A (NOT SO) SHORT INTRODUCTION
GRIS is a video game by Spanish indie studio Nomada Studio. When it came out in late 2018, it was acclaimed for its gorgeous watercolors by Conrad Roset and its exceptional soundtrack by Spanish band Berlinist. However people have been less unanimous when talking about the gameplay and to me it is quite unfair : actually, GRIS is meant to be metaphorical in both substance and form, in what you can see and hear, and how you play it.
Note : the game is spelled GRIS, after the first name of its playable character ; I will use capital letters to designate the game, and the more classical letter case (Gris) to talk about the character.
Gris is the eponymous character of the game ; she’s a young girl whom we meet right at the beginning, in the game’s introduction which instantly sets the tone for the quality of this work and what it evokes.
The world that the game shows us, although very limited at the beginning since the whole introduction takes place in the hand of a statue, is immediately defined as unreal and metaphorical.
First of all, the place : we don’t see anything except a hand, probably a woman’s, and Gris, sound asleep in the palm of said hand. We can hear the wind blowing and the colors in the background are blue (a very pale cyan) and white : we’re in the sky, or rather out of any place. It even feels like we’re outside of time.
Then, if that hand is undoubtedly that of an inanimate object (here, a statue), given the cracks and the vague color, it is clearly moving.
There’s an other clue, but this one’s in the music : we can hear a melodic line being sung, and then there are two voices. And we can see Gris sing : the voice would be diegetic, it would be an actual part of the scene ; but that second voice, whose would that be ? There is no one else here but the statue…
The physics too are quite unrealistic, as we watch Gris float above the hand while singing, in a truly beautiful shot that perfectly illustrates the girl’s serenity in her art, her dress and hair fluttering in the wind (0’27).
But this serenity is suddenly crushed : after a phrase sung in a duet, Gris sings one last note, alone, and then puts her hands on her throat before collapsing in the palm of the statue’s hand, which starts bursting into pieces before our eyes.
Therein lies one of the strengths of this game : there is absolutely no narration necessary to make us understand what’s happening to Gris, only a few gestures are enough. As soon as we see the first shot, it is made very clear that the statue is Gris’s mother. The strength of their relationship is shown by the fact that Gris is able to sleep in the statue’s hand, as well as the duet they seem to be singing together.
The statue’s hand is damaged since the very beginning, as a way to illustrate how fragile life is ; this hand becomes fissured while Gris is still singing. As long as we hear the two voices, the hand keeps on moving, but as soon as the cracks start appearing, it stops moving. All this leads to this last note that Gris sings alone : her mother is no longer here, and it’s the moment when Gris loses her voice, just as her life loses its meaning.
The music gives us as much information.
The opening is very soft, as is the first shot with Gris asleep in her mother’s hand. The game opens with a F minor piano chord, with the voice soon catching up. It’s a relatively fast 4/4, which nonetheless sounds very calm, due to the piano’s rhythm : one chord on the bar’s first three beats and two quavers on the last beat. Consequently, it is relatively hard to feel the pulse (hence the afore mentioned idea that we are « out of time »).
The vocal line starts with a descending half-tone (A flat – G) and progressively opens up in the higher register (0’15), the ambitus soon reaches more than one octave, thus highlighting how much Gris trusts her mother, while the piano part starts getting slightly more complex, with light syncopations that gives an impression that time sometimes is suspended, due to the shift between on-beats and off-beats ; eventually she’s joined by the second voice (0’27), in homorhythm : this one is only doubling Gris’s voice, as a support, mostly with sixths and thirds, while the piano keeps on progressing, with now parallel octaves.
As Gris sings her last note, a high F (0’40), after the statue has started becoming cracked and we now can already hear the sounds, the piano logically transitions into arpeggios, in semiquavers (the rhythm gets faster, the tension is increasing) ; those arpeggios are rather static at first, before being used on a larger ambitus, now an octave (the chords are incomplete).
