of the brain that knows it’s too hard or not worth it. I felt them say ‘stay down’ and I saw myself.
The downside to these figures is they don’t pose any threat and I understand that’s just a part of Gris’ ethos. It wants to be a game that looks like it’s about sadness but is actually about growth. It’s a sort of cathartic experience where you get lost in the beauty and troubles of another and come out empowered. It lacks any danger and in the normal platforming puzzles this is perfect but there was something lacking in these moments.
The inky figures wanted to feel dangerous, and I wanted them to feel as terrifying as the things inside my mind they were modelled from. The usually calming score turned violent and actions seemed desperate. However, once when I was being chased I realised I could take my hands off the controls completely and the game would get me through the section. It wasn’t me overcoming anything and this hit me a little harder than it should.
In every other way Gris is a game about hope. You overcome the puzzles because you want to fix this world and rebuild foundations. You move forward because want to have a voice again and to do more with it than simply scream and when you finally get it back, it’s beautiful. Moving through the levels opens new layers of art and completing puzzles has just the right level of achievement without being likely to ever leave you too stumped to move on. If you want to challenge yourself you can seek that out too but if not you can just enjoy and move on and grow. It’s short enough to sit and play through in an evening when maybe you need something to achieve and be beautiful.
And that’s a feeling I know all too well. The almost dire desperation to have something to achieve and be beautiful. You see, I’ve said that Gris is a game about hope multiple times and I’ve suggested that maybe on a personal level, Gris is a game about me. But I think what I mean is that Gris is a game about a future me that I’d like to believe can exist. One that climbs out of the destroyed city and escapes the inky black creatures of wind looking to drown her. One that finds a voice and forges a path into the stars. One that learns to bring colour back into their world, even if it’s just one at a time.
A repressed gamer in her youth, Hope has taken to charging her adulthood with making up for lost time by playing and talking about video games as much as possible. While still a little salty no one gave her a Pokedex when she turned ten, you can find her on twitter @hope_corrigan probably talking about how Jet Set Radio Future is still the best video game ever made.