Poetry in motion — Gris review

I always feel some amount of fear when I start playing a game that I’m looking forward to from a fledgling developer. Unlike AAA games that come out after huge marketing blitzes and follow relatively predictable patterns, there’s no way of telling how a game from a studio with no track record will turn out. And while I end up liking those first-time projects a lot more often than the blockbusters, it can be tense to start a game that seems pretty great without any real hint of how it plays. That’s how I felt going into Gris — one of the best looking games I’ve ever seen, but one that could easily be a pretty facade with nothing underneath. Fortunately, with a burst of color and sound that gave way to a sparse, subdued first moment of gameplay, Gris put my fears to rest almost immediately and continued to impress me with its power and restraint the whole way through the handful of hours it took to complete.

In the barest of terms, Gris is the story of a young woman (the titular Gris) coming to terms with a loss. It tells this story from an essentially surreal perspective, without the slightest glimpse of our own reality. The game’s world is totally alien, non-representational, and fantastic, but it also feels coherent and intimately familiar. Every feature of the world — from its raging sandstorms to its translucent, starlit towers — seems to be part of a functional whole, even if the world itself doesn’t function in any way we’d recognize. More than an actual space where literal actions are taking place, Gris’ setting and the events happening there represent its protagonist’s journey through her grief, her fight to regain her sense of self and her trust in the world around her. It’s all vague enough that you can apply your own reading to basically every aspect of the game (there’s nothing as concrete as “this is the level where Gris learns to meditate and finds a therapist”), but its major symbols are bold and unmistakable. For this reason, I’m sure Gris will be accused of being both too obvious and too “artsy,” but I appreciated how much it puts its metaphor front and center. You’re not trying to piece together the clues to an objectively true story here; you’re bringing your own experiences to form an emotionally true reading of what’s going on.

As the game unfolds, it takes you to several distinct levels with their own environmental mechanics and abilities to unlock. There’s a touch of Metroid there, but not as much as it may sound like. Rather than exploring a huge map and returning to inaccessible places when you have to tools to unlock them, you’ll explore a few separate environments that branch off from a main hub in linear order. You’ll return to this hub several times throughout the game to find it changed by the events of the last level, which works as a lovely metaphor for how familiar places can seem to be changed when we return to them after new experiences. Only one new path will be open to you at a time, and you won’t need to backtrack through old levels with your new powers. When you get a new ability, it doesn’t give you the feeling of “now I can go back to this spot and get through that obstacle.” Instead, each new ability gives you a way to deal with whatever problem is in front of you. The first of these abilities lets you turn into a heavy block, slowing your movement but allowing you to withstand the howling wind of the area where you find it. Later, when you’re in a flooded cave, you’ll gain the ability to swim. Gris’ greatest gameplay accomplishment is how it combines these abilities. As you gain abilities, it feels less like building an arsenal and more like learning the skills you need to cope with your current situation. There’s a lesson implicit in each one, the representation of an attitude or behavior that, sure, will help you out of the jam you’re in, but will more importantly allow you to thrive later on, especially when you combine the things you’ve learned together. At the beginning of the game, Gris is slow, even plodding, and she sinks like a stone after she jumps. By the end, she’ll be shooting through pools of water like a torpedo, leaping out at top speed and getting a mid-air boost from a flock of birds, then gliding to softly to the ground, mirroring the way she’s progressed from being immobilized by her grief to being freed from its weight. I won’t spoil it, but through most of the game, there’s a button that seems to make Gris try to activate an ability, but fail. Near the end of the game, when I finally unlocked that ability, I was stunned. It changes the world and Gris simultaneously, and alters the way they interact with each other. I was so moved by the moment that I just held that button down for nearly a minute to take in the gravity of it, and marvel at how well your character’s abilities are fused with the game’s message.

If the game were all heartbreak and revelation, though, it would probably get exhausting. Fortunately, it also becomes exponentially more enjoyable to play as you gain abilities. Somewhere in the middle of the game’s submerged cavern level (maybe the least nightmarishly difficult water level in gaming history, despite a giant eel trying to devour you), I realized how much fun I was having just moving around when I caught myself swimming in loops around fish, timing my speed-boosting kicks to the music. Gris is at times a dark, solemn game, but there’s real joy in navigating its environments.

It helps, of course, that those environments are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in a game. I don’t think I could take a bad looking screenshot of it if I tried. Despite its name, Gris (“gray” in Spanish) is an absolute riot of color, at least by the end. While the environments start out looking like plain black ink drawings on white paper, by the end they’re filled in with vibrant blocks of color, like ink blots and watercolor paint. Even aside from the colors, there’s a ton of variety in Gris’ backgrounds, with different areas full of pyramids and rocky towers, delicate scaffolding and windmills, square trees, luminescent sea creatures, crystalline structures, and an entire galaxy’s worth of stars. Each environment has its own personality that lends progressing through the game a constant feeling of wonder.

