- Beautiful, serene platformer
- Resonant themes of self-help and reclamation
- It's like holding 2D animation in your hands
- Designed to be played by just about anybody
- Never outstays its welcome
- Could be a tad longer
- The ending is abrupt
- This kind of game doesn't really need achievement hunting
A Therapeutic Platformer
The story of Gris is interpretive. Told without a single text box or line of dialogue, the game nonetheless has its themes. Gris, a young woman, loses everything in one fell swoop, and is sent plummeting to the earthly wasteland below. The color of the world around her, her voice, and even her ability to pick her head up and walk all disappear – and her plight is to get all of this back, and more, in order to face her demons. Players can take what they want out of this – the game never hints at a right or wrong answer – but for me, I saw an analogy to the power of therapy and healing.
Of course, Nomada Studio, the developer, has gotten out front of this with a public statement to GamesRadar saying that “[Gris is] not therapy.” In a literal sense, this is true – playing Gris is not a substitute for therapy, and you should seek professional help if you feel you need it. However, that shouldn’t undermine the therapeutic value people may get from either the story itself or the gameplay.
Starting at a low point in Gris’ life, the game begins as she learns to pick up her head again and walk as she normally would. As she explores the gray wasteland before her, she encounters simple puzzles that are never hard, and work as any platformer obstacle sould. Building on this, Gris is able to obtain power-ups that enhance her skills, which in turn allow her to reclaim colors that paint her world. Along the way, she collects celestial dots that connect, like stars, to build new paths that bring her to more complex levels. The therapy connection is there – acknowledging your problems, accepting them, and connecting how they relate to one another, to in turn help you overcome them with coping skills and a deeper understanding of yourself. That last part is always the hardest, and it may take some people longer than others. In Gris’ case, her path is pretty straightforward, which it almost has to be to function as a video game, but her journey is powerful and worth learning from.
On the presentation side, there is a fair amount of therapeutic value on display, too. The art design, done by noted Spanish artist Conrad Roset, is stunning. The 2D animation is so fluid, that playing the game in handheld mode on Switch is like holding a film in your hands. And as each color is added back into the game, the images become even more diverse and beautiful, to the point that I could see this mapped out as one big museum installation.
In addition to the art direction, there is also Berlinist’s score, which never outright intrudes on your experience, but serves as a compliment, speaking for Gris when she cannot. The game doesn’t have a HUD, except for achievement notifications and autosaving. Everything works in concert together to provide a unified experience of serenity with minimal distraction, allowing the player to focus on the game without any obvious gamified elements.
The cherry on top of it all is that Gris is designed to be accessible. There is no death in the game, and no combat. The way it keeps players interested is through occasional dread. Every now and then, Gris’ demons will show up, usually in the form of a giant black bird. One of the best moments in the game is not figuring out a way to fight the bird, but studying its “attack” patterns and using them to Gris’ advantage to keep her journey moving. The only risk of failure is falling off a platform and taking a few seconds to make your way back. In a way, after a year of so many long and winding game experiences, Gris is the perfect come-down to recenter oneself. A nice lemon ice after a tasty full course meal.
I wish it lasted longer, and that there were just a few more abilities to gain. The moment Gris really got going for me, was also the moment it ended. But I also can’t deny the value of a game that knows when to end and doesn’t try to pad itself for length. For the handful of chapters that are presented, I identified with Gris’ journey, and found inspiration and therapeutic value for my time. As Nomada Studio’s first project, I think the results are encouraging; I look forward to their next project. This title arrives at the tailend of 2018, and not a moment too soon. Playing Gris is a great way to close out a tumultuous year.
This review was conducted using a digital copy I purchased from the Nintendo eShop. It’s also available on PC.