GRIS the game is much like its titular character, A lovely face, a nice voice, a pair of functioning (if dainty) limbs, and a shapeless body. It was GRIS’s face, both figuratively and literally, that caught everyone’s attention. I too was enraptured by the beautiful visuals, the emotive music and the graceful animation, all of which remains GRIS’s best selling point. But a game is not just the sum of its parts. GRIS is a great music album, a wonderful film and a charming picture. As a video game? It’s... fine.
The premise is about dealing with the loss of a close loved one, an experience that has led to personal, sincere and harrowing video games such as That Dragon, Cancer and c ya laterrrr. The game’s cover is a close-up of the protagonist Gris; a pretty girl wearing some colourful makeup with a single tear falling down her left cheek. Her grief is beautiful: it must be to remain palatable, which is as far as GRIS comes to saying anything poignant. It received incredible reviews.
Heavily inspired by Journey, which put players in control of a featureless avatar – a cipher – GRIS instead casts players as a singular, distinct and recognisable character. But this doesn't mean she has character. She has no identity, and her function is as a sympathetic face. She’s an indie cover girl. “Gris Looks Beautiful”, but why is she crying?
“GRIS is a serene and evocative experience, free of danger, frustration or death.” A game that does away with death has an interesting premise, especially if the main subject matter is death, and specifically the five stages of grief. The problem with such a premise is that, as anyone knows, dealing with the loss of a close loved one is not easy or simple or follows little mental checklists. It can be frustrating, confusing, messy, numbing, painful, and GRIS is none of these things. Dealing with loss isn’t “serene.” But GRIS's aesthetic and gameplay and concept, taken together, present it as exactly that.
Death in a video game is not an end. There are plenty of examples from recent years where this is not only acknowledged but embraced and incorporated into the game’s world, even becoming part of the narrative. The threat of death in a game is always just the threat of temporary failure, a set back. In its most basic form, it’s a threat of wasting the player's time, forcing them to replay a small section or suffer some other form of penalty. It’s not much of a motivation, but balanced correctly it is the driving force behind progression. It’s the illusion players need to settle into the experience and align their objective with their avatar. This illusion can be easily broken in certain genres, and if balanced incorrectly can cause players to quit out of anger, or on the opposite scale, if the penalty is inconsequential, players won't have a reason to care about the moment-to-moment threat. A good example of the latter is Fable 2 and 3, where death was an instant respawn with the negligible penalty of your character gaining a barely-visible scar.
In GRIS, you are under threat from a shape-shifting black creature that apparently represents the protagonist’s grief. The game’s two set-pieces are well-paced chase sequences, and they're exciting but require no input from the player. I put my controller down and watched the game play itself. GRIS is rather literally symbolising sorrow or grief as an 'enemy', while simultaneously telling the player that these things are no real threat. The game's symbolic arc is of the protagonist escaping and, in the climax, overcoming her sorrow. That’s a fine sentiment in itself, but the player doesn’t do any of this. There's no fear here, no growth, no struggle, just a beautiful cipher easily overcoming clumsy metaphors. During this universally lauded video game's key moments, the player doesn't even have a role.
Gameplay is not distinct from a game's narrative or themes. It is how the player experiences and interprets the whole. Paralleling the players' experience with their avatar can make for powerful experiences: Metal Gear Solid's torture segment, making the player button mash for an extended period until their own hand hurt, and offering the tempting option of giving up, is a clever example. Less gimmicky and more horrifying is the infamous white phosphorous segment in Spec-Ops The Line, where the player and main character share the horror, self-disgust and guilt as the reality of their actions hits home. Even when used in quite a blunt manner, death in video games can be memorable: when Aeris dies in FFVII, or Quiet in MGSV, both characters are then removed from the game entirely, their abilities and your investment in both gone.
These are all such memorable moments because your experience as a player parallels the events of the game's narrative. One more example, important because it's so ingenious, is the entirety of NieR: Automata leading up to Ending E: where the player fights a desperate, unwinnable battle to save the characters they've grown to care for, to give them a final chance of life. Desperately retrying again and again, with these high stakes, the player cannot win: until they are offered selfless, sacrificial aid from strangers online. Upon success the player is also given the chance to pass on this gift of compassion, to help someone else, by deleting their own save.
