Why I like… GRIS (n°3)18 min

BARGAINING & DEPRESSION

Colors come back, one after the other, stages are overcome… After reviewing the very beautiful introduction of the game, we crossed a world almost deprived of colors, where everything has been shattered, or has to be revealed ; then came the time of anger, we experienced the wind of the desert, a wind then tamed by the mill. Let’s continue our analysis of GRIS. We now slide on a vine and dive into a new area, the forest. It’s time for the next step, bargaining.

It’s the first time we make an encounter ; admittedly with a stone cube, but apparently endowed with more consciousness than the small animated objects we ran into until now.
We also find at the beginning of this zone a presence already met before : a swarm of black butterflies, the same ones that had launched us in the windmill area, which here destroy the bridge connecting the hub to this forest : their presence is worrying because it’s preventing us from being totally in control, from making our own choices : it’s true that we’ve never been able to go back to a previous area before, however here this is violent enough to warn us.

It is nevertheless in this zone that the music finally finds a melody, and above all a soothed “voice”, though purely instrumental. The title is appropriate, Komorebi, a Japanese word that evokes the sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree.

The tones are immediately softer than in the desert (although the mill area was indeed a beautiful transition) : there is no organ nor choir, nothing spectacular. The key is now D Major, whereas until now we had remained in minor keys (F minor in the introduction and then D minor for a long time).

It’s a slight tonal evolution, it would seem that the game is trying to convey peacefulness, fulfillment, although probably relative : the large intervals at the very beginning of the piece (the major seventh D – C sharp and the major ninth D – E) may illustrate this uncertainty – but also a beginning of wonder – as do the cello notes (0’40), which are somewhat scattered, almost random. It is only after several minutes that a real melody (2’25) can finally be heard on the cello, with the large intervals of the very beginning as a small contrapuntal element : this is not the last time we’re going to hear this, a small motif that appears insignificant and, above all, without real structure, not really locked in the rhythmic framework, which is actually perfectly so, therefore contributing to the music’s richness.

Better still, this idea is pushed further when the melody is played a second time on the cello (3’24), but in the background ; this time, what was only the accompaniment is put forward, in a higher register, forming in turn a real melody : the elements that sounded like questions are now quite different, and it’s mostly peacefulness, almost hope, that we feel as Gris bonds with the small cube.

The latter acts as a mirror : like us, he is sad (we can see him crying), and most likely shy, since he hides when Gris turns to him. He mimics our running, his arms backwards (Naruto Run for everyone !), and when we jump or turn into a block, he does the same. We tame him by offering him cubic apples (in quantities far too large for such a small cube, but that’s not what we’re discussing here, right ?), which could be an illustration of bargaining, but the bonds we form with this little guy are stronger than that. I like to think that the bargaining reside in the new power gained, the double jump.

It’s a rather passive double jump (we float more than we actually jump), which is often used in combination with small red birds : with their help we are propelled upwards. We free them by breaking vases : we destroy a part of the world, but there is the reward of being able to progress… And this world is not meaningless, to me, it’s probably the world Gris imagined with her mother : she finds herself isolated in a world she can no longer share, because it was with her mother that she could do it, just as it was with her that she shared singing…

When we get this double jump, our little cubic friend has joined his fellow creatures, Gris is alone, again. The music changes (Environments) ; it’s still a bit uncertain, tonally, because it’s not very tonally focused, I would say. Now it’s time to explore a structure similar to the hub (the castle), in which, as in the forest, we find these trees with apparent roots, as in a mangrove ; they can look similar to family trees by their cubic shape and their strong symmetry.

The organ becomes much more intimate, creating a beautiful background with the sustained chords (which is difficult to do on the piano, even using the pedal, the sound is muted at some point, whereas on the organ the sound is sustained). It is also a very versatile instrument, whose sound can vary from one extreme to the other, both regarding tone and power, which matches what Gris is going through : it can be as spectacular as in the introduction, as it can accompany her ascent – thanks to the birds – with infinite gentleness.

We find the same tones as in the previous piece, but it sounds like they’re holding back, as if the long exploration, although pleasant, was slightly tinged with more uncertainty than before : from a tonal point of view, the piece is less focused, and does not have a moment of plenitude like the previous one, in which all the instruments come together ; however this part, still as touching, ends with a very beautiful flute solo (from 5’18), as if Gris was completely freed from her sorrow, while she only has to jump higher and higher with the help of the red butterflies.

But higher, it’s also lonelier. This is when the black butterflies reappear, coming together to form a Japanese raven, Karasu, superbly animated, which seems to be made of a substance thicker than ink but still as fluid.

The music mainly uses the low strings martellato, which can remind us of the twitchy animation of the bird when it gazes almost inquisitively at Gris, and its heavy footstep, which makes the whole screen shake. The choir returns, as well as the piano and the high strings, more lyrical, but it is above all the bird’s screams, pushing us away, that we hear, like the desert’s gusts of wind, with the difference that here we must escape from a visible enemy.

Visually the red reappears gradually, as the sequence unfolds, to end only in red and black at the very end, as the bird dislocates to the sound of the bells, and the butterflies disappear. We can finally finish this castle’s ascent and find the statue. This time the world is covered with blue, a very obvious choice, since we are now entering the next area, depression.

It’s an underground area, located under the castle. The graphic palette is centered around blue, which does not take up the whole screen : we walk through underground alcoves half-filled with water, whose volumes are delimited by large black flat tints, and sometimes brightened by small touches of very vibrant colors.

The music begins in a rather interrogative way. The title speaks for itself : Descent.

