Playing ‘GRIS’ Is Like Unravelling Grief in Indie Bliss

Chris Stead
Games Indie Games
Games Indie Games Nintendo PC Gaming

Sleeping safely in the statuesque hand of a god, Gris’ world comes tumbling down literally and figuratively in the opening seconds of this new indie platform from developer Nomada and publisher Devolver Digital. Tumbling to the ruins on the ground below with little to accompany her but a sparse, isolating score, Gris does all she can do. She picks herself up off the ground and puts one foot in front of the other.

And so too do you, dear gamer. You help Gris bring meaning, structure and light back into the dark of her broken mind as she sits on the precipice of a grief-induced breakdown.

We know little of this world, the protagonist, all their backgrounds, only left with a burning need to explore and to understand. Through the inventive use of parallax world design and a dynamic camera that zooms in and out to create a sense of scale, the push to keep moving is irresistible. Moving like Gris’ green hair and black dress, wafting in her wake.

Yes, this is one of those indie platformers. Indie with a capital I. All abstract meanings and gorgeous art, pushed along by stroke-your-chin think music. But if that’s your go, then GRIS – out on PC and Switch on December 13th – is a game that will stick with you when times are tough.

The game starts off desolate and washed out.

Platforming to Know Yourself

Gris’ mind is a beautiful place. It may be destroyed, but you can see the powerful, ancient civilization that must have lived here during her happier days. Life still exists. Giant stingrays fly through the sky, little crabs hide under rocks, moving only when your back is turned on then. Spooky trees twist their way in and out of the rubble.

There’s no shortage of great looking indie platformers, and GRIS stands proud in the hall of awesome when it comes to richly detailed, immersive gaming landscapes.

Gris herself collects little orbs as she explores this world and these help her navigate past obstacles. Areas that can’t be cleared or scaled by her generous jump, can be bridged by orbs, assuming you have collected enough of them to fulfill the feat.

GRIS orbs platforms dress constellation
The orbs on your dress will form constellation platforms so you can progress.

There is no action button to pass these points. Instead, like most everything in this game, it organically unfolds through play. Walk to the spot and the orbs will leave your dress, forming the necessary platform to keep you going in such a way as to look like a star constellation. They then re-join your dress, following you on your journey and giving our heroine an angelic ambiance.

Colour is used sparingly, but effectively to help tell what little story there is. Combined with small cutscene sequences and subtle character animations, colour leads players along the emotional pathway to discovery. Nomada has an eye for the grandiose, ensuring you always feel like a tiny spec in a humongous universe, and inviting you to stop and admire yourself against its splendour.

Run and gun this game is not! It’s not even run and jump on a bad guys head. The challenge here – outside of encouraging your own introspection – is almost all in the environmental puzzles and working out how to get where you want to go. The weather can actually give you some grief, too, with the exhaust from Gris’ mental apocalypse occasionally sweeping across the land.

GRIS red level
Colour is used as an emotional trigger as Gris recovers from her grief

Piecing Together Some Meaning

You start out armed with nothing but your wits and a jump button, but more abilities do come to you – gifted by the stars it would seem – as you progress. It’s sweet how these abilities transform from Gris’ dress, even if it’s a far less sexy use of fashion as a weapon than we saw in Bayonetta.

Although weapon is a misnomer; these abilities are purely to further level navigation. GRIS is a metroidvania in that sense, although it’s one of the more linear forms of that genre you’re likely to come across. While we never felt compelled to go one way or the other, the lack of any agency in the game – death or enemies – gives the impression that you are following the one and only path wherever you head.

This is no slight on the experience and is in fact more a testament to the level design. It’s quite brilliant. The way the world shifts and moves to accommodate your passage feels so organic that even when you fear it’s about to get too challenging, the idea you need simply melts into your mind. As a metaphor for untangling one’s mind, the level design in GRIS couldn’t be better suited.

GRIS suffering grief
The shattered pieces of a broken mind.

We’ve mentioned the game’s sound a number of times already, but it really is exquisite. Pay close attention and you will notice how sound effects from Gris’ movements blend in with the eerie score to sync everything into one immersive experience. Also take note of when it is absent altogether, letting that sense of being alone with your thoughts wash over you.

GRIS isn’t necessarily good-natured, but it manages to be sweet while exploring the dark depths of the emotional rollercoaster that is being human. Devolver Digital isn’t necessarily known as taking on the lighter side of gaming – think Serious Sam, Hotline Miami, Enter the Gungeon, Broforce and Downwell – but it deserves credit here for spotting a true gem and unearthing it.

If you can put away the guns and stomach some perfectly executed indie brain food, then GRIS is a spiritual experience that gets a standing ovation for coming steeped in meaning.

Chris Stead
A veteran journalist with 22 years of experience writing about video games for the world's biggest publications. The true journey began as a kid of the eighties, feasting on Mario, Star Wars, Goonies, Alex Kidd, California Games and more. The bones may ache a little more, but the passion remains!
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