Why I like… GRIS (n°4)19 min


It’s finally time for acceptance for Gris, and the end of my series on this beautiful game. After denial, anger, bargaining and depression, there’s one last step to take before the conclusion to this series…

After being saved by a turtle, which took care of dispersing the eel that was chasing us, Gris can now swim back up to the surface : thanks to the ability acquired in this zone (underwater propulsion, now used in a positive way, to go up) this ascent is faster than the long descent into the depths, however it’s not passive : we’re not propelled towards the next zone at the end of the chase, we actually have to do it : it’s important to push ourselves to go back up to the hub.

This phase nevertheless still shows a lot of fragility : it is partly done in the dark, with light appearing suddenly, intermittently. The colors are not all present yet, only blue and a little yellow, still surrounded by large black areas.

The symmetry of the game is heard in the music, since the title Descent finds its matching opposite, Ascension, which reflects this uncertainty.

The mood is still dark, almost solemn ; the first minute consists solely of arpeggios (G minor – the piece’s key – and E flat major – thanks to the stepwise motion D – E flat – D) carefully revealed, with sounds that manage to convey the volume of this world, its depth, the distance we still have to travel to reach the surface.

Small descending motions on the strings (viola or cello ? My ear is torn) at 1’16 come to plaintively light up this Ascension, while two somewhat disturbing elements seem to bring us back to the depths (in addition to those descending motions which contrast with the fact that we’re supposed to swim up to the surface) : chords in a very low register (on the organ I would say, this instrument is often heard in the soundtrack and can produce the lowest notes), and repeated notes on the bass, sometimes lost in the other tones but so low that we feel the vibrations more than we hear the note.

We reach the castle, however, and make our way to the next area, the last one, where the gameplay will play directly on one of the metaphors of Gris’s mourning : since her world is upside down, we will experience changes in gravity, albeit very modestly since there will be no inverted controls (if we want to go left on the screen, we press left, regardless of the gravity – nothing like the Forlorn Ruins in Ori & the Blind Forest)

Here we are far above the castle, and, as in the game’s introduction, as if we were outside the world.

But what is this world ? The question has been asked before and the answers are obviously multiple. I had evoked the idea that it was linked to the young girl and her mother, that this was in fact the world that they had both been able to create.

In the game’s bonuses we can find a slightly simplified map of this world we are led to explore with Gris ; it’s a realistic world, given its landscapes : a desert, a forest, an underground cave… up to the last zone beyond the large constellation we have to recreate : the background evokes the most beautiful nebulae. It’s already a little less realistic in the sense that we can’t normally get that close to them, and the physics is disturbed (although we’ve seen this kind of effect before, the floating water tables in the vast underground cavity), but the introduction had brilliantly revealed the metaphorical character of the game, of its world, from the first shot.

This last zone also underlines Gris’s solitude throughout her journey : she seems all the more isolated here as she’s physically far from the ground, but she has almost always “been alone without being alone”. Small anthropomorphic stones regularly followed her, the underground world was not devoid of fish (including a pretty mola-mola), but only in the forest did she established ties, with the cube and his fellow creatures – and it’s also there that the music became more peaceful, more melodic as well ; there’s however a great feeling of loneliness that almost overwhelms us during the game, loneliness amplified by Gris’s footsteps, which very rarely find others steps to share a few moments together, and are often only reverberated in this world of prodigious dimensions, sometimes without any music at all.

It is also a complete world, with several biomes, and in which her mother is omnipresent: there are several statues of her, some of which we necessarily encounter (the largest), and some we find only if we search well enough…

It’s finally time for Gris’s last ability, which is no longer related to the shape of her dress although it changes when it’s used ; it is indeed a power that comes from Gris herself : she sings again.

And what’s very beautiful is that from now on she finds a way to reveal the world without destroying it ; through her singing, she allows flowers to bloom, mechanisms to restart. It is also a way to release the last colors because if the main structure is blue, Gris’s singing reveals reds, pinks, greens… She has to sing in order for all the colors to be there.

