GRIS — Aesthetics First, Humanity Later (Or Never)

GRIS is a beautiful game.

In fact it’s one of the most drop-dead gorgeous games I’ve played recently. Take a screenshot at random and chances are it wouldn’t be out of place if you framed and mounted it on your wall. Its watercolour art style is like nothing I’ve seen before, and Nomada Studio have been justifiably praised for just how good looking a game they’ve put together.

GRIS follows the journey of an unnamed protagonist across a stark fantasy landscape of floating rocks, shifting sands and lush, swirling plant life. It’s Journey meets Monument Valley, but with a dream-like, painterly quality. As you progress, colours will be boldly splashed into the world — red, green, blue — and will bring life to the mysterious ruins. The gameplay is mostly made up of traversing land, air and water using abilities you gain along the way. The movement is smooth and satisfying and the puzzles are simple but never dull. Make no mistake though — this game is all about the look. As you hop across glistening puddles and slide down twisting vines against a red sun, you will luxuriate in the vibrance of it all. You will drink in the ambience, the play of light and dark, the way the brush strokes make every lovingly crafted object in the world feel so wonderfully tactile. I enjoyed every moment.

Any screenshot. Literally any screenshot looks this good.

But although the silky platforming and rich hues fired up my senses, the emotional arc of GRIS left me cold. Because GRIS’s beauty is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Its minimalistic art style extends to the story; there is no dialogue and no real narrative, just abstract imagery — a lost voice, a giant angry bird, cracked architecture. The game has been praised for being a poignant depiction of grief and loss. However, its self-conscious determination to be art — or rather, to be artsy — prevented it from being an emotionally affecting experience for me.

GRIS feels singularly focused on aesthetics; it’s a slideshow of vague symbology that intends to conjure feelings of sadness. But the aesthetics of grief are not grief. GRIS isn’t so much a story about grief as it is a series of images that are correlated with grief, as though it’s trying to evoke grief by association, depict human experience without reflecting any human realities. Grief is poetic in GRIS, it’s romantic, it’s positively gorgeous. There’s not an overslept work day or a set of unwashed tracksuit pants in sight. Our protagonist is so graceful as she cradles her head in her hands, so beautiful as she falls dramatically to the ground. But grief isn’t poetic or romantic. It’s messy and it’s ugly and it thoroughly sucks. Not only is GRIS not a depiction of grief, I don’t know if it’s a depiction of the underlying truth of what it is to grieve.

Look at how good it looks though.

Of course, the ambiguous nature of the imagery is absolutely intentional. The game was designed to be a blank canvas for people to paint their own life struggles onto, and a lot of folks connected with the game for that very reason. I’m happy they did. I wish I were one of them.

But I can’t help wanting GRIS’s story, or even its imagery, to be just a little more robust. Although I don’t agree with Tevis Thompson that it’s not a beautiful game (how can you say that Tevis? Just look at it!!), this section of his review echoes my own feelings about GRIS:

“It strikes the most self-serious art game pose — I Am Become Grief, Destroyer of Girls — but dodges all specifics. Yet grief is always specific. Trauma is always specific.”

He’s got a point. It’s not possible to be traumatised by nothing, or to feel grief about nothing. There is always a very real set of events that tugs at your soul and shatters you to bits. I want to know what shattered our protagonist to bits. The strength of a blank canvas is that it attracts projection, but the risk is that the end product will come out a bit bland, a bit generic, a bit washed out. The watercolour palette of GRIS is very lovely, but it didn’t also have to water its story down to within an inch of its life.

You might think this is odd considering how much I love Dear Esther, an artsy walking simulator about grief that deals in its share of poetic allusion. But underneath the abstractions of Dear Esther, there is a story to be found, and one that hits like a speeding fender. A man’s wife dies in a car accident due to a drunk driver — and he was the drunk driver. Yowch. The most concrete GRIS gets is its stone statues of a woman crying. Who is the woman? Why is she crying? GRIS wants me to feel sad, but it never gives me anything to feel sad about. Here, look at this abstract representation of the concept of grief. Are you feeling sad yet?

Feeling sad yet?

Even the framework on which the game bases its structure is out of touch. The zones and colour palettes of the game are based on the stages of grief model (albeit in a very roundabout way that doesn’t always make sense — anger is red and the associated ability is a blocky smash, OK, but bargaining is green, the associated ability is a double jump and it’s represented by…you making a friend in the forest?). But my issue is with the use of the model itself. The stages of grief model is outdated and really quite overdone by now. It’s probably more common in pop culture than it is in modern psychological practice. It’s well-established that many people experience only some of the five stages (or even none), and in varying orders, so it’s not so much a stage model as a very inexhaustive list of some things people may experience during grief. Grief is so multifaceted and varies so much between individuals that if you’re a psychologist, you’re better off simply asking your client what they’re going through than consulting the stage model for information about what they may or may not be going through. There are now quite a few more relevant (and more relatable) models of grief than the stages of grief model, like Stroebe and Schut’s dual process model or Silverman and Klass’s continuing bonds model. What I’m trying to say is that I am, rather appropriately, ready for popular media to let the stages of grief model die.

I get it, the five-stage model lends itself well to artistic treatment — a distinct set of five concepts that one can have fun creatively interpreting — and I felt that this was exactly GRIS’s priority: artistic flexing first, impactful human story later (or never). To summarise: GRIS is an abstract representation of a somewhat inaccurate theory about a human experience. Good grief.

But although the emotional experience GRIS delivers is as watery as its visuals, I didn’t really mind. As a gorgeous little platformer — light on the mechanics, light on the challenge, light on the emotional substance — it works well. I would happily re-play GRIS and I’ll happily play whatever Nomada Studios make next. I would also absolutely recommend GRIS to anyone, even if it was, for me, no more than a nice little trip across a strikingly beautiful moving canvas. I won’t deny that it wasn’t the meaningful experience I might have hoped for, but anger solves nothing; rather than bargaining or getting depressed, I prefer to just accept it for what it is.

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Kat (Pixel a Day)

I make video essays on Youtube (Pixel a Day) where I critically analyse games and how they make me feel. I also write blog posts and articles.