Why I like… GRIS (n°2)16 min

Denial & Anger

Here I am again with the next entry of my « Why I like… » series about this beautiful video game, GRIS. The introduction of the game, though rather short, was analyzed at length in the previous post. Gris is now on the ground, after a long fall following her mother’s death, which was symbolized by a statue collapsing before our eyes. Gris is now about to go through the five stages of grief…

At first, it’s denial. It’s only after this world that the title of the game appears, as if it could no longer be, well, denied.
The game does not start immediately, at least not at the pace you would expect. After standing up, Gris walks slowly, her eyes, although hidden by her hair, fixed on the ground (“Eyes fixed on my thoughts”, as Victor Hugo would say). The usual controls don’t work : if you try to jump, you fall, if you try another button, which you will later use to sing, Gris emits a faint cry that is immediately muffled : it seems that she can’t do anything, she has to learn everything again. It seems like Gris’s world has to be completely rebuilt, or rather, revealed.

There’s no music except for soft ambient noises : you can hear the wind blowing and the footsteps of the eponymous character. On the screen, a mere black hand-drawn line stands for the ground, but the background, completely white, gradually becomes transparent and allows us to see dunes and birds, white as well ; Gris is then partially hidden by a smoke screen, an effect that will be used throughout the game.

While at the very beginning Gris almost takes up the whole screen, which could be a way to show that her sadness obscures everything else, as the white background becomes transparent, the game zooms out, allowing us to see both the heroine and her environment. It is at this point that Gris changes for the first time : she stands up, looks up to the sky, brings her hand to her face and shakes her head ; this acts as an awakening : the music starts and Gris rushes forward. The animation of her movement, although relatively slow, gives a very dynamic and determined impression : Gris is now drawn with “little stick” limbs, the main part of her sprite being her dress (the key element of her later additional movements). This makes her movement perfectly clear : she’s running (to be honest it almost looks like a Naruto Run).

There’s a crucial point in GRIS‘ music : the whole soundtrack is also a metaphor of Gris’s coming back to life, of her finding her voice back. In the introduction, the young girl shared a vocal duet with her mother, in a very melodic tune, before losing this voice. Gris’s voice is broken as well as the melody, and the point of the game’s music will be to recreate this voice, this melody, that’s why the music starts without a theme. The title is well chosen : Debris. And it’s true that the setting for the time being is far from enchanting, although it is drawn with great delicacy. Rocks, more organic forms which look like trees, small pebbles that can actually walk : a desolate world, but always a clearly metaphorical one. Once again, these are graphic elements that will be found throughout the game, more and more developed.


To illustrate these debris, Berlinist chose to work with a motif : repeated notes on the piano, like an echo. Sometimes a single note, sometimes an interval. This illustrates both the fragmentation of the actual debris (the stones) and Gris’s solitude : she’s so alone that there is nothing to hear but the echo. It’s also a way of expressing her inability to sing.

These repetitions sound very rhythmic, like Gris’s running ; however, they seem to convey a feeling of abandonment, due to the fact that it always goes back to the same note (G), the interval gets shorter and it’s often a descending motion (at 0’20, B flat / B flat – G / A – G / F – G in decrescendo), yet they are supported by relatively light pads that give momentum thanks to the quite sudden crescendo.

As the landscape becomes fuller and the first elements of the gameplay appear, the beat stabilizes (at 0’30 but mostly 0’55) and a first more melodic motif can finally be heard on the piano, in the lower register (0’55). It’s like a melody that would still hide, as the intervals are sometimes very wide and the rhythm relatively slow, almost erratic. We discover the main mechanics of the game, the one that allows us to move forward by collecting lights to form small paths, like constellations. Each time it appears in the game, this constellation-path means that we’re moving forward : to connect, to join, means to progress. A first breathtakingly relevant metaphor of depression.

A second, even more melodic element (at 2’17), this time in the higher register, can be heard at the end of the title, which concludes with the dominant note (we are in D minor and the last note is an A, at 2’46), as if time were slightly suspended : in the game, the track then starts over completely, and by using the dominant it softens the conclusion, thus making the loop sound more organic.

Another mechanics is introduced, the mementos. They are linked to Gris’s past, and from this area their location in the game is judiciously chosen, as we often have to retrace our steps to obtain them. Collectibles are often hidden, you might say ; it is true, but here the metaphor (again !) is particularly striking. Recovering mementos often requires an effort (a small platforming section for example, or exploration), and makes us go back…

A final thought about the constellations : they mean at the same time progress, moving forward, but also in my opinion they evoke the past, especially childhood, given how they worked on the sound effects : when you walk on a constellation-path, each one of your steps triggers little sounds very similar to those of a music box, something commonly associated with childhood.

After all this, a hand emerges from these debris : the hand of the statue. Gris’s dress then takes the shape of a brush, and while Gris is crying, a new color appears, a new step is taken. Comes the time of anger, in a red desert.

But before entering this area, there’s one thing left to discover : the castle (or hub). Located just below the large constellation that is to be filled in, it is found after each zone, and there you discover the path to the new zone.

To reach the desert, nothing could be simpler : you let yourself slide on an endless slope of red sand, or rather red pigment, in an obvious tribute to Journey.

The music finally becomes more concrete, with low strings (in Journey, the solo instruments are the flute – often bass flute – and the cello). One more tower to climb, and the title of the game finally appears, as a way to end denial, a heartbreaking acknowledgement. The music is just as conclusive. Desert and anger await us.

