Everyone, at some point in their life, will have to deal with some event that leaves them feeling empty inside. Not just sad, but blank. Depressed. Grey. GRIS.
GRIS tells the story of someone’s path back from that dark place, from the clutches of depression. It opens with a girl in song, held in the safety of a giant statue’s hand, but suddenly it all shatters, her voice stops, the stone crumbles and shatters. She falls.
The artistry of Conrad Roset is simply stunning to behold within GRIS. Those opening moments are full of muted, sun-kissed colours, a real lightness to the way the watercolour-like hues overlap and blend together. The animation in these close up moments is similarly sublime, but as she falls, all those colours disappear, leaving the girl in a place devoid of all colour and life.
Her motions are slow, sluggish as you drag her up to her feet whenever she slumps to the ground. The girl’s look alone is emblematic of how she feels. Her bright, turquoise hair is a lone flash of outward facing colour, but below her head is a dark grey dress that flops down around stick figure-like arms and legs.
Forcing her to push ahead, she starts to run, the dress billowing behind her as the grey environments evolve into crumbling ruins. You can restore this place, bringing colour back to the world one at a time. Even just one shade of colour, red, is transformative, but as you reach the broken statues that grant you new colours, the world evolves in dramatic ways. It’s to the point that a central hub is almost unrecognisable each time you return, with the palette shifting through from emptiness, to vibrant colours, through to the inky darkness of nighttime.
The girl’s dress also gains new abilities at various times, as you move through the environments and find the little points of light that can offer you a path forward. First it’s being able to turn herself into a heavy, stubborn box that refuses to be blow away by the harsh desert-like winds, but later she can glide through the air after jumping and swim like a stingray through water.
As the world transforms with colours, so too do the obstacles that she has to overcome using these abilities. Initially, it’s simply jumping and breaking through loose floors as a heavy box or using red birds to send you high into the sky, then the platforming challenge increases with shifting, invisible or temporary platforms, while the waters that she can swim through often defy gravity. It starts slow, but grows into something that’s pleasingly engaging as you have to puzzle your way through some of the environments, with optional areas that can be a little tricky to spot or reach.
However, the way that the environments can layers upon itself in 2D can lead to moments of confusion over what is merely in the foreground or background, and what is blocking my path. That can be even trickier when playing on a handheld Switch and the game zooms all the way out to the point that you can barely see the girl behind the layered effects, and one point was so inky and dark that I had to rely on the controller rumble (which won’t be there on PC) to find the spot I was meant to break.
One thing that’s completely absent is real danger or punishment for failure, but there is often the looming spectre of darkness that takes several forms through the journey. At times is a giant bird, screaming and trying to force you back, other times it chases you through the water, though these more scripted moments are still kept light and only seem to hint at peril. These moments help to provide an arc to a story that’s told without words.
Perhaps one of the failings of the game is that you gain much of the context and understanding of the story from the game’s Steam and eShop blurb, and while it’s certainly evocative without this, you can just as easily play it without gleaning any real meaning. Going in understanding that it’s a girl dealing with trauma adds greater meaning to the black monster, and the peaks and troughs that she goes through. The music helps add a great deal of the emotion, itself following a similar path to the artwork and growing from a light and sparse to a fuller score by the time the girl regains her singing voice.
GRIS is a wonderful artistic achievement, with a simply sublime visual style and soundtrack that grows and evolves through the course of an emotional story.
Version tested: Switch – Also available for PC & Mac