That sense of wonder is helped immensely by the game’s score. Much like the game itself, the score by Berlinist is built around a series of themes that expand and recur and combine throughout your journey. I can’t think of another game that uses music cues as well as Gris. Not only does the score underpin the emotion of nearly scene perfectly, the way it makes you want to match its tone and tempo is remarkable. There are moments of shock, resolve, and relief almost entirely propelled by music. It was incredibly effective at putting me in almost a trance, completely ready to absorb the emotion of the game.

Just as its art and music evolve over time, so does Gris’ gameplay. Seemingly every 20 minutes, Gris adds a new mechanical twist to its world. First, you’ll come across spinning windmills and moving platforms to traverse, then you’ll find the treetops you’re jumping on change shape in sequence. Later, pools of water hang in the air and entire structures appear out of thin air when they’re close to a light source. Like the abilities you gain throughout the game, these environmental mechanics build on each other in an incredibly satisfying way. You may not notice at first that you’ve gone from slowly jumping across floating rocks to swimming up waterfalls and running along ceilings, but the moments where Gris packs every trick it has into one screen feel magical.

While Gris’ platforming is fun, don’t expect too much of a challenge. If you miss a jump, the worst thing that’s going to happen is you’ll peacefully float to the ground to try again. For people who do want to test their skills more, each level of Gris has hidden collectables scattered through it that take some effort to get to. A lot of these are cleverly hidden and take some sleuthing to even find, let alone reach, but don’t expect even hunting these secrets down to feel like Celeste. Rather than follow that model of reaching nearly transcendental states of difficulty, Gris is intentionally calm and almost devoid of frustration. It feels like an extremely gentle game. You’ll never have to make pixel-perfect jumps or bang your head across an obstacle, and a lot of times, it feels like you’re nudging your character along rather than controlling her. For long stretches of the game, your only input will be pushing forward on the joystick as Gris makes her way across immense distances. At times, the camera will pull out so far that she becomes little more than a speck on the screen, set against her gargantuan surroundings. It helps to reinforce the feeling of safety and calmness; you won’t have to focus intensely on some difficult puzzle here, just appreciate your environment as you make your way through it.

The clearest expression of this gentleness is probably that you can never die in Gris, or even fail. There is no game over screen. You will come across a couple of huge, terrifying enemies in Gris, but they can’t harm you, and you never resort to violence against them. Instead, you flee, you withstand, and when the time is right, you face them and overcome. It was a bold move on the part of Nomada Studios to keep Gris mostly conflict-free and not take the obvious route of turning its character’s psychological struggle into literal combat. But just because you’re not facing down death doesn’t mean that there are no stakes. The worst thing that happened to my character when I played was that she got knocked over by a strong burst of wind, but I still did my best to avoid letting it happen again, not because of the gameplay consequences, but because I didn’t want to see it happen to her. Gris made me feel extremely empathetic toward my character and invested in her success. I felt real tension when she was being pursued by a dangerous creature, and was excited when she triumphed. Even in little moments, performing a tricky platforming sequence or making a new friend in the forest, Gris’ journey feels important not because it’s going to save the world, but because it will help her heal.

Some people will likely be put off by Gris’ simplistic platforming, but I have the feeling that it will connect with a lot of those people if they give it a chance. Gris isn’t about beating the game, but experiencing it on the way, and it does a remarkable job of making that experience welcoming. Rather than pushing back against you, Gris seems to invite you to make your way through it, letting you off the hook mechanically so that you can engage more fully with how it makes you feel. That might make it sound ponderous, but it manages to keep its gameplay light and fun, despite its emotional weight, and studded throughout the game are moments and images so vivid that I expect they’ll stick with the people who play it for years to come.

That’s the real magic of Gris. It’s a fun game with devastatingly beautiful art and music, but what really makes it special is the depth of the feelings it provokes. By tying everything from its soundtrack to its controls to one central theme and never betraying its premise for the sake of gameplay convenience, Gris tells a deeply personal tale that resonates universally. Simply put, this is the kind of game that can change the way you think about the medium. As I played, I kept being reminded of games I played when I was younger — games like Morrowind, Ico, Oddworld — not because this game has much in common with them, but because they were instrumental in teaching me to think critically about the medium. When I played those games and got lost in the bizarre, unfamiliar worlds they took place in, I realized that games could be about something, and thought for the first time about the people who made them and what they were trying to make me feel. Gris is going to be that kind of game for a lot of people, and I almost envy their experience with it.




Review Guidelines

Gris is an incredible achievement, using its art, music, and gameplay to tell a thematically consistent story about a woman overcoming her grief. Despite the weighty subject matter, the way its protagonist’s triumph over sorrow is reflected in increasingly fluid and diverse platforming makes it a joy to play. While Gris is low on challenge and impossible to fail, it still feels exciting. Even if it doesn’t sound like your kind of game, Gris absolutely deserves a try.

A committed indoor kid, Bryan moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles for a prettier landscape to ignore. They can be lured outside with promises of taco trucks and film festivals, and enjoy trawling through used book stores for works on the occult. Bryan has been gaming since the SNES era and is a sucker for good pixel art.
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