Every once in a while, an independent developer creates a title so full of raw emotion that it captures players and transcends the medium. 2016’s That Dragon, Cancer, which recounts the life and experiences of a young boy with terminal cancer, is a heartbreaking exploration of the human spirit as two parents come to terms with their loss. This year’s Celeste tells the story of a young girl overcoming her struggles with depression, providing an insight into the lives of those with mental illness. GRIS, a puzzle-platformer from Spanish developer Nomada Studio, adds itself to this list, providing a profound, emotional experience unlike any other.
The game follows a girl named Gris, a “hopeful young girl lost in her own world” forced to deal with a painful life experience. The grief she feels throughout her journey is exhibited in her dress, presenting new powers and abilities to help navigate the game world, representative of Gris’s sorrowful reality. These abilities include changing her dress into a heavy block, which helps to solve several puzzles, and a double-jump and glide skill to reach higher and more distant platforms.
GRIS leaves most of its story to interpretation; the game features some cutscenes, though they add little in regards to directly informing the player about the narrative. The story presented is a powerful insight into the world of a young girl dealing with grief, but conclusions regarding a connection between the events and reality must be formed by the player’s own opinions and interpretations. Leaving the narrative vague was a clever choice on the developer’s behalf—rather than forcing the story onto the player through uninteresting dialogue or text boxes, GRIS must present itself through gameplay.
The puzzles in GRIS, while largely simplistic in nature, are incredibly satisfying to complete. Players may find themselves struggling throughout some of the game’s later levels, but the final rush of solving a puzzle is surprisingly joyous. Even if a player was to find themselves stuck on a puzzle for an extended period of time, they would find solace in simply exploring the game world. The level design is quite restricted, helping to build the representation of the character’s struggles, but does not typically feel as such—each level is immensely fun to explore, with collectibles and bonus puzzles to be found through further traversal and exploration. These side puzzles are expertly designed and will keep players returning to the game—even after spending three or four hours to complete the main story—in order to discover them all and gain a better understanding of the truth behind the narrative.
GRIS does not feature traditional enemies. Players will encounter and defend against one significant enemy, but weapons are not used to do so. Similarly, the game does not feature the ability to die and omits any ‘Game Over’ screens. Some players may find this lack of consequence boring or demeaning, but it allows the narrative to speak (not literally—the game lacks any voice acting) and grants the player an opportunity to interpret the narrative meaning without any dire competition or consequence.
The game is accompanied by an original score by Spanish band Berlinist, conducted of Marco Albano, Luigi Gervasi, and Gemma Gamarra. Each song featured in the game sounds better than the last, and every track fits with its respective scene perfectly. Ranging from quiet, minimalist pieces to crashing crescendos, and adding some stunning vocal melodies in between, the game’s score is a powerful accompaniment to such a profound experience and has the potential to stand among some of the greatest soundtracks of the industry. GRIS’s music is faultless.
The game’s sound design is similarly impeccable. Led by Rubén Rincón, the game’s sound designers have immaculately paired every action with a respective sound effect—every step, jump, and splash has a soothing sound to match. Even more minor actions—the twinkling of a light, the soft chime of bells, or the tiny murmur of a small, boxy companion—fit beautifully within the game and truly immerse the player within the world of a young girl’s sorrow.
From the game’s initial trailers, the developer made very clear that a large draw to GRIS would be the art design, led primarily by artist Conrad Roset. The trailers, however, still do not do the game justice. Every frame of GRIS is a painting in itself and each painting continues to improve as the narrative progresses. As the game world expands and additional colours are added, Roset’s true work is revealed and it is transcendent of anything in the medium to date. Every colour and frame is used for a purpose and the game makes no mistake of hiding its beauty.
The watercolour feel of the art is a perfect match for the gameplay and narrative. Each character fits appropriately within the world—none more so than Gris and her dress, whose neutral tone allows for each level’s colour to subtly bleed through and encompass the player, distinguished by her distinct blue hair. The smaller characters wandering around the levels feel appropriate to their respective settings as well, such as the rocky, spider-like creatures from the red world, or the dark blue butterflies of the water level. Every piece of scenery has been chosen to accompany the world with purpose and each level feels more alive—or purposefully the opposite, in some cases—as a result.
GRIS is a powerful insight into the human spirit of a young girl suffering with grief. As she comes to terms with each of her emotional states, and as the levels progress to accompany these stages, the player is granted a profound look into the true emotions of Gris’s character. Nomada Studio has blended simplistic, intuitive gameplay with a breathtaking artistic vision and remarkable music and sound design to create an unforgettable experience. GRIS easily stands among the best independent gems of the medium, presenting a narrative experience unlike any other. Gamers are doing themselves a disservice by not playing this game—GRIS is unmissable.
Reviewed on PC.