In a landscape oversaturated with games fraught with adrenaline, explosions and fast-paced action, Gris (Pronounced “grease” and “gree”) by Nomada Studios transcends mere entertainment, weaving an emotional journey that resonates with the deepest chords of human existence. While it is technically a platforming adventure title, I’ll die on the hill that says this isn’t merely a game at all, but rather it’s therapy in its purest form.
In your absence…
Yes, this is an indie game mode review, but this is also one of those rare moments where I break from my structure and get a bit personal. You see, years ago, my mother passed away, and I’ve spent all of that time since compressing, ignoring, fighting and failing with her loss. When I picked up Gris on sale on the PlayStation Store last year, I had no idea what I was about to put myself through.
It’s not at all often when a game reaches deep into your chest and yanks your soul, but when it does, it’s a unique and almost once in a lifetime experience. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of games that have made me feel this way, and Gris is one of them.
I’m not about to sit here and review a game you’ve probably already watched a million videos on. Even if this is your first introduction to the game, I’m not going to bore you by rehashing everything you can see and hear for yourself in the trailer below.
Make no mistake – this is not a game that shouts; it whispers. You’ll need to quiet your mind and take a breath to fully appreciate it instead of closing it and running back to well, whatever else you were playing before.
Even the background music you hear now does this game a disservice, but because of YouTube’s copyright claim system, I can’t play the original soundtrack – something I have on repeat day and night as of late. The music, sound, and sometimes even the deliberate lack of both pull on the feelings of isolation and contemplation that permeate the room and the cavity of your chest as you play. It will spike your skin and well up your eyes or make you bawl like a baby.
Berlinist is a music band from Barcelona who who composed the OST for the game, and I just want to officially take a moment to thank them for the incredible masterpiece they’ve created. I realize how utterly over the top all of this may sound, but I promise you, this game is special. It’s next level special, and you must experience it for yourself to even begin to understand that.
…we journey through these stages
Gris is the story of a girl who loses her voice, metaphorically representing grief itself. This is clearly something I and perhaps even you can resonate with. And yet, it’s about fighting through those stages in hopes of coming out on the other end – unsure if you even can, and fighting inside where words simply can’t help you. Everyone tells you that speaking with someone after losing a loved one is the answer, and I fully advocate for this, but sometimes, you just need to wrestle with yourself, you know? There’s power in that. Even if it is just a part of the process, it’s an important one.
Denial: The Neutral Gray
That’s exactly what we see with Gris, too. She processes grief and grows through it not with words, music or sound, but mostly with silence. Not just with color, but the lack of it as well – the gray. In fact, “Gris” means gray in French, Spanish and Catalan. I’d argue that the contrast and the duality of the experience is more important than the gameplay itself, and encapsulates the very feeling one would experience while in the pit of grief: Emotionless at first, a blank canvas for the overwhelming stages to come.
Neutral, and ready to be taken by them as they see fit – first by denial, and then anger, followed by bargaining, depression and then acceptance. It actually builds on the Kubler-Ross model of grief, and slowly introduces a new color for each level of gameplay marked by these stages.
“Gris” means “Gray” in French, Spanish, and Catalan, and depicts the neutral beginning stage of grief where one is primed for the other stages.
The way the game makes you wait when it opens up and you fall creates a palpable tension. It doesn’t tell you to get up and walk by holding the controller stick forward and you end up sitting in anguish with Gris, feeling what she’s feeling – hopelessness. The way the game starts with a black line for the ground, slowly introduces rocks, other elements and eventually color, leaves me speechless at the use of contrast.
The beauty of Gris extends beyond the story to its art. The animation, from the beautifully flowing dress of the protagonist to the smoke billows and the crumbling rocks – it’s all masterfully done. Each visual element adds depth and texture to the emotional landscape, allowing you to bathe in the process presented.
The game takes its time to unfold cutscenes, allowing you to truly take a breath from our daily lives and be present in the narrative with the protagonist. These deliberate pauses force you to slow your mind and body down to experience the emotions in sync with her – something I’m very glad it does. It’s not just a storytelling technique, but a thoughtful way to engage you in the deep, reflective experience.
Anger: The Red Storm
Anger is depicted with red, and the game captures the turbulent emotions with the terrifying winds that threaten to sweep you away. The welling concern that the wind induces isn’t about dodging it; it’s about feeling the fury of a loss that words simply can’t describe.
Bargaining: The Green Forest
Bargaining is depicted with green, and you must navigate a tricky forest where the only way through is to bargain food with your new forest who makes a way for you when all paths seem closed off.
Depression: The Deep Blue Ocean
Depression is depicted by blue. The ocean is pitch black without any light as you swim deeper, encapsulating the consuming depths, isolation and hopelessness that come with this stage of grief.
Acceptance: The Yellow of Hope
Acceptance is depicted by yellow. The foliage that grows gives hints of hope, peace, and forward-looking. Acceptance never means forgetting.
…and though we may heal
As these colors flood the environment, you’ll notice there’s no room for gray anymore. The denial must make way for the healing process, despite how painful it is. I think you’ll find that while this isn’t a path you must take in your own journey (though I hope you do), it is one that unfolds before you, encourages you to have a rock as you walk through the storm of anger, someone to lean on as you navigate the winding forest of bargaining, and gives you a light as you dive into the deep ocean of depression – a necessary journey on the way to the light of acceptance.
The beauty of this journey lies in its subtlety. Without spoiling the ending for you, I’ll just say this – Acceptance doesn’t mean you must forget the ones you’ve lost. Experience this game for whatever it ends up being worth to you. but know that it’s not a prescription for grief – it’s a companion to it. It’s a shared experience that doesn’t dictate how you should feel, but instead, it understands and embraces the complexity within you and offers a hand to hold as you make your way through it one day at a time.
We will never forget
After my mother passed away, I felt all of these stages, seemingly at once, and I had no clue how to express them in words. Hell, I didn’t even want to. Playing Gris allowed me to identify them and face them head on in hopes of coming out on the other end – something I wasn’t sure I could ever do. Something I’m still not sure I CAN ever do, but at least I have hope in knowing that Nomada Studios has captured and outwardly expressed the very essence of the complex storm raging within me. The final scene gave me goosebumps, and I cried – I’m not ashamed to admit that. There are very few experiences that can make me feel such intense emotion, and Gris is on the top of that list.
It’s a symphony of emotions, an ode to grief, and a testament to the artistry of game design when a studio defies the status quo and decides to create something deeper and more meaningful. I may have completed Gris, but I will carry the echo of this game, and the echo of my mother with me always as a part of my ongoing healing and of my very being. It’s a short adventure, but an emotional and beautiful one I’ll never forget for as long as I live. In short, this is one game you must play before you die.