GRIS: the Power of the Unsaid
Gris is a platform game that includes puzzles. Designed by indie studio Nomada, based in Barcelona, Spain. Published by Devolver. The game was released on the 18th of December 2018 and is available for Nintendo Switch and pc.
Gris is a game about loss and grief.
I lost my own dad at the end of a very long illness. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease for 21 years. You may think of Parkinson’s as a mild disease, a movement disorder affecting the elderly. Dad was actually diagnosed at the age of 54. In the final stage of his illness, he developed psychotic symptoms (hallucinations). It made his and all of our family’s lives, a terrible nightmare. Ending with death, and relief from the pain as much as the grief.
Grief is associated with loss and of course the leading example of that is death, but we experience several types of grief in our lifetime: love, jobs, opportunity etc.
Initially, I was attracted to Gris because of the watercolors of the graphic design. My brother is a graphic designer and he works with watercolors, so they are familiar to me. After I saw the first trailer before the release, I was still doubtful. Gris is a platform game and I’ve never been good at those.
Later, when Gris was released, I saw the video with its soundtrack and heard the protagonist’s voice singing. All my doubts faded away in very few seconds.
I had never played with a Nintendo Switch before, so I asked my assistant for guidance and played with my son next to me. He’s almost grown-up by now, he’s 14, and mostly enjoying FPS but patient with his mother’s video games preferences. Exploring the game, was an opportunity to discuss grief with him.
Apart from the watercolors, I wonder why I end up playing video games portraying bereavement and sorrow this often. The easiest response being that I love meaningful artistic forms of expression.
What struck my attention in Gris, when I made my final decision to purchase it, was that the protagonist loses her voice as a consequence of a painful and traumatic event.
I have been dealing with symbolic voice problems for a long time: public speaking issues but most of all, difficulties in expressing my feelings, especially when it involves romantic love.
Gris is a young woman. The start of the video game shows Gris waking up on a stylised sculptured hand.
Eyes closed, Gris starts singing until both the sculpture and her voice break. Something unclear causes Gris to lose her voice and the colours of her world.
The protagonist starts her walk through a journey which will lead her to regaining the colours (as achievements) and in the end, her voice.
As the sculpture crumbles she falls down into a void. At the end of the fall, Gris is heartbroken in a grey desert.
Looking downward, she walks slowly, stumbling on her way. She starts running in a black and white desert landscape. Ruins are scattered in the landscape. Her hair only is in colour in the initial level. The protagonist’s task is that of collecting “stars” (later recognized as fireflies), necessary for building imaginary passages.
The origin of Gris’ grief is unknown to the player, who on the way senses feelings of loss, death, depression. The protagonist seems to face the 5 stages of grief, each of them is associated with a colour: denial (grey), anger (red), bargaining (green), depression (blue), acceptance (yellow).
The landscapes Gris walks through resonates her feelings: a void space (emptiness), a dry red desert (loneliness and rage), the deep sea (depression) and a nocturnal sky (acceptance).
The graphics reminds us of other video games: Journey, Monument Valley, while the watercolours remind us of surrealism and Jean Michel Folon. The atmosphere is dreamlike, intimate and intense.
The game introduces plenty of metaphors and symbols. Gris’ dress symbolizes the her mood. The dress adapts to the new abilities she unlocks (e.g. swimming and flying), where the skills are gained when she moves up from one stage of grief to the next.
Gris is the main character, other NPC are: a creature with a square head in the forest and an array of animals (e.g. blackbird, butterflies, eels and a turtle) representing emotions. The blackbird could be the protagonist’s own darkness, her fear holding her back from recovery. As the bird above, the eels below chase Gris in a marine underworld pushing (and subconsciously helping) her to the surface. Butterflies and flowers will give Gris a helpful boost for ascending.
SPOILER ALERT: The mysterious statue of a woman holds Gris in her hand in the steps of her path. Supposedly, the statue represents Gris’ mother who suffered with depression and committed suicide. The scattered fragments of the statue in the landscape will reassemble in the end, reproducing the final integration stage of bereavement, when, after processing her sorrow, Gris will feel ready to say goodbye to her, and she herself will direct the protagonist to follow her journey.
What I personally experienced throughout the gameplay is “serious fun”, ingrained with meaning, intertwined with discovery and immersion. Values added by design are feelings of: loss versus rebirth, empathy and resilience.
Emotions are well portrayed by: the use of colours (when present), actions (e.g. plummeting, diving versus flying and lifting) and the soundtrack reflecting the protagonist’s actions and mood.
At the beginning of the game our heroine loses her ability to say what she feels, we know this because her beautiful voice is silenced. This song represents a form of self-expression, without it she feels imprisoned and unable to communicate how she feels.
When Gris’ voice returns and she is able to sing once more, it lifts the atmosphere and represents a new beginning.
In conclusion, as one who has been on this seemingly endless journey through unknown territory. I can relate wholeheartedly to the journey of the protagonist, across various terrains of emotions and depth of feelings. Anyone who has travelled this journey. Or anyone who wishes to understand this journey, would do well to consider a few hours with this lovely video game.