The point is, whether we're talking MGS3's ending or Alien: Isolation's atmosphere, when the player’s experience somehow parallels that of the characters, these games create a much more personal impact.
There are moments in GRIS that I loved. Some parts did a great job at encapsulating or representing snippets of the multitude of feelings that can come with the grief the game is based around. In one scene the world is reflected and contrasted horizontally, and you briefly witness the unseeing sorrow constantly emanating from Gris, the visual trickery suggesting that, just because you can’t see someone in pain, doesn't mean they aren’t suffering. The game’s 2D perspective shows that what you initially perceive as an obstacle is sometimes just an inconsequential feature far off in the distance (and vice-versa). Or how there are times when your path ends with no clear way forwards, but the onwards pull is irresistible, even if you can’t see where your next step begins: you must push on. Or when you’re at your most vulnerable, and take a moment to stop somewhere safe, a brief break, until you feel it’s safe to go back out there.
All lovely aspects that work with Gris’s theme. Some of them are hampered by the fact that there isn’t any danger in the world, however: you have nothing to fear taking that blind step and falling, because you know you’ll land safe and sound. There's nothing to fear and no consequences, so any unsettling feelings tend to be momentary, a quick surprise before relaxing back into total safety.
This decision to make GRIS a game “free of danger, frustration or death” is what for me undercuts everything else it tries to do or say on the topic of grief. Instead the game comes to feel hollow. At one point it pays tribute to a scene in Journey that has the player sliding down sand, which in that game was a joyous moment, suggesting the happiness, wonder and pleasure of life. In GRIS? It's a pretty moment. It's nice to look at.
The platforming is pleasant and the puzzles are fine, but nothing in GRIS is strenuous in any form. The activities also seem so distinct from its themes, game-y elements there because they're game-y, serving no purpose other than connecting the times you bring colour back to the world. As metaphors go it's not the most subtle.
The game’s finale presents Gris as being mere moments away from drowning under her own metaphorical sorrow, but of course she overcomes it at the last second, and what we get is... a cutscene. The player doesn’t get to share what the last 3 hours were all building up to, the final moment where Gris is about to lose, only to suddenly triumph. That moment isn’t yours. You don’t play a part in it, you just watch it.
It's like when you realise none of the giant terrifying monsters can touch you. Those moments don't feel like yours ever again; you might as well put the controller down. If you simply cannot lose, how can you ever feel like you've overcome?
There’s nothing wrong with easy or unloseable games, and I don't believe challenge or a failure state is a prerequisite for a good game. But in the case of Gris, we have an experience built around the metaphor of overcoming the death of a loved one, which represents sorrow as an in-game enemy: a tangible danger, a threat. An enemy that then chases the player in sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in Ori and The Blind Forest. Here an 'unloseable' design simply does not line up with the metaphor and, more importantly, the underlying messiness of the human state it is trying to somehow present.
I’m not even saying GRIS needed to be difficult: it just needed some form of consequence, the possibility of failure. These sequences where the emotions are supposed to peak ended up feeling, to me, like a charade.
I think of Shadow of The Colossus and how, on some level, it's a game about how good people do bad things. The player had to manage their grip meter and health bar on their way to their prey’s designated weak point, then repeatedly plunge their sword into the writhing colossus again and again. Imagine taking away the grip meter, the player’s health. Upon reaching the glowing target, instead of stabbing the colossus yourself, roll a cutscene. These small changes would render a profound interactive experience meaningless.
GRIS as a game is fine, and the team behind it is clearly talented. Conrad Rose’s art is wonderful, and I had the soundtrack by Berlinist on repeat for about a week, but the goal of creating a “serene” experience free of danger rubs the wrong way against both its theme and many of its in-game elements. It is a game that aches to be meaningful but, in presenting grief as a beautiful zen-like journey towards inevitable emotional triumph, it ends up feeling meaningless. GRIS is indeed beautiful. Unfortunately, it's only skin-deep.