Once in a golden hour
I cast to earth a seed.
Up there came a flower,
The people said, a weed.
The question of games as art, whether they are or not, or indeed should or shouldn’t be, is one which is still raised, contrary to the opinions of a few self-established guardians of gaming, who would have no questions asked for the sake of no responses contrary to their own. I’m of the opinion that questions are good, regardless of one’s surety on their own individual stance. My own opinion on games as art is in a state of evolutionary flux, though I’m not sure if I’m in the Cretaceous or the Cambrian.
As I currently stand, my take is that games are an art form by nature of their being the products of a variety of human creative processes (the very same processes which create paintings, fiction, film, dance, illustrations, etc.), but they are not art either in the sense of every game being a “work of art” or masterpiece, or in the sense of all games being equally “artistic”, whatever that means. This… I don’t know what you want to call it… pragmatic or architectural basis for defining art opens up a lot of questions of its own, and I’ve been recently considering whether over-definition risks creating too rigid a prison for gaming, risks saying “this is a game but that is not”, and thereby risks cutting off the burgeoning growth of gaming as an art form in its very infancy, well before it’s had the chance to develop a wealth of its own eras and ages, movements and layered histories.
On the one hand, definition by association is a natural part of our learning about the world and trying to understand it and explain it, but on the other, the association itself can become the sole explainer, whereas games have so many unique qualities that make them quite unlike other extant art forms.
GRIS is a game which we’re comfortable with. Note this doesn’t mean it appeals to all players or that it should. I mean that it’s a game which, at a glance, seems derivative. It is “like” enough to be dismissed, categorized, organized, and defined into oblivion before it is given a chance to say what it must. This is the danger of the prison I’m talking about in an industry where innovation is crucial.
Consider that anyone looking at GRIS would come away saying it’s an “art game”, maybe even an “art house game”, a true indie, in that sense: pretty, delicate, ethereal, more video than game, for hipsters and AAA haters. We need to be able to define by association for the sake of simple conversation and for recommendations, but if the discussion plateaus there… at a phrase such as “Journey-like”… then I think we’re doing this particular combination of experiences and influences a disservice. Headlines aren’t proportionate to divulging the complete experience; a headlines generation must grasp that in order to deepen games writing, and through their feedback, games themselves.
What’s needed, and I think this is true in many contexts, is to move beyond the descriptors of association (the preliminaries), and arrive at a closer examination of the subject for its own story, themes, merits, bells, and whistles, interest allowing. We can’t dawdle in doorways. It’s rude.
Not all games can defy easy categorization, but we must avoid easy categorization spoiling into “familiarity breeds contempt”. This may look like a typical game that leans heavily on the artistry of visual beauty, creating the foundation for the assessment that games can be art but not all games are artistic, but we must move with GRIS beyond the definition of “that typical game”.
Why? Because clearly, the value of an individual creation is in the expression of its individual creator(s), people, human beings, not merely in serving as a tick box for an argument on r/gaming about whether games can be art or not.
When people say a game is “artistic”, aren’t they really just referring to the visuals? A big part of that seems superficial, actually, if it’s in isolation, yet as a whole, it is obvious that visuals figure into the total experience of a game. They only exist in static solitude in screenshots, and screenshots are not video games. Is there anything underneath the visuals? Great question, but that doesn’t mean the visuals themselves are unimportant.
Often they serve not just a functional part in engaging with the game, but they represent the first line of marketing offense: they are the hook before the line and sinker. The visuals are meant to attract your attention and pull you in. They are further the window into the world once attraction has been secured. They are the eyes of the game looking back at you as you look into it, telling you how to observe its universe.
So how’s that work for GRIS?
First off, it must be said that these are some of the most impressive visuals I have ever seen in a game. GRIS eschews both the silver-tinged hyper-realistic grit, atmosphere, and dullness of some AAA titles and the heavily nostalgic, occasionally pandering pixel art derivatives of some indies for a look all its own. When seen in motion, it is utterly captivating and unlike almost any video game I have ever seen before. Remember Cuphead? How could you not? Well, similarly, Gris is like playing an animated film. I am confident giving it a perfect score in this category.
