Gris, the debut release from Spanish game devs Nomada Studio, is a game about a young woman trying to survive unspeakable trauma. You might think that a game which revolves around the mental agony of grief would be dark, gritty, and raw – but Gris is not that.  In fact, there is no moment in Gris that is not beautiful. But when the game tries for emotional depth, it often comes up short.

In Gris, which is a 2D platformer with some light puzzle elements, you take control of a woman (also named Gris) who loses first her voice and then her will to live. At the beginning of the game, Gris is singing, lost in her own colorful world. Suddenly, she clutches her throat. No sound comes out. She crumples and falls, deeper and deeper into the gray realm of her inner pain. When she comes to, she can barely walk. In each level, Gris finds stars that give her abilities like jumping, changing shape, and – at last – singing again. By the end, Gris is restored to her former liveliness.

A Moving Painting

Gris, which resembles a delicate, watercolor-and-ink sketch come to life, is a mammoth achievement for game art. With images that resemble Japanese sumi-e paintings and French symbolist painter Redon’s pastel landscapes, this game belongs in a museum. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Gris is the prettiest game I’ve ever played in my life. It begins in gray tones (which isn’t surprising, since “gris” is the Spanish word for gray). As Gris unlocks more colors, new hues mix seamlessly with the existing color palette, which adds to the feeling that Gris is a painting that moves. The game’s animation and movement style are also superb. The way Gris’ cloak billows when she jumps, and the slick trajectories of the predatory birds that follow her on her journey, are as gracefully-executed as a ballet.

(screenshot by Elizabeth Balou)

Like Celeste, another 2018 game about a woman trying to put herself back together, Gris is most concerned about what is going on inside the protagonist’s head. We’re meant to understand that the levels Gris traverses are emotionscapes – they’re not real. What they represent are the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The excellent level design links the five areas and always kept me moving towards the next challenge.

The soundtrack provides the perfect backdrop for Gris’s meditative platforming. Berlinist, the Barcelona-based group that created the music, has put together a collection of spare, quietly moving piano tracks. It’s obvious that Berlinist and Nomada Studio put lots of energy into making sure the visuals and the sound matched.

A Blurry Picture

That’s why it’s a shame that the storytelling is weak. If Gris’s storyline were better-told, then the game would be one of the best high-art indie masterpiece of the decade. But it suffers from vagueness. It is never clear what kind of trauma is haunting the main character. Did she lose a loved one? Suffer a breakup? Struggle with a mental illness, or a sexual assault? The story is vague enough that I can’t even guess, and that prevents me from really empathizing with Gris.

This is a common problem in stories with some levels of abstraction. In order to let participants inhabit a character, some game developers make the mistake of keeping characters’ backstories completely hidden. Yet, those details are what make stories sing and characters come alive. “In order to make readers understand a common experience,” one of my creative writing professors used to say, “you must be as specific, rather than universal, as possible.”

(screenshot by Elizabeth Ballou)

Journey, a game that Gris takes heaps of inspiration from, is an example of a title that manages to tell a specific story. Although you never learn anything about the creature we control, you do learn the history of the cloth people. That history, doled out in cutscenes and collectibles, serves as the pegs that the narrative hangs on. When I cried at the end of Journey, it was because I understood what the cloth people had been through – and what they had recovered from. I cried at the end of Gris, too, but I wasn’t really sure why. I got the sense I was supposed to compare Gris’s triumph to my own, and feel proud of obstacles I’d been able to overcome. But I didn’t.

The game’s collectibles have the same problem. Throughout the game, you can find and collect “mementos,” which are…well, I don’t know, actually. They don’t seem to be actual memories, and they don’t add anything to the gameplay. There’s no compelling reason to find all the mementos unless you feel called to 100% the game. But the “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality that collectibles encourage is at odds with the slow, thoughtful feeling that Gris is going for.

A Collector’s Piece

Despite its flaws, Gris is still well worth the cost. The game is like having your own private art exhibit, one that you can move through at your own pace. If you’re an art game junkie or platforming fan, don’t sleep on Gris.