We walk under the Firmament and the music has finally found a soothing melody, with ethereal sounds, accompanied in the game by a delicate sound design : the half-spider (it has only four legs…), the hummingbirds, the splashes when Gris dives and comes out of the water (the puzzles are for a large part aquatic). The music is also often discreet enough, ambient enough, so as not to hide the girl’s singing.

We also find temporal elements in this part : I had previously mentioned the fact that in the mill (the last area of anger) Gris was restarting perpetual motions, which could indicate a reflection on time, a wish for eternity yet crushed by the death of Gris’s mother ; the mill itself was a sign of it by its infinite rotation. Here, some puzzles are based on the passing of time and its transforming space : some platforms appear for a moment and then slowly fade away ; this is a clever way of associating and adapting classic platforming mechanics to the game’s metaphor – but with the safety of being able to start again.

From the moment Gris’s world starts rebuilding itself (when she unlocks yellow, before being chased by the eel), the game plays on symmetry and asymmetry ; the world (essentially the large structures, like the castle where we return after each area to complete the constellation) is completed symmetrically, but there’s an asymmetry between the ruins (made of stone, relatively damaged) and what is rebuilt (which appears transparent and intact) ; thus, what was damaged remains that way. As she’s reaching the acceptance phase, I like to think that it’s a way of evoking that accepting her mother’s death doesn’t mean forgetting her : what was there remains there, without idealization.
Symmetry is a common thread of the game since some of the exploration can be done in a completely symmetrical way, and puzzles are often placed symmetrically, on both sides of a central hub (when there’s the turtle for instance, or under the firmament).

Finally, Gris can put the world back into place…

The constellation is full, but there is one last test left. The ink monster takes a third form, that of Gris herself…

At that moment in the game, we’re back to reality, since I think it now shows the most difficult moment for Gris, the burial : we see Gris’s mother’s grave – and I doubt it’s metaphorical here, I see it very literally on the contrary. But she manages to sing…

The music is based on the same elements as in the introduction (hence the titles, Gris, Pt.1 & Gris, Pt.2): the key’s the same (F minor), the instrumentation (piano, voice, strings, brass, organ and percussion), the thematic elements ; with the difference, however, that it sounds in medias res : immediately the pulse is there (whereas in the introduction it took a little time to really be audible), we start immediately with a very defined melody, in an already high, more plaintive register ; the piano is more active, the thirds arrive very quickly, like the counterpoint on the cello alone and then on the strings : everything moves forward, like the sudden rise of this black ink that ends up swallowing up Gris, as she sings one last note alone, mirroring the introduction where she began accompanied and ended alone (1’00), here this last note announces the return of the second voice, with a slightly darker tone (1’04) : the statue’s singing again, powerfully sweeping away the ink that was about to consume the young girl.

As soon as the statue starts singing, her fingers move again, symmetrically with the introduction where the fingers froze as the first crack appeared.

The duet can resume (1’22), and it’s interesting to hear that during this short moment the two voices are more independent than at the beginning, when the second voice, the mother’s, was only doubling her daughter’s, in homorhythm, a way of illustrating her protective character, here it’s slightly different : Gris manages to overcome the pain as the two melodic lines individualize until the climax at 1’30, when she takes up the melodic line that opened the game, an octave higher ; and while in the introduction the climax with the organ, the brass and bass accompanied Gris’s tragic fall, which seemed to never end as the young girl appeared smaller and smaller, here the same musical elements underline her return to life and her regained smile, in a very beautiful shot. Another beautiful illustration – musical, here – of the combination of symmetry and asymmetry.

The worlds we had seen previously are recolored : while they sometimes already showed subtle nuances, their true colors are nevertheless revealed, as well as other reconstructed elements, “added” (the water lilies, the towers in the underwater part).

Gris still saw her world through the spectrum of her emotions (but the nuances, like the emotions, were often mixed, although each time one color was highlighted), now its true nature is revealed.

