Sam Brooks reviews Gris, the stunning game from Devolver Digital that gamifies and makes beautiful that one universal process: grief.
A girl lies on a massive stone hand. Her world is full of colour – radiant reds, bruised blues, yearning yellows. She opens her mouth and sings in a high fluttery soprano, and seem to float above the hand solely powered by her own voice. All of a sudden, the stone starts to crack. Her voice is caught straight from her mouth. She falls to her knees as the stone hand collapses around her, and she falls for what feels like miles to the ground below. The world around her is vast, and one by one the colours drain from the world, from the sky, around her. When she finally lands, one opening credits scene later, there is no colour in the world. There are long abandoned ruins, desolate landscapes and overgrown forests – but there is no colour.
This is the opening of Gris, a game from Spanish developer Nomada Studio and publisher Devolver Digital that is now available on PS4, a year after its original release. It’s a scene that immediately engages you and showcases the game’s main asset: the stunning design.
Gris is one of the most outright beautiful games I’ve ever played; it’s the closest I’ve ever come to playing a painting. Even at the start of the game, with colour fully drained except the stark black dress of our nameless protagonist and her teal-blue hair, Gris shows off a distinct visual style – strong lines, elegant movement, and the kind of imagery you might see flicking through a particularly expensive and well-regarded picture book. But it’s when the game starts to use colour, first red, then greens and blues and yellows, that it really begins to shine, blending the colours but bleeding some life back into the world. It’s a genius way to get the player moving through the game – we don’t just want to beat the game, we want to see more of the beauty it has to offer.
It’s not just the use of colour that makes Gris special; the attention paid to the animation also pays dividends. Even though our nameless protagonist never speaks a word, and we don’t find out anything about her past, the way she’s animated tells us everything we need to know. The way she thrusts her weight into the air as she jumps, the stubborn, resolute way she turns into a big rock (stay with me), even the way she falls to her knees in despair while trying to sing – they all demonstrate not only who who she is, but why we should be invested in her.
It’s also one of the most beautiful sounding games I’ve ever played, thanks to a lush score from composer Berlinist. Great soundtracks in video games are nothing new – god knows I’ve been playing Final Fantasy soundtracks on repeat for a couple of decades now – but it’s rare to get one that feels as all-encompassing and thought-through as this. It’s operatic not just in the size and scale – although I’d give an arm and a leg to hear this performer live – but in how it plays throughout the whole game. Whether you’re wandering through a forest, looking for the next platform to jump to, or whether you’re being hounded by a bird that won’t stop blowing wind at you, Berlinist’s score amps up what you’re feeling and gives it a weight that it might not otherwise have. The images are beautiful, yes, and the score perhaps even moreso, but the way they work in concert with each other is what allows Gris to achieve its often transcendant beauty.
But without something to say, all this is basically just window-dressing. It has to be about something. And Gris is plainly, unsubtly, about grief. I say ‘unsubtly’ not as criticism. Subtlety is overrated, and when you’re being as esoteric as Gris is – there’s no dialogue, no character names, barely any characters other than the protagonist – you can happily overplay your hand with your design, and forget to foreground the meaning. But in Gris, from the very first moment, the protagonist’s loneliness is emphasised, as is her loss. She’s lost her colour, she’s lost her voice, she’s lost her grounding, often quite literally, given the amount of falling and floating through the air that happens throughout the game. There’s nothing much else that the game could be about than grief, and that theme comfortably walks the line between subtext and outright text for the duration of its three hours.
Where the game lacks complexity, and this is not necessarily to its detriment, is the actual gameplay. Even when it reaches greatness in literally every other way possible – design, concept, flow – gaming is perhaps the only artform that still has to be fun. The gameplay in Gris isn’t the most riotous fun I’ve had playing a game, but its simplicity is a deceptively strong foundation. It’s a platformer, with more puzzle elements introduced as your character acquires more abilities, and those abilities intersecting and leading to slightly more complicated puzzles. So, you know, the basis of every more or less every platformer.
To butcher a phrase, there’s no good reason to fix what was never broken, and rather than trying to fix the platformer, Gris wields its simplicity as a powerful tool. You’re never thinking of where to go, because the puzzles aren’t especially difficult. Instead you’re focused on the entirety of the experience. You’re focused on the way that colours bleed into the world, and bleed into each other. You’re focused on the way the music swells. You’re focused on how our nameless heroine slowly gets stronger, and gets better, as she works her way through the world. As a player, you’re quite literally working through this nameless woman’s grief and getting her to the end goal: It’s not necessarily happiness, or even throwing off the shackles, but just finding colour in the world again.
By doing that, Gris does something I didn’t know was possible: It gamifies grief. On the surface, this can seem quite simplistic. As anybody who has ever lost somebody knows, grief isn’t a process to be worked through, overcome and then ticked off. It’s not a scab waiting to be healed until you can scrape off the dead skin that remains. No, it’s a lost limb, and one that you keenly feel the loss of all the time, often when you least need to feel that loss. It would be simple, and effective, for Gris to present grief as something to be worked through: get a few abilities, jump to a place you weren’t able to get to before, defeat the boss, credit rolls, gold trophy attained.
That’s not the goal of Gris, though. The game is doing something a lot deeper, better and more true. It’s not about being the hero and defeating the villain. There are no bosses in Gris, there are no enemies, and there is no dying. There’s no escape from the world. Instead, it’s about slowly finding colour again in a world that seemed vast, empty and uncaring. It’s about finding your voice after having it snatched away from you. It’s about finding a way to live in the world you’re currently in.
Gris is about loss, but it’s even more about finding yourself in that loss, and celebrating the beauty of that. Grief is horrible, yes. But it can also be a time of finding yourself, and uncovering both your strength and your lack of it. That it does so while being itself a beautiful, heartfelt and often wrenching experience is a testament to the unique power that gaming has. It gets its beauty and weight not by reflecting something, but allowing a player to actually enact something.
Gris doesn’t just gamify the process of grief, it turns the process into something beautiful. It can be easy to think of grief as the tunnel, with the goal being the light at the end of it. But what Gris does is honour the tunnel. After all, what is a tunnel but darkness between two lights?
This game was played for review on a PS4. The newly released PS4 version has a few graphical and aural upgrades from the versions released on Windows, iOs and Nintendo Switch. It is available on all four platforms now.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.