Review: GRIS

I haven't reviewed a game since 2011—my last was my review of Atsumete! Kirby (a.k.a. Kirby Mass Attack) for my old games media stomping grounds formerly known as N-Sider. But after playing Nomada Studio's GRIS this weekend, I felt like sitting down and writing because I have been moved in a way that I haven't been in a good while.

Nintendo has this great setup these days; if you wishlist a game on the Switch's eShop, you'll get an email when one goes on sale, which is great because perusing the eShop's games-on-sale list is charitably an exercise in “wow, there are a lot of games here that are not for me”. With the sale emails, I am thus freed from this responsibility. I wishlisted GRIS based on its launch trailer, which, goddamn, isn't that beautiful? And then I got the email and it was around ten bucks and I said “yes”.

I'll be brief about the premise: Gris, the blue-haired protagonist in the trailer, has lost their beautiful singing voice—and the game is about them working through that loss. There's nary a word apart from the unobtrusive achievements you'll unlock at various points (many of which I still have undone); the story is told through the changes in the world, the beautiful, beautiful soundtrack and art, and the layering of color. Their world has been shattered; they has their loss to cope with and their life to rebuild, and this will literally happen as you progress.

I was asked by a close friend who was actually a bit wary, wondering if GRIS could be a traumatic or triggering experience, with the main character going through a difficult loss. I don't believe it is. The striking visuals and music may make you tear up (oh hey, it's me); and there's plenty to read into the art and animation—colors representing strong emotion, the scenes of a world crumbled away, and at times fleeing from literally being swallowed by dark shapes—but it gets no more concrete than that. It's powerful without realizing the kinds of losses you may experience in the real world.

But it is moving, and in surprising ways. It feels almost cliché to describe your progression through a video game and your unlocking of abilities as part of that as “empowering”, and yet that's literally what it is, with the game's design built hand-in-hand with its narrative. The abilities you gain and the mechanics you experience are aligned with Gris' journey, starting at the very beginning when Gris can barely move, slumping and collapsing instead of jumping, right through the end when acceptance gifts them the ability to give life to the world around them. Early on, I had the game pegged as (if you'll forgive me) a “basic indie platformer” without much finesse, only to find that by the end, Gris had become strong and fluid, moving through their world with ease and intent.

I found myself experiencing some artificially-induced anxiety by the numerous points of no return—especially as there are collectible items throughout the game I could often see but never reached before they were locked off behind me—but take heart; when you've completed the experience, you'll be able to go back to several points via a chapter select and give those another shot. I've only briefly experienced this so far, but I did find it rather interesting that replaying the opening chapter made me feel authentically powerless, instead of artificially like I find myself feeling when returning to beginning of most games.

It seems to me we are firmly in an era of games seeking to be art—not in that shallow way that an industry desperately reaching for respectability did a decade ago, but instead in a truly authentic way, drawn from experiences, realized around the human condition. Much like Gris at the end of their journey, I feel GRIS stands tall, confident, and strong in this pantheon. I know from years of experience watching video games that a studio making one amazing game doesn't mean their next will be the same, but I'm nonetheless finding myself desperately curious about what Nomada may make next. Even if they never make another game like this, GRIS moved me and I am grateful for that experience.