[Game Theory] Beauty and Melancholy in Gris

Gris is simply stunning. This art game by Nomada Studio never fails to deliver. It’s a dreamy platformer in a hand-drawn watercolor style, like Child of Light. The art was for Gris was created by Conrad Roset, who created the gorgeous levels and backgrounds, as well as the design of the main character. With her short blue hair and long cloak, this avatar stands out. The design is not just aesthetic, but functional as well. The cloak moves along when she jumps, flies, sings or changes shape.

Spiritual, warm, and full of atmosphere – Gris sometimes feels like a platform version of Journey. And it’s not just the cloaks. The music in both games adds substantially to the mood and affect. The soundtrack of Gris by Berlinist accompanies the character when she slides through levels, fights difficult bosses and comes to term with herself. Gris could be interpreted as a journey of healing or a coming of age story, but it’s also about so much more than that.

Grief

Gris is a game explicitly about grief. It is structured according to Kübler-Ross five stage grief model, leading up the acceptance of death. While this model has been widely popularized by now, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross conceived of this model to help terminally ill patients. She wrote about it for the first time in her book On Death and Dying (1969) to assist patients and their loved ones.

Gris mimicks this model. As the story progresses, Gris becomes more complex, light and colorful. Each level is coded like a stage of grief and gains a color that fits that stage. Respectively, the levels are Denial (grey), Anger (red), Bargaining (green), Depression (blue) and Acceptance (yellow). Each color is purposefully chosen, from the blue water level that is Depression, to the warm and hopeful yellow lights in Acceptance.

Gris means grey in Spanish. Tech director Adrián Cuevas told Gamereactor that using the word “gris” was a purposeful choice in a game about color and depression. The fact that “gris” is semantically close to “grief” makes this an even more salient choice, if you ask me.

Music is another way in which Gris expresses grief and melancholy. When the avatar learns to sing at the end of the game, everything starts to blossom. The world is suddenly full of life. Her voice is beautiful, haunting and sad. She sings long notes that echo through the sacred temple. In the video essay below, the spiritual nature of the game is explored even further.

Sacred Statues

In a Medium post about the game, Max Goldstein argues that Gris is not just a game about death, but about the death of the author. The secret ending is a twist that reveals the identity of the grieving statue, though Goldstein calls it paratext – a difficult bonus that most players will consult only through YouTube and other media. It ruins the standalone nature of the text. While Gris is a personal art game that can be interpreted in many ways, the secret ending narrows that down.

“The hidden scene is therefore troubling because it feels like the author is coming back from the dead to say, no, you are wrong. But not only did the author intend on this scene, they deliberately made it difficult to find.”

The bonus scene which he refers to is one where we see the main character with her mother in a memory or dream. The mother offers her a star, a light. The statues represent her mother, then, but I was not surprised or upset about this detail. Throughout Gris, we see statues that are depicted like a mother or the self, rather than a lover. You can compare the depiction in Gris, for instance, with the yearning statue of a female lover looming over the island in The Witness, which I theorized about here.

Actually, the statue in Gris does not remind me of games at all. I thought of cartoons like Steven Universe, whose house is build into the Crystal Temple of the gems. Like in Gris, the large female statue has a divine function and is connected to a temple. Gris explicitly connects death to motherhood and worship, in a similar way as the beloved Cartoon Network series does. But who has passed in Gris? Is it indeed the mother that we are mourning?

Who is Gris?

On YouTube and Reddit, fans are divided about who we are meant to be grieving. Is it the main character who passed away, or the mother? Who is in mourning? On a narrative level, I lean towards the theory the daughter is dying, and that the mother grieves her, based on a few points:

  • The main character has lost her voice and struggles throughout the game
  • The statues throughout the game show the mother going through the stages of grief. She is sad, angry, and eventually falls apart when grieving her daughter
  • The ascension of the character at the end of the game tells us that she accepted her death

But there are also enough clues to interpret the game the other way around. (The daughter is depressed because she lost her mother, and the statues depict the mother’s acceptance of her own death). Maybe it doesn’t really matter who is the subject and who is the object of the grieving. Maybe they are two sides of the same coin. Maybe both characters represent you, and the process of accepting death.

Gris is a melancholic game about difficult emotions. It’s not just the loss of color that represents this. Loss of agency ties in with this too. Throughout most of the game, the main character can take a breath in, but she cannot sing. This inability really moved me, and represents sadness and depression very well. Sea of Solitude, Depression Quest, and so many other games tried to simulate depression, but Gris is the most successful depiction in my opinion. Depression is like the big black bird in the game. Even when some color is added to your life, it stalks you and never truly leaves you. When you are smiling and happy and think you are okay, you look to your right shoulder and notice it is still there.

Gris allows players to work through difficult feelings. Each player brings their own interpretations to this abstract game, based on their own trauma. Gris can be about anxiety, fear, art blocks, depression, mourning, or about none of these things. The temples, waters, forests, and statues in the game are places of healing and recovery. The puzzles and boss fights, then, are the challenges that we face when we put ourselves back together.

Gris does not refer to the avatar, or only to the extent that she is a symbol or archetype too. She  is just a projection, and she represents the pain in all of us. Like Journey before it, Gris offers an almost meditative experience about what it means to be human.

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