The Power of Tranquility— GRIS’s minimalist game design in an often turbulent AAA world

Fresh off two Disco Elysium playthroughs as an amnesic detective with a uniquely loquacious conscience and the successful deterrence of the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation’s nefarious plan in Titanfall 2, I decided to play GRIS, a 2D platform puzzler made by Spanish developer Nomada Studios and published by everyone’s favorite triple-I shop: Devolver Digital. The five hour game was stunningly profound — it is the first game I’ve ever played front to back uninterrupted (granted this is likely because the majority of games I play are not meant to be executed as such — more on that later), and I’d like to share my thoughts on the experience because GRIS is the kind of title everyone in AAA gaming has heard of but might not take the time to play. Especially in AAA PC / Console, we are so constantly keeping tabs on the next Battle Royale, dissecting performance on next gen IP, and stalking Twitch Browse to see what title will lay claim to the internet’s holy grail of cultural relevance that it’s hard to pay attention to anything moving under 5M units and monetizing beneath a hefty $50M monthly clip [to reiterate, this is an opinion]. I’m not sure what compelled me to hit checkout on GRIS, but I did, and I think it will have a puissant impact on the way I experience games going forward.

World of Black and White

For those who have not heard of GRIS, it is about a girl struggling to regain her voice and overcome trauma that removed color from her world (“Gris” is Spanish for grey). You begin in a black and white realm which (to me) mimics the quiescent ethos of Japanese Sumi-e art and slowly return color to the world (each color symbolizes one of the five stages of Grief) by collecting small orbs of light. After collecting enough orbs, you construct a gossamer constellation stairway to the heavens upon which you ascend after rediscovering your voice and overcoming (what I believe) are internal demons represented by various creatures in each chapter.

Constellation Bridge

The game is almost entirely devoid of mechanics besides walking and jumping. It does not punish (no fall damage, no death). There are no menus, no inventory, no HUD. It, unlike so many titles in AAA, is not afraid to make you feel small, totally insignificant hoisted on the looming lattices upon which you walk (sometimes you barely see yourself). There is not a single line of dialogue, but the game speaks louder than the majority of games I’ve played through its audio design and score. It is masterpiece in gaming mise-en-scène.

World of Red
World of Red

As stated above, you begin in a vast wasteland of black and white, Stage 1 of Grief — Denial. Upon conclusion of the level you walk into the palm of a towering female statue (think Blade Runner 2049 when K travels to the ruins of Las Vegas to find Deckard) and bring back the color red to the world, thus beginning Stage 2 of Grief — Anger. Here you learn the mechanic ‘fortify’ which allows you to turn your cape into an immovable stone. This is ostensibly part of the “game design”, allowing you to trigger pulleys, avoid winds, etc. but it is also symbolic of how anger manifests itself in the way we behave when grieving and overcoming trauma.

Discovering Red

Upon exiting chapter 2, you bring back green to the world, beginning Stage 3 of Grief — Bargaining. Amongst the verdant trees you unlock a flutter mechanic on your jump and solve the majority of puzzles by recruiting a small stone friend who helps you move into new areas of the side scroll if you feed him apples.

Green World

You face off with an inner demon in the shape of a black bird, and I will admit, the game does a better job of making you truly afraid for Gris than I imagine many horror games might. Next, you bring back blue, beginning Stage 4 of Grief — Depression. The blue world is by far one of the most beautiful (I admit I’m succumbing to mankind’s known scientific preference for blue). You explore rainy rivers, cerulean ice caves, and dimly lit ocean rifts, befriend a turtle, and escape another truly terrifying demon in the shape of a black eel. In this chapter, the towering female statue opens her eyes for the first time.

Blue World
Blue World
Blue World — Rain Hopping
Attacked by the Eel

Finally, you bring back yellow to the world, beginning Stage 5 of Grief — Acceptance. This stage brings you to the topsy turvy, allowing you to swim in the sky, walk upside down, and illuminate wonderous staircases in the clouds. You befriend small balls of light akin to Harry Potter’s Golden Snitch that elucidate hidden platforms in the sky. Here you regain your voice allowing you to make flowers bloom and animate otherwise dormant objects.

