One of the greatest achievements of the emergence of indie gaming is the sheer diversity of themes, genres, stories and characters that have come with it – and this diversity is slowly spreading to the AAA space. Where games for a long time catered to the power fantasies of gamers and problems were both created and solved with big guns and other deadly weapons, these days there’s much more of a wide range of games that let you run restaurants with a friend, experience giddy romances with a whole bevy of dream daddies, overcome anxiety and impostor syndrome, escape dystopias, or try not to lose your soul working as an immigration officer or the editor in charge of a news network. It is exciting to see developers trying to find ways in which games can say something about topics other than “What happens when you shoot a big monster in the head until it dies?”
I admire these games for trying something different and difficult. I admire the developers for wanting to say something relevant. But I have to confess to many a jaded eye-roll at a heavy topic being handled in a heavy-handed way.
Gris is one of a handful of Kübler-Ross-’em-ups that I’ve played over the last year or two, others being Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which I’ve written about a couple of times, and Rime by the Spanish developer Tequila Works. Gris (also by a Spanish developer, Nomada Studio) made quite a splash when it came out towards the end of 2018, and it was rightly nominated for a number of awards. It is one of the most beautiful, stylish games I’ve ever played. It is a game I wouldn’t hesitate to frame and hang on any of the walls of my flat. It is also disappointingly, and at times cringingly, hamfisted in how it tries to turn a young woman’s mourning process into a game.
This may sound contradictory, but both Gris‘ greatest asset and its main problem may be that the game is simply too pretty – and in the process it prettifies the story it tells through symbols. There is a clunky self-consciousness to its imagery and its animations that gets in the way: its main character is beautifully animated and realised, but her expressions and body language exclaim, “Look at me! I’m mourning!”, to the extent where the animated character’s performance comes across more as a game of Charades than as an expression of genuine emotion. She covers her face with her hands and doubles over – and the player yells “Sadness!” at the screen, hoping to get a few bonus points.
Gris‘ main aesthetic tool is that of symbolism: the protagonist is in mourning, the emotion weighs her down – so she can turn into a heavy, solid, rectangular block that can break through crumbling floors. (As a gameplay mechanism, it has to be said that this is used well, but Gris‘ earnestness renders the symbol first faintly ludicrous, until it fades into the background and ceases to express anything.) Her world is drained of happiness – so the game suppresses all colours and the girl has to find them one by one as she progresses through five stages. Let me say that again: Gris is about mourning, and there are five stages. In case the penny hasn’t dropped yet, Gris helpfully names them: denial, anger, bargaining- stop me if this sounds familiar.
One of my two main problems is that I have with the way the developers try to evoke what mourning feels like is this: Gris throws symbols at us, but it never comes across as genuine feelings. For all its prettiness, it evokes surprisingly little. It gestures at emotions, it acts them out for us to identify them, but this isn’t functionally different from printing the words DEPRESSION or ACCEPTANCE across the screen. The other problem is how deliberate it all feels, how performative. There are obviously performative aspects to emotional situations, but it is fiendishly difficult to portray the sheer enormity of the feelings involved in such a tightly controlled, designed way.
I’m finding it difficult not to let my disappointment in Gris‘ handling of its themes outweigh my appreciation of its aesthetic achievements, but this is in part because Gris is such an overwhelmingly beautiful game to look at and listen to – and when it doesn’t spell out what it is about, when it releases its tight grip on the set of symbols it uses, these aesthetics doubtlessly have an emotional impact. Whenever Gris isn’t too concerned with spelling out exactly what it is trying to say, it is beautiful and affecting – but when it wants to make sure that the player guesses correctly what each symbol means, it is aggravating.
There is a risk when it comes to the artistic expression of weighty topics that the resulting art mistakes heaviness for earnestness or importance, and that the artist doesn’t trust their audience to reach their own conclusions. Ideally, an artist accepts the risk of someone misunderstanding their meaning. Based on the obvious, beautiful artistry that is evident in Gris, and the creativity with which the gameplay is designed, I hope that Nomada Studio trust both their work and their audience more in their next game. And in the meantime, I’ll gladly frame Gris and hang it on my wall.