The distinct visual style of GRIS was inspired by several subjects, which you can read about in my interview with Creative Director, Conrad Roset. One thread of inspiration came from the late Jean Henri Gaston Giraud, a French bandes dessinées artist who operated under the name Moebius. Chances are you’ve seen many works influenced by Moebius’ unique flavor of science fantasy, but if you haven’t, a glance at some of his incredible paintings will inevitably remind you of GRIS, specifically when it comes to form and color. GRIS’ watercolor emphasis is spectacular, and again, you must see it in motion: a moving painting.
Spanish composer Berlinist put together an incredible score to match the surreal and ephemeral visuals of GRIS, a perfect combination of sounds and sights. I knew right away that this was a soundtrack I’d want to listen to again and again, especially when writing. It’s peaceful and contemplative, without being too revealing of the emotional beats which I think the developers of GRIS didn’t want to be too candid about.
I imagine that provided some challenge for Berlinist when composing this soundtrack; GRIS, I discovered, is meant to be open to interpretation from the player. It is interactive in more senses than its gameplay and settings, but also thematically. Music in games tends to inform the player directly about what they should feel. Tonality, volume, instrumentation, motifs, these and more combine to tell you that this scene is sad or this scene is happy or here is an action scene. Sometimes it’s very on the nose but the best music remains a backdrop, the black velvet for the sparkle of the diamonds, and I believe that backdrop was well-crafted here. The soundtrack maintains an ambiguous (but not murky) quality throughout, and you might not even notice the music is there, which is remarkable for how well silence is also utilized in this title. The final effect is triumphant when it comes to serving the total experience that is GRIS.
While GRIS doesn’t have a traditional narrative with a cast of named characters or the familiar trappings of video game storytelling and archetypes such as rescuing a princess, undertaking a quest, or fighting a final boss, it does have plot progression. The game is full of almost mystical imagery and symbols evidently without concrete, explicit meaning, but it begins and ends with the figure of a girl, at first singing, then losing her voice, then overcoming the obstacles in front of her.
The scene with the shattering hand at the start of the game commences the falling and rising patterns that play throughout the plot, which finds the girl initially in a world of gray. As she moves through a rather compartmentalized world, she unlocks points of light in constellations and ultimately four colors. This led me to believe originally that “GRIS” was an acronym for Green, Red, Indigo, and Saffron, but I was wrong!
I’m going to talk a bit more in-depth about the game, if you want to skip potential SPOILERS and jump to the next section. Ctrl+f Gameplay.
“Gris” actually means gray in Spanish, so it’s pronounced more like “grease” than rhyming with “miss”, just so you know. Not sure if you need a rolling R there or not.
Anyhow, I wanted to spend some time talking not just about GRIS’ themes but about its unique approach to thematic storytelling. Any time someone says “GRIS is about”, they’re wrong. That’s on the highest authority, the experts on GRIS: its developers and its creative director. GRIS is so designed as to be open to interpretation, not wild interpretation, mind. I still think some interpretations are more feasible than others (like I think GRIS could more be about what it’s like to be a singer than it is about what it’s like to play Minecraft), however, it seems that “correct” interpretations are ruled out with GRIS’ deliberate thematic vaguery. It’s meant for people to bring their own interpretations to it.
…we wanted something that anyone would be able to empathize with, to connect in an emotional level while being open to different readings. For us, it is really important that anyone who plays GRIS walks away with something unique and personal.
…our foremost goal was to create a work open to interpretation…
I think the developers, like yourself, might be able to detect the risk here: GRIS could very easily fall flat for people who are looking for traditional storytelling and thematic delivery, who crave a more outlined tale. GRIS addresses themes by trying to be all of them and none of them at once. The polish on this attempt at storytelling can be seen in its earnestness. In other words, GRIS is not bizarre or mystifying for the sake of confusing confusion with profundity. It doesn’t try to baffle players and call it open interpretation. I picture it instead like the white and gray canvas that the girl falls into, and the colors supplied later in the game, really given to the player by the developers but it is the player who unlocks them through their progression, these colors represent whatever the player would want them to, as does even the very act of unlocking them.
So here was my take after playing through GRIS: I arrived at the interpretation of a woman dealing with her own self-criticism (kind of like one of my favorite Ghibli films, Whisper of the Heart). I noticed that the statue she’s standing on is also feminine, so given the similarity there, I assumed it was deliberate similarity to the only actor present at the start of the game. The woman is standing in the palm of the statue, supported by it. Perhaps the statue represents her self-image or self-esteem, her confidence, in my interpretation. She is singing and the statue crumbles, causing her to fall. Falling is typically a negative metaphor so I thought of this as her emotional downfall, and later of her rising as ascendency toward the goal of confidence again, and not only that, but the bliss of artistic and creative joy, represented by the constellations in the sky and the stars that serve as mechanical aids during the game.