Discover Yellow
Yellow World
Regain Voice

Upon exiting Stage 5, you finally come face to face with the female statue, the final demon. Cast into a dark abyss, you find yourself in a limbo like world (which, to me, most reminded me of another Limbo world design by Alessandro Taini, the lead art director on the Devil May Cry Reboot by Ninja Theory). Upon escape, you witness Gris and the female statue embrace one another, implying what I believe is a reconstruction of the mind and restoration of life within Gris.

I have only played one game remotely tantamount to GRIS in my life — a game called The Garden’s Between (by The Voxel Agents) which utilized the game mechanic of rewinding time to solve puzzles in colossal gardens and was ultimately about the power of memory. When I list out single player games I’ve played since the onset of the pandemic (Titanfall 2, Disco Elysium twice Persona 5 Royal, Hades, Ghost of Tsushima, Fire Emblem 3 Houses twice, FFVIIR, Witcher 3 + Heart of Stone + Blood & Wine) and couple them with a smattering of online multiplayer (a deplorable amount of Hearthstone Battlegrounds, League of Legends, Civilization 6, and Legends of Runeterra) I realize the majority of these well accoladed titles are long, systematically deep, and competitive. The shortest experience on that list is a 15 hour Titanfall campaign and the longest (ignoring PvP) is likely Witcher 3 at 130+ hours. These games are not meant to be consumed in a day and are designed to be sticky either because the narrative presents a lengthy and epic tale, the progression systems are complex, or you are on a social schedule, logging in daily with your friends for some classical banter and good times. These are not bad things — the nature GRIS was designed to be entirely different and ergo lent itself to a more concentrated experience.

Beyond the truncated playtime of ~5 hours being an anomaly in my gaming repertoire, something else occurred during those few hours that solidified the profundity of the experience: I was contemplating a tough puzzle early in the game and was certain I had figured it out. I moved Gris over the pulley platform, jumped, hit Y, and to my utter shock, that did not solve the puzzle. And so I did what any normal gamer does: I opened my mouth and shouted at the television, “BRO WTF HOWWW DOES THAT NOT WORK”. And I was instantly revolted by the sound of my own voice. I have never been so keenly aware of how my angry gamer dialogue utterly despoiled the serene atmosphere GRIS had created in my apartment and furthermore undermined the emotional impact the game was trying to communicate through the main character struggling to re-find her own voice (until the final chapter, Gris is only able to let out an almost inaudible gasp of breath when you press A — as a player, you feel something is deeply wrong with her and therefore, you). Never throughout all my gargantuan amounts of gaming, television, or film have I felt my own commentary imbue a sense of wrongness onto a product that legitimately does not know I’m there on the couch. For the remainder of the four hours, I was totally silent.

I believe the brevity of this game evoked an extraordinary and uninterrupted experience. Minimalism not only in the art direction but also in the game design allows the player to feel not think, not min max, not decide, not regret. The Iwagumi aqua-scaping inspired style of the levels gives the player the bewildering opportunity to swim in the sky and walk upon constellations. I mentioned at the beginning I did not know when compelled me to play GRIS, and I think upon conclusion of writing that perhaps it was my unconscious inner self looking to experience a game absent the chaos many games bring in concatenation with overwhelming and chaotic real life circumstances (which I think everyone would conclude the past year has presented). In AAA, we often think more is better: more systems, more SKUS, more assets, more updates, more players, more developers. This is not a repudiation of AAA to be clear (Final Fantasy VII Retrograde here I come once I cop this PS5) but rather that GRIS introduced me to a playstyle — to pause, collect, think, be still, reign in anger — that I believe is a foil to the playstyles I typically gravitate towards. GRIS reminded me that the roots of gaming, like any other art form, are fundamentally about emotion — whether melancholia, cheer, solitude, or any others — and that it is often the simplest of experiences that best accomplishes that evocation.

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