By Alex Wakeford
Or, ‘Why I Haven’t Been Able To Stop Thinking About GRIS For The Last 7 Months…’
This week, Universally Speaking looks at a masterpiece from Nomada Studio and Devolver Digital.While we are well past the point of debating whether games are art, every so often a game comes along that is widely described as “arty.”
It’s a transcendental experience, they say. You’ll be left staring at the screen as the credits roll, contemplating the journey you’ve been on…
A long list of games could fit that description very well, from Shadow of the Colossus (2005) to Journey (2012) – from before and beyond.
These are ‘minimalist’ games, ‘out there’ projects – often from a small team of people – that make it their business to leave one’s mind lingering on their worlds and stories and songs long after finishing them.
In December 2018, another game of that calibre – known as GRIS – was released.
Seven months on, I am still thinking about it.
“Gris is a hopeful young girl lost in her own world, dealing with a painful experience in her life. Her journey through sorrow is manifested in her dress, which grants new abilities to better navigate her faded reality. As the story unfolds, Gris will grow emotionally and see her world in a different way, revealing new paths to explore using her new abilities.” [GRIS, Steam store page]
GRIS was developed by the Barcelona-based Nomada Studio, published by the ever avant-garde Devolver Digital, its soundtrack by Berlinist.
Currently, it is available for PC and Nintendo Switch, but, considering the immense success it has seen (within a week, it was “already profitable”), pre-orders for a physical edition opened up just last month. Nomada has teamed up with Special Reserve Games to bring three different Switch editions, along with an array of extras.
At present, the game has sold well over 300,000 units and many are wondering – given its success – whether it might be released on other consoles in the near-future.
Time will tell…The summary quoted above from the Steam page is about as wordy as GRIS gets, as the game itself is devoid of dialogue. Instead, it distils its storytelling into the visuals, the music – into everything it uses to evoke feelings from the player on this journey of finding reconciliation and strength within oneself through the stages of grief.
The only text you’ll ever see in GRIS comes from the menu, the credits, and the occasional button prompt.
One simply has to admire the level of thought required to design an experience without text. Think of how much information (basic or otherwise) games typically deliver to the player through text, whether it’s tutorial hints, dialogue, objectives…
Even for a ‘simple’ or minimalist experience, a great deal of trust is given to the player in pulling back on how the game communicates with them.
This also ties into the storytelling on a broader thematic level, as the game begins with Gris losing her voice. Just as her means of communicating ‘verbally’ is removed, so too is the game’s itself.
At Universally Speaking, we specialise in localisation – in the process of communication on an international scale… yet, there are some stories that are beyond needing words to capture peoples’ hearts.It surely hasn’t escaped your notice – from the screenshots hitherto presented in this article – that GRIS is absolutely stunning to look at.
The game is so visually arresting that you will find yourself capturing screenshots of it every few paces you walk; the phrase ‘every frame a painting’ could not be more appropriate here.
Rare is the occasion that credit in game design can go to one person, or even a handful of people, but in this case it was a simple meeting that made this possible.
“[…] long time friends Adrian Cuevas and Roger Mendoza met artist Conrad Roset back home in Barcelona who had had an itch for bringing his art to the realm of video games for a long time. They instantly clicked and set to create their first videogame, GRIS; which will bring the artist’s unique style to an interactive world of wonder.” [Nomada – Studio page]
Along with Roset, Alba Filella and Ariadna Cervelló are credited as artists on GRIS and, well, their work is on full display here…
As GRIS itself understands, sometimes there just aren’t words.Beyond its stunning edifice, GRIS is confident in its identity and what it’s looking to achieve as an experience.
One such aspect that accentuates this is the fact that you cannot die.
One might be tempted to think that this is ‘easy,’ when, in truth, it is another thing that speaks to the depth of thought that has to permeate the game from a design standpoint.
GRIS may be a curated, linear journey, but control is never taken away from the player – outside of the game’s few end-of-level cutscenes – which means there’s a lot that designers have to plan around.
The layout of each labyrinthine location, the high towers the player must climb, the puzzles that have to be solved… we are used to death being a consequence for failure in games, we expect it (gluttons for punishment in games like Dark Souls welcome it), but GRIS takes the initiative to tie failure into its emotional tapestry.That’s also not to say that GRIS is a game that ‘plays itself,’ like a playable movie that requires only minimal input from the player.
This is still very much a puzzle platformer, with unlockable abilities and substantial interaction with the world around you.
And that is also not to say that GRIS is without tension either. There are ‘boss’ encounters which put the mechanics of the game to the test, there are environmental hazards that your abilities must be used to withstand…
Further context for the story can be unlocked by finding all of the collectables and completing the various constellations of each level, which you may not achieve on your first playthrough.
There’s even one particular sequence later in the game that made me jump out of my seat.A lot of that tone and its emotional fluidity is communicated through the music, and I use this opportunity to once again articulate just how utterly spellbinding Berlinist’s score is.
I’m still regularly listening to it, even while writing this article…
Audio is another of our own specialist services and it cannot be understated just how it can make or break an experience. Much like our own approach, Nomada elected to use native, in-country talent (from Barcelona) to aurally bring the world of GRIS alive in all its mysterious and melancholic glory.
The Berlinist crew reference Fumito Ueda (who worked as lead designer on ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian) as one of their prime inspirations, along with ‘heal music.’
“We have put a lot of attention to this when translating emotions and feelings into a musical language. Sometimes we had to walk with the player creating a peaceful and relaxing mood, whereas, on other occasions, the player had to be warned that something was about to happen in the game, and, of course, there had to be more emotional and intense moments. Let’s just say that the music grows in intensity as much as art and visuals do in a parallel way, adding an emotional component each time.” [The Average Viewer – ‘An Interview With Berlinist, The Genius Behind The Music Of GRIS‘ (3/1/19)]
I’m holding back on saying anything more about specific details because this really is something you have to properly experience first-hand.
This is something you’re going to want to set aside about four hours for, to play through it in a single sitting, totally immersing yourself in its world and soundscape. When you’re done, you’ll be heading straight over to pick up Berlinist’s otherworldly soundtrack.
In a landscape populated by a great many games that are competing for your time, to be your hobby, GRIS steps back to deliver a short and sweet emotional odyssey.
Long after the credits rolled, I might have been done with the game but the game still is not done with me.
The physical edition and art book can be pre-ordered on Special Reserve Games.
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