To overcome anger, we need to get through three zones.
The first one is a desert full of spears and stone constructions, a vast desert in which Gris still appears very small ; the game really shows us an infinite world. Infinite, but filled with emptiness, with hollowness.
The graphic palette mostly uses an intense, deep red, a blood red, but as in the whole game, it remains very nuanced. Numerous wind turbines announce very violent gusts of wind and sand, represented by a smoke effect, gusts that Gris can only escape at first by hiding (therefore waiting) in the sometimes moving, even anthropomorphic stone structures.

Like in the first area, we find debris surrounding most of the stone structures, which also contain the first power that Gris is going to obtain : she’s angry, she’s going to learn how to turn her dress into a cube, mainly in order to break what’s around her.

The music, Perseverance, is more melodic than in the first part of the game, but also more intense. In the same key as Debris (D minor), it alternates between the piano, and two more dramatic, even spectacular elements : the organ and the choir, which appear and disappear with a fade-in/fade-out effect, like the sandstorms. There is very little progress in the music : the piano part, although more melodic than before, is based on the arpeggios of the different chords of the harmony, which remains very simple (I – IV7 – I – VI – I), whereas the organ is systematically on the tonic : a low D on the left hand and rapid stepwise motions or thirds on the right hand, like outbursts of anger sustained by the choir ; this obsession with the tonic reminds us of the wind that inevitably pushes Gris back : nothing seems to be evolving.

As Gris obtains her first power, she can use it in two ways : to destroy and to protect herself ; indeed, she’s not blown away when cube-shaped, she can even walk during the storms ; as she uses her power this way before reaching the second zone of anger, the organ’s harmony slightly changes (from 2’12, to announce an evolution in the game which until then seemed stuck in this alternation as tireless outbursts of anger) before returning to the tonic chord, D minor, still in a very spectacular way, with the choir and an almost painful bass (from 2’20).

Our newly acquired power takes us into the very short transition zone, with no music except for a few (diegetic) bell sounds ; it also takes us out of it, launching us again, without warning, in the last zone depicting anger : the windmill.

And in this mill, like the game that makes us go up and down constantly, the music is just ascending and descending motions, like hopes gently crushed.

The first arpeggio announces the key, still D minor. This will soon change, but it’s interesting to have kept this key for a large part of the beginning of the game, insofar as we don’t seem able to move forward ; it’s as if we’re stuck in this harmonic framework, as we are stuck in our own mind, however Berlinist avoids any musical redundancy since this key is always used in a different way : the sensations evolve, and even if the overall feeling seems to be the same, sadness, there have been many nuances since the beginning ; it’s the same for the colors : although each area is based on one color, there are many hues and we can’t really talk about monochromy or monotony.

We start with Debris‘ short crescendos, then the piano comes in, very softly, in small patterns repeated at first (0’31), then in longer sequences (0’56), though always based on repetition. It’s more melodic than in the desert, all the music of the game being built on this evolution, from non-melody to the return of the melody, of the voice, even if we can hear some echo effects again with the quickly repeated notes at 1’47. The choice of the high register at this point is very relevant because it’s a transition, like a commentary, a last thought before a stronger statement, the very beautiful passage with heavier chords (2’11) which sometimes reveals a beat (2’22, 2’34, 2’41, 2’48, 3’02 – in fact a regular rhythm superimposed on quick D minor arpeggios), some energy, before a second passage in the high register (3’09).
The keyboard becomes softer (3’26), but this should not deceive us : a few moments later (3’46), a disturbing sound appears, similar to a voice ; many elements come back together, the sudden crescendos, the repeated notes, the beat, here superimposed on more chaotic notes – but still guided by the D minor arpeggio – culminating only to “disperse” immediately (4’22), like a memory that would almost come true before fading away. The loop closes with the return of the initial crescendos.

This is one of my favorite parts from the soundtrack because, without even a single word, it tells with more accuracy than any speech what Gris is feeling : how hard it is to say things, through the repetition of the first piano motifs and the fact that they are sometimes lost, hopes (as in bargaining, the next area) suddenly crushed, but also her strength, undeniable in some moments when you can hear the soft fullness of the music (the melody in octaves on the piano, at 2’30), and her freedom despite her sadness. But I’m talking about something more than simply descriptive music : music that would be a speech, but a speech without words… (Are you following me ? Tell me you’re following me… We’ll come back to that in an other post, music and speech is a very big deal, trust me).

There are also gentle diegetic sounds, the same as in the first two zones of anger : bells tinkling and footsteps of small anthropomorphic pebbles ; we also hear the sounds of clock mechanisms (similar to a solar system, like in the title screen) and the mill. It’s still not much in this vast world.

There is a positive element in this zone : our only power is now used to restart mechanisms, to release a balloon. Therein, this part of the adventure can be seen as a reflection on time. While everything is static, we turn things back on, we get the clocks going again, just as the music regularly starts again. However, we restart perpetual motion machines, like a metaphor of a wish for eternity : anger is still there… That’s why the pulse is still blurred in the music.

It is also here that the first elements involving trust appear, which represents a transition to the next color, where we will no longer be alone. Some gaps are filled in just as we think we are falling, to make us move forward or to allow us to find a memento. Trust is built, the small risks we take are rewarded. It is true that the gameplay is reassuring, insofar as there is no way to die, in this huge world where you can’t get lost or even fall too far down. What is this world ?

One last mechanism to be engaged, that of a huge wheel, and again we become a brush to release a new color, green…

…and let us slide into a more peaceful place, the forest associated with the next step, bargaining, before the painful descent into the depths of depression. But not now ! Next time…

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