Some pads/strings are added (0’50) ; nothing more is happening in the melody, Gris has now lost her voice, yet this part is much more than a transition : Gris is trying to reach a safe place near the palm of the statue’s hand as the latter is exploding under her feet : the explosion sounds have our full attention at that moment, as well as Gris’s escape, so it’s very pertinent to have kept but the harmony.
The animation of that part is actually breathtaking : look at those few seconds at half the speed and you’ll see a large set of emotions on Gris’s face (she shuts an eye to protect herself from the stones, and right before she falls, facing the inevitable, you can see her mouth wide open, her face giving away her fear).
The strings gradually get louder during Gris’s fall, and now that she can’t do anything any longer, another melody now stands out (1’18) : it’s the same halftone that started the first melody, A flat – G ; now we only hear those two notes, in the high register this time, the tone being very similar to that of a voice, with a portamento, and a blending effect each time, giving the impression that Gris is crying for help and that her cry is getting lost in the sky, though she’s singing no longer. This call ends at 1’30, only to come back one last time at 1’34, a last call that’s never to be heard : the first call ends on the A flat (A flat – G – A flat), the second, at 1’34, almost ends on the G, you can barely hear the last note : Gris is giving up.
At the same time, the instrumentation is getting heavier ; the piano is mixing arpeggios and chords (all notes being played at the same time), the strings are higher, we can hear the brass instruments appear as well as an audible bass.
After the last call, the organ is added, in stepwise motions wonderfully illustrating Gris’s fall, that fade out when the brass instruments take over in a very spectacular way at 1’41, as the young girl appears smaller and smaller before vanishing.
After that climax, followed by a (short) fermata, the piano plays again a few chords, very softly and slightly arpeggiated (2’11 – the notes are played one after the other). We still are in F minor.
Now that the astonishment is over, Gris’s journey can now begin.
So it only takes us a few seconds to understand that the universe of GRIS is a metaphor for its titular character’s state of mind. The statue’s hand blowing is Gris’s world falling to pieces, and this never-ending fall obviously isn’t real : it’s the beginning of Gris’s grief after her mother’s death. It’s no secret that GRIS deals with grief, and more generally, depression.
From this point forward, Gris is in a world like her, gray (Gris means gray/grey in Spanish and French), deprived of four colors she will have to restore (red, green, blue and yellow). That’s not all. There’s also a large constellation which seems to have disappeared in the sky and many stars will be necessary to recreate it and allow Gris to leave this altered world.
So Gris is going to walk, for a long time because these things do take time, gain a few powers that will allow her to move forward and interact with the world. Those interactions have been carefully chosen and are related to the different steps she has to take. On her way she will collect small lights that will create other paths thus helping her move forward ; those very lights will then fill the main constellation. Other puzzles will grant her collectibles called mementos : contrary to the stars, you don’t need those to finish the game ; however if you collect all of them you unlock a little cutscene at the end of the game, a memory of Gris that explains the origin of the main metaphor of the game, the constellation.
But most importantly, Gris will learn how to sing again.
The game has five areas, each corresponding to one of the five stages of grief : denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. To reach these zones (except for the first one in which you just land and can be considered a tutorial) you have to go through a castle which acts as a hub. Once you come back to that castle, the environment has changed and a new zone is accessible, yet you can’t backtrack.
Once again, it’s metaphorical : each zone being associated to one of the stages of grief, it’s reassuring not to be able to go back.
Also, there’s no way to manually save the game’s progress, it autosaves after you reach a milestone, for instance when you collect a star or a memento, or after achieving an important part of the game ; it may appear frustrating but again it’s quite a judicious choice : unfortunately, there’s no way to choose how you progress in such an emotional quest, you may fear returning to the beginning, yet the game gives us hope : some events are strong enough to prevent us from going back.
I won’t go back either, I’m going to talk about each area of the game, with a focus on music, in the next episode !