One snag with videogaming is that regardless of the topic, the word ‘game’ itself often conjures up ideas of playful excitement and enjoyment – like the happy, smiling funsters you get on boardgame boxes, all sat around having a jolly time poking each other with Ker-Plunk sticks or trying to work out why so many faces in Guess Who? look like a poorly disguised Julian Assange.
Films and books don’t have this problem, of course, as both are just the name of the delivery device, not a description of what you’re getting in itself. If you say “I’m going to the cinema to watch a film”, no one is any the wiser as to whether it’ll be a happy film, sad film, thrilling film, or complete waste of £10 and 2 hours you’ll never get back – you know, like the dreary-arsed DC comic book movies (and THAT WAS A JOKE before anyone writes in).
Games, though, come saddled with some expectation of what you’re going to get and how they’re going to make you feel built in because they’re ‘games’. Which might be why some people still dismiss storytelling in gaming as immature by default – they inherently think they’ll only ever get something light, shallow and frothy.
But this isn’t 1982 anymore, and the narratives possible in gaming have moved on a bit from ‘help Bumbo collect dragon eggs from the haunted cave for his monster custard factory’.
Stories in games aren’t always happy ones. Or easy ones. And as a consequence, sometimes calling a game a ‘game’ is almost unfairly trivialising it. Because of course you can still appreciate something and very much enjoy the experience of it, and feel better for having had that experience, without it being a laugh a minute or an action-packed thrillfest.
Which brings us to Gris.
Gris (pronounced, somewhat regrettably, as ‘grease’ – the Spanish for grey), is such a title. It’s probably best described as a 2D version of the ‘walking simulator’ genre – so although it resembles a traditional platformer it’s got a heck of a lot more in common with Firewatch or Edith Finch than something like Dead Cells, both in style of play and subject matter.
Gris tells the story of a young woman’s journey through depression and, eventually, recovery. Gaming standards such as power ups are repurposed to become her slowly regaining confidence, recovering who she is and returning colour to the world, and ‘bosses’ take on the form of pitch-black animals who try and consume you or literally shout you down with deafening blasts of noise.
Casting an animal as a metaphor for depression is nothing new, but nevertheless it’s remarkably cleverly done, as is your journey back from the depths. All the moreso because there’s not a single word, subtitle or textbox chunk of exposition throughout – the story is all imparted in game, through music and visuals.
And blimey, these are some visuals and a half. Gris is a truly stunning game rendered in a style that looks like moving watercolours, and it is delightfully animated. In fact, in parts it looks more like a short film than something that’s interactive.
It does suffer from a recurring problem that walking simulators have though – they’re really only good for a single run through, and you’ve mostly got to stick to the narrative path. There are collectables to find, and the (at times, quite tricky) platforming means there’s a bit more meat here than some other games of this type – it’s not quite as A to B as some – but ultimately, it’s likely to be a one and done experience.
Still a worthwhile one though? Totally. It’s not so long as to outstay its welcome or have the story lost in overly lengthy or tricky levels plumped up for longevity reasons alone, and the sumptuous graphics and orchestral themes are enough to see you past the occasional patch of awkward platforming frustration that breaks the spell a bit.
What you’ll get out of it though very much depends on your mindset. If you’re lucky enough to have never had or known someone whose mental health has taken a turn for the worse, you just have a simple, incredible looking, perfectly enjoyable but brief game (from start to finish, you’re looking at around the 4-hour mark).
However, if it connects with you because you start to see yourself and your own journey in there, or that of a friend or loved one, then I think you’ll get quite a bit more from it. (Here, I’m deliberately not saying too much as I think it’s the sort of game that you need to play and interpret for yourself.)
Gris is just a really lovely little game. It’s gorgeous to look at, it’s got a meaningful story that will resonate for a great many people who play it and in a way that will be unique to them based on their own life and interpretation, and it doesn’t demand too much of you to see that story through to the end.
That’s enough on its own for me to recommend it, and yes there’s a decent score lurking down below. But I almost feel daft adding it because above all else Gris is important for what it represents, not how well it fits some template of what a game should be.
Depression and mental health are still things people often struggle to talk about. Sometimes that comes from feeling stigmatised, but often you just can’t bring yourself to open up to others because you feel like it’s your problem, and that you ARE the problem, and to ask for help is to unfairly burden and bother other people when the faults are all yours.
In that light anything that might help someone understand or get through their own experience, to see that others have had those experiences too and it’s never just them, or connect with someone else through a game to help them or be helped themselves, has to be applauded. Especially when, as here, it has been done so beautifully and so sympathetically.
Genuinely good stuff.
SCORE: 8 constellations out of a galaxy.