Communicating Complicated Emotions – The Journey of Gris

One of the things I love most about videogames is the ability to communicate complex feelings, emotions, and concepts through gameplay without a single word.

When I discussed Doki Doki Literature Club, my key takeaway was that the game was a horror title not because the things happening on screen were necessarily scary in their own right, but because of the lack of control that the game’s presentation of these concepts entailed.

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Gris, a puzzle-platformer released in December 2018, captures a different set of emotions altogether, and does so entirely through gameplay with not a single word said or shown on-screen except very basic one-word menu options, and the ending credits.

From here on out, there will be Gris spoilers, but it is also worth saying these points – the game is pretty short, and reading about it rather than playing does little to spoil it – the core enjoyment is in the actual gameplay experience. So, if you want to play it untainted, now is your chance to turn away!

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Gris is, at its core, a game about the ways in which we find our confidence again through the trauma of life. Gris does not make clear what the trauma is, or why it leaves the unnamed protagonist so defeated, and frankly, it isn’t necessary. There is imagery in the game’s later levels that leaves room for some speculation, but it is completely secondary to the actual events unfolding.

When you start the game, our character is in a lifeless gray desert, barely able to stand or walk. What becomes the jump button instead just pushes the character to the ground dejectedly, and throughout the game, you can press a button that causes your character to take a timid breath but make no sound (…for now). The game is loosely constructed around the reintroduction of color to the world, so you start the game wandering the desert, and eventually find a statue of a woman with her hand cupped in front of her face. You get into her hand, and the color returns to the world, one at a time, creating the unique palettes that define the game’s levels. Gray gives way to a red desert with harsh winds, giving way to green and a lush forest, giving way to blue and deep waters, finally restoring yellow via light, which creates all sorts of new interplay. The game has a base hub from which you navigate to the various areas, and through the color system, the game gates access to each region to order the levels without beating you over the head with description text or guides.

The game is simple and extremely intuitive – I never once felt hopelessly stuck and the game does a fantastic job through design language to show you how to proceed in a way that just registered for me.

However, on top of the colors, as you progress, you also gain powers. First, the ability to turn your flowing dress into a cube that smashes broken ground and weighs you down against harsh winds. There is also a swimming sprint, a hovering jump, environmental interactions, and finally, your song. Each of these powers gives you more ability in the game world, which is used to progress through each level and the puzzles presented in new ways.

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With the mechanical descriptions out of the way, what is it about Gris that leads me to writing here today?

Well, firstly, I think it does a fantastic job of conveying something that is often difficult to discuss or understand – the ways in which we all put on our best faces to deal with challenges in life and to move on from the various events in our lives that bring us low. As mentioned above, when you start the game, the character is slow, sluggish, weak to move, and cannot jump or respond with any degree of agility or power. She is brought low by whatever led her to this grey abyss we start in with her. As the levels progress and she gains powers, the character becomes more confident – moving faster, jumping higher, able to explore more of the world the game offers and ascend higher towards the sky.

However, there is something very humanizing about the end of each sequence. All the puzzles solved, the challenges of the day dealt with and a new color restored to the world, our character takes a moment to sit and cry. Just a gentle sob, a sort of breakdown of the facade of daily life. She wears a confident, sure face through the challenge of each level, but like in reality, when the events of life have taken from you, there is no point in hiding that pain once you no longer have to. It is a subtle touch, and one that is added with little attention called to it, but it says so much and adds to the emotional palette the game paints its story with.

Throughout the game, you are challenged by a flock of black birds. They first remove you from an early level and place you somewhere else, but later, they coalesce into very different fiends including a giant bird that chases you and attempts to blow you away, an eel that gives chase through the sea and attempts to devour you whole, and finally the form of the woman statues that have been present throughout the game. The powers you have gained help you in these chases – the game has no combat, instead using the puzzle-platform gameplay as the primary means of succeeding at the bosses.

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However, there is something poetic about the sense of progression through the game – the power-ups are given in an order that mirrors many people’s real progression through depression, through extreme challenges in life. At first, your only power is to become heavy and stuck in a spot. You can waddle forward slowly, but the weight of your experiences holds you down. The next power is to glide through obstacles – you can get over more, but it is still largely avoiding the problem. Then you can race through water – the feelings still drown you, but you are swimming through them with ease. Then you get the ability to make massive jumps from red butterflies in each level, ascending out of the pits of the darkness you once called home. The last power your character gets, the one that can move large obstacles and restores beauty to the world – her voice. The B button presses that used to make timid breaths now sings a beautiful wordless melody, which blooms flowers around the character and makes the large machines of the hub world light up. The song you sing, restored to your glory, restores the last woman statue to its full splendor, and you cry with it, no longer alone.

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It is a profoundly simple game, one that won’t take you particularly long to beat (I spent 3 hours and a chunk of that was exploring) but it was a profoundly affecting experience to me. The game has this very interesting ludonarrative present throughout – you can never really fail, just take longer to succeed. The darkness of the sole enemy in the game is never allowed to swallow you whole, it just pushes you away from your objective. You cannot kill yourself in the game, as no enemies exist to do damage to you and long suicidal jumps only give you a recovery animation at the bottom of the jump.

Alongside a gorgeous, painterly art style and effectively moving soundtrack, the game creates an immersive atmosphere that enraptured me for the short time I spent playing the game to completion. While some of my descriptions here, especially of the powers, may sound like pretentious pablum, I feel they accurately convey the way the game made me feel.

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My own descent into suicidal thoughts, 6 years ago now, and the journey it took me to find myself whole again on the other side of all of that, mirrors the experience I had playing Gris. Or rather, the game reflects that experience back to me in microcosm – the feeling of being alone and fighting the environment I felt trapped in all the way through to the rediscovery of my voice and use of it to rebuild my world from scratch – and so it really resonated with me in a way that the stock “indie game about human experience” often doesn’t. Why I think it is ultimately worth playing for more people is that I think we all have an experience like the one I described – maybe not to the degree of suicidality, but everyone goes through some kind of experience that lays them low and have to make a conscious effort to get up and rebuild their lives afterwards.

Gris captures this very real human feeling in the best possible way – with no words or excess iconography. Short of some strong visual metaphors in the eel chase sequence, the game seemingly goes out of its way to be a blank canvas onto which you can project your inner struggles and worst fears, and for that, I found it deeply profound and moving.

And thus, I write here, using my voice (sadly, not just holding down the B button to write this!) to say that Gris is well worth a purchase and playthrough. Even if you don’t particularly care about the meaning imbued into the game, it is worth a look just for the outstanding visual and audio artistry on display.

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