A large, strong, yet fragile hand holds her in place. She sings a song of affection, but she knows something is wrong, something is breaking in her and little-noticed tears fill her eyes and fear shrouds her face. As her head shatters, she falls through the abyss. Falling. Falling. Gris is not your everyday platformer. You cannot die, because death is something you already carry inside you. It is a game about grief. It doesn’t say whether the grief is mental illness, the death of someone the character loves-though that seems most likely-or spilled milk. It doesn’t have to say it, it leaves everything to interpretation.
Gris stands out from other games because of its style. There is literally nothing like it, it is like living inside a watercolor painting of pastel colors. The animation has a beautiful hand-drawn style to some of it that is beyond astonishing.
And the music is absolutely breathtaking. There are very few soundtracks like it, and it fits so perfectly with the level design; the character and story connect perfectly with it.
Her blue-green hair distinguishes her, but when you first take control, her dress is black, her legs have that semi-professional hand-drawn look. The first thing I do is move left, and the first button I press causes her to fall to her knees in despair.
She puts her head in her hand, and then pulls herself up and runs full force. Running, jumping, as a classical, yet modern, piano tune with hints of electronica fills the background. She moves among black and white ruins of collapsed Romanesque architecture.
What’s going on is a tale of love, loss, and that feeling of recovering from it.
The gameplay admittedly feels limited. While your controls are excellent, Gris does exactly what you direct her to do, and when she doesn’t it’s your own fault.
You quickly gain one ability after another, with of course the usual platformer jump button being the earliest. There aren’t many skills to get since Gris is a very simple and short game. However, the skills you gain are interesting.
Once I gain a new button ability, and with the press of a button I give out a small cry. Later on, that button, and what emanates from it will take on new meaning.
In Gris, you jump, you fall and fall some more, and everything you do has some sort of symbolism to it, not all of which I understood. Along the way, you’ll make a couple of very brief, wordless, friendships with various creatures, and what seems like the stars themselves.
In some circles there’s still the obnoxious question: “Are games art?” In my opinion, art is what I say it is, and like pornography, I know it when I see it. Sure, there are people who still pretentiously make the argument that a video game can’t be art, but they’re wrong and Gris is proof. From the first moment, it opens you to a piece of humanity that it takes some movies an entire two hours to reach. You don’t know the main character’s pain, but looking into her beautiful orange eye shadow-rimmed eyes, you feel it. Gris is the modern sorrow of the millennial.
The biggest question for me is what the gameplay really is. There are games like Dead Cells, which while they have their artistic merits, are heavy on the value of every single movement; or games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where everything is a constant adventure of interaction in and of itself. Sometimes, it feels as if you can do anything, and go anywhere.
But then, we get to games like Dear Edna and less so, Gone Home–these are basically walking simulators. There’s nothing innately wrong with those, if done right, but besides some small puzzles, the story IS the gameplay and vice-versa.
Gris is not a game you play. Gris is a game you feel. And what you feel is an individual matter. I do say, if you don’t feel anything, it’s a sad reflection on your own emotional state.
In the end, the goal is to bring color back to this broken girl’s life.
It’s hard to properly review this game. In some ways, it’s perfect, from the emotional impact to the way it makes you think about the world around you. But coming from a game like Dead Cells, filled with action and violence, it’s sort of a shock to the system. “Why can’t I talk to these creatures? Why can’t I kill anything, and why can’t I die?” It’s not that kind of game. But what is? Well, Braid is, basically. With violence, introspection and abstract interpretation, Braid is one point higher because I’m fickle. Or Inside, which is much more morose, but also has a feel of immediacy.
It was interesting though. I was annoyed by the puzzles and timed platforming elements, but when I realized the game was ending I felt like I was moving through the different stages of grief—denial, bargaining… Sadness and hope were my two main emotions, and curiosity. What comes next?
I think in the end, art, especially the more abstract, the kind that leads you into different feelings, different ways of touching your soul, brings out something that was already there. Gris did that for me. It made me think about the game and my own life. I’m kind of annoyed with it for that.
There’s so much I want to tell you about this game, but I don’t want to spoil a thing. So my advice, go play this.
Replay value: Limited
Sound: Magical. One of the best soundtracks ever in a game
Puzzles are light, meaning even someone who sucks at puzzles like me, can complete them. (Yet sometimes the puzzles feel in the way.) I’m also terrible at timing things so lots of “f-bombs” were dropped in a game that was otherwise peaceful.
Cannot die so there’s not a lot of back-tracking
Nothing to kill
Shows you your own soul
Cannot die, so no sense of allowing you to backtrack and appreciate the level design more
Nothing to kill, so at times the world seems kind of empty and leaves you with little sense of immediacy.
Limited replay value
Can feel tedious and even boring in some moments.
Some dialogue would have been nice.
Michael David Raso has worked as a writer, editor, and journalist for several different publications since graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. If you like this piece, you can read more of his work here.