There is only one last thing left after that, one last action to be made by the player after the statue brings Gris very close to the constellation : we help her take this long path now recreated, and as each step of the girl triggers the little sounds from a music box, like every time she walked on one of these constellations, the two voices unite, before Gris disappears in a long fade to white.

This moment is sometimes considered to be a little weak, but on the contrary it’s important to me not to end up on something too strong, and that there is a last action by the player after the previous, very powerful cutscene : we’re still dealing with grief, and acceptance does not prevent sadness. It would make little sense to end on the cutscene, or to even include this last part in said cutscene. The metaphor remains extremely strong, especially for the player who can accompany Gris all the way to the end : they’re the one who allow the girl to take over, and for such a game, there’s nothing more important…


GRIS is far from being the only game about depression, death, grief. Those I know are often dark (like Limbo) – but not always : RiME, for instance, has a very vibrant graphic palette – and for some rather intended to making others understand what depression is (Elude), without addressing those who suffer from it. I tried to play several of them, but it was pointless at that time : they were not aimed at me. Moreover, from an artistic point of view, I didn’t find them to my liking, either because the artistic direction didn’t move me, or the narration was a bit overwhelming (I clearly remember a part from Sea of Solitude on bullying (with the main character’s brother, if I recall correctly), and even though it’s a very sensitive subject for me, I didn’t feel anything : it was too long-winded) – but that doesn’t mean I won’t come back to them : I’ll talk about Inmost, a beautiful game, on this blog, yet it’s quite a dark game, and I bought Limbo not too long ago, so we’ll see.
GRIS goes further than the apparent darkness of depression : for depression is not necessarily when our own world, this constellation made of what we love or what we believe in, is gray by nature, but seems so far away from others that the inability to share it can paint it gray, by its apparent uselessness ; that’s why the game’s main mechanics, the paths created thanks to the stars we collect, was in my opinion a particularly striking and precise metaphor of what depression can be : sometimes there’s just no way to “connect”, to bond with others, and the game suggests that we can do it again.
It is also very beautiful, visually and aurally elegant : I talked a lot about the music, but the sound design is full of very soft sounds, a ringing bell, a bird flying off, a little character coming out of the ground. The choice of a 2D game is also very relevant, and seeing the heroine almost constantly from the side puts the emphasis on her attitude and therefore her state of mind, eyes down but dynamic run, going forward despite her fear.

It’s a game without death, which for me was important at the time I discovered it (but after finishing Celeste – just the any% and a rather plump number of strawberries – with more than 5000 deaths, I put my relationship to death in video games into perspective…), and without any particular difficulty ; the puzzles are simple but varied in their design, and although they take up classic platforming elements, they are elegantly integrated into the game’s metaphors : I had notably talked about trust (you fall and a platform appears) and time, which one wishes to be infinite (through perpetual motion) but knows it is only limited (in the last part, some platforms are only solid as long as they are illuminated).
It’s not that exploration-based either, because it’s not really a matter of exploring the world, it’s a matter of getting out of it : thus exploration remains limited because there’s this thread, the constellations, these paths to create in order to move forward ; you can however take advantage of a few detours to collect mementos or discover a poignant secret (the underwater statue).

In that case, why make a game out of it ? Why not keep only the animation ? This is a criticism that comes up quite often : GRIS‘ gameplay is modest, there is little to do, sometimes nothing at all except walk. But here, walking is something that makes sense, because it is intimately tied to the girl’s depression, and the simple fact of moving forward is for her extremely meaningful : the game immediately showed us that it was entirely metaphorical, it never hid it, and the gameplay is involved in this metaphor. The bond between the player and the heroine, the empathy, is born very quickly. Therefore, choosing to make GRIS a game means including ourselves in the story, for some it means soothing our melancholy for a few moments by taking care of the heroine, but above all it means pushing us to actually do something, however modest it can be, to enjoy what this masterpiece has to offer. And it has a lot to offer : a story – which unfortunately we are all confronted with – told without a single word, only through art…

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