The colors I took to represent elements and elemental emotions, each building back from her indifferent despair up toward emotional health. That health, and the ability to be flexible with herself, represented by the shapeshifting, would be necessary to overcome her “inner demons” pictured by the monstrous shadowy bird, eel, and her own likeness toward the end of the game. She is pursued and harassed by these apparitions but ascending and adding colors to her world takes her through their violence, until at last she recovers her voice and with it the power of self-confidence, the ability to meaningfully change the living world around her, the responsibility to repair the ruins populating this realm, and the privilege of rising up into the heavens, though the game, I noted, doesn’t pull back that final veil of cloud and “show you the face of God”. It doesn’t show the final goal, which I think is the crux of the game being open to interpretation.
So there it is! Hopefully it was interesting, because it cannot be correct or incorrect!
Is there anything underneath? We’ve talked a lot about visuals and themes, but essentially GRIS is a simple platformer. Its mechanical simplicity might work against it for some players, while its interpretive nature could also be hit or miss.
There are a few gameplay features that prevent GRIS from being a mere exercise in holding down a direction and walking from point A to point B, and they are the woman’s ability to shift into various shapes (a square to increase her weight and destroy objects beneath her, or a bird to glide and double jump, or a fish-like creature to find greater agility underwater), as well as the bits of light you can collect.
These bits of light, or stars, can form bridges or repair objects in certain areas, unlocking progression or creating new interactive objects. There also seems to be a kind of central hub to the game where stone reliefs depict collectibles, but I wasn’t exactly sure about that since there isn’t clear in-game instruction on them. Dreamlike, my curiosity wasn’t sustained by the reliefs and their depictions, so much as it was by the imagery central to the story.
Solely as a platformer, GRIS isn’t something to write home about. Bereft of its visual and auditory beauty, and its finely balanced interpretive nature, it wouldn’t make for much of a memorable excursion. However, this is a case in which the gameplay, while simple, provides a sure foundation for the other glories of the game. I can’t give the highest score to GRIS’ platforming, but I can say that it creates a platform for movement through it to enjoy everything else.
I’ve just described GRIS’ simplicity. That may not make it the most interesting or action-packed platformer, but it does mean it is highly accessible, easy to learn, and easy to play.
All that I wrote above should convince you that GRIS is pretty extraordinary. It is one of those brief experiences that stays lodged in your gray matter for some time. I know I won’t forget it soon, and that’s a testament to its impact, considering how many games I actually play! Typically, with these kinds of artistic games, I come across a specific mode of interpretation. “This game is about anxiety”, “This game is about illness”, or “This game is about memory and friendship”. The unique thing about GRIS is it was designed to be none of those things, yet also designed to be all of them subjectively, if that’s what you bring to it. GRIS makes you the artist, not through giving you cubes or sprites or tiled textures to construct how you see fit, but in giving you the honor of saying “This is how I saw it”. This unique and deliberate non-expressive expression by the developers is what makes it artistic, and not just the gorgeous visuals and music. It is a game which expresses a spectrum of human expressions: art made for players to make it art for themselves, not just call it art.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Much of GRIS defies easy categorization, while at the same time the game as a whole can be easily categorized, dismissed, and shelved away. However, I’ll say it’s art not because it’s pretty but because it adds to the human experience by providing a human experience, whatever that experience means to you. GRIS, like much of life, can be explained without being fully explained, and I wonder where our memories and experiences make it similar and make it different.
Open to interpretation, mysterious, almost spiritual, it had this remarkable ability to reach through colors and light to the heart of this writer, who felt some inexplicable emotions while interacting with the game. I encountered my memories, my interpretations, and myself in that girl singing in the palm of the statue. I saw in her my own struggles with criticism and self-destruction.
Was my interpretation right? The answer is GRIS.
If you want to learn more about GRIS, let me direct you once more to the interview I conducted with Nomada Studios Creative Director, Conrad Roset.
Aggregated Score: 8.3
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Categories: Game Review