Although we’re in E minor, the music’s rather centered around the dominant, B, thus sounding suspended. The tones and the reverberation illustrate the acoustics of this underground cave. Translucent layers of sound are lifted by dynamic piano motifs (0’03, 0’08, 0’43, 0’48), but there is no more substantial element yet : the game at this point only lays the foundations for this area’s gameplay.
A melody carefully takes shape (1’00), but it seems a bit “diluted”, as much by the other tones very present as by the rhythm, especially the pulse, almost absent : only the piano motifs of the introduction, more dynamic and rhythmically structured, come to punctuate this descent, they allow to keep track of the pulse, not to abandon oneself completely.

We go deeper and deeper into a small cave where an ice-ray regularly makes a copy of ourselves.

From now on our dress will take the shape of a small manta ray so that we can propel ourselves underwater, allowing us to head towards the depths. The bass is then more present (3’00), reflecting the danger of our never-ending descent. Simultaneously, a melody similar to the previous one and treated in the same rhythmic way can be heard on the piano. It develops for quite a long time, the piece itself being very long (10 minutes), while on the screen the colors diversify.

The strings come in at 4’00, then another solo element at 4’21 ; in both cases, we find this attempt at a melody, which never seems to be completely finished, like a voice that can’t really sing ; but at 5’21, the piece seems to start again : we hear the piano motifs, then the strings (6’20) with the more melodic piano part, then the bass : all the elements previously introduced now blend together in a very beautiful counterpoint, very rich and above all very organic, like the puzzles of the game which require us to use all of our abilities, sometimes in a quick succession, and the colors, varied and blended though dominated by blue.

The next stars we collect unlock a turtle. Following it, we now reach the depths of this huge underground cavity, and it seems that we are giving ourselves in to depression seeing as everything is now painted in shades of blue.

At the top of this beautiful contrapuntal moment, the piano now plays octaves (7’38), just as we find the statue of Gris’s mother.

Indeed, since the beginning of the game, with each color unlocked, we witness the same thing : we find a part of the statue, the little stars collected during the level come to line up, following the curve of the statue’s hand and Gris, whose dress turns into a brush, cries, painting the world with new shades.

Each time, the animation changes : the first two times, color drops appear, like tears of paint splashing on a sheet, and the different shades are quickly superimposed. After fighting the bird, we dive into depression in a slower animation, like the paint that diffuses when we dip a brush in a glass of water. In the last one, stars just burst out of her, like tears that nothing seems to be able to stop, and the world around her begins to rebuild itself.

Each time, the statue is more complete : at first only the fingers emerge from the sand, the second time the hands, in a welcoming gesture, then we also see the head, half broken ; this time the statue is almost whole, except for the belly, and almost comes to life again by opening the eyes.

Each time the music is more complex, although the theme remains the same, and in the last scene we finally hear a voice.
It’s precisely when Gris gets a new power : she seems to find her voice again but only emits a faint cry just before the statue collapses and Gris is once again confronted with those butterflies that turn into ink monsters : now is the time to escape from Unagi, the Japanese eel.

This scene is an escape sequence, in two similar parts during which we are chased by a huge, monstrous eel, which can split in two, or spit out hundreds of smaller eels… Delightful. Another jewel of animation when you look at the solid and massive animal and the symmetry of the eels’ movements, when they’re two. For such a decisive moment, a beautiful percussion roll appears crescendo (well, it’s more of a sound fade-in), there’s the choir again as well as the strings, which are not martellato as in Karasu, but the bow stroke is still resolute, especially at 0’17, the small ostinato motif on the cellos. I very much like the second ostinato in stepwise motions that can be heard on the strings at 0’44, which for me evokes the eel itself, its fluid and disturbing movements, its relentless attacks, its heavy presence, while the choir seems to give away Gris’s – and the player’s – fear by its exclamations.

These sequences are separated by a central part where the navigation is more classic, but which admirably blurs the lines : in the dark, yellow jellyfish light up one after another while making a rather muffled noise that gives the impression that the eel is hidden nearby. The music beautifully maintains the tension : at 1’26, the pulsation seems to disappear, the solo instrument is in descending motions over two octaves, notes that seem a little scattered, indecisive, but which come back, supported by bass drum rolls. However, this whole central part is supported by the tireless repetition of the tonic, E, in a shimmering sound effect, at first barely audible, as the tones blend together, then (2’10) more and more captivating, while the cello disappears. The cello returns at 2’57, taking over in this exhilarating repetition, joined by the strings, the bass, then the choir, the strings now play in octaves, then at 3’31 they accompany the rising power of the eel, which is always faster and whose attacks are more frequent, until freedom (3’45) when Gris is saved by the turtle, in charge of dispersing this second monster, the piano punctuating with glorious octaves this ending where the brass instruments, with a very nice phrasing, really shine (although the mixing is different in the game : it’s less balanced, we hear the strings more – with the bonus of the turtle making a sound – but I like it very much).

But GRIS is a game in which you can’t die, where you can’t get lost for very long ; the chase can therefore happen without any intervention on our part (except in the middle part, with the jellyfish) ; and yet I can’t help smashing the controller’s A button, as I’m so afraid that Gris will get eaten by the eel. And at the end, although I perfectly know what’s going to happen, until the very last moment, I’m afraid to abandon her, just like in Journey, when the storm rages and we keep chirping even though we know we’re going to collapse in the snow at any moment.

It is on this fear that GRIS plays, the game forces us to be compassionate and help the girl all the way through by blurring the lines between what we can and cannot do, the control we have over the situation or not. Control is indeed minimal, but it does exist, and it also reminds us of the control Gris can have over her own condition : even if she thinks she doesn’t have any, in fact she does – even though the final escape is possible thanks to the turtle. And now it’s time for the longest part of the game : acceptance.

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