Last May, a couple months into the pandemic, I discovered Gris, a breathtakingly beautiful video game that felt like a work of art that you move through.
I’ll admit that I’m not a huge video game enthusiast—the “game” I play on my phone most often is the New York Times Crossword app—but I’m interested in video games enough that I own a PS4. In those earlyish days of the pandemic, when the initial panic had worn off and the long-term nature of our situation was settling in, but I was still learning to navigate all the time at home, I was ravenous for ways to occupy my attention. I could only binge-watch seasons of Cheers or ER so much. So I turned to my somewhat neglected PS4 console and looked for games that might appeal to my solace-seeking, puzzle-solving sensibilities. Eventually, I found Gris.
Gris looks like a watercolor painting that’s come to life. You play a girl (whose name is Gris), and through most of the game, she’s a small figure within a vast landscape. The whole game is wordless, but the music is gorgeous and mostly minimal, and the sound design is reminiscent of an ambient nature album that you might put on to fall asleep. Within this framework is a story about grief, and the process of overcoming it.
The world of the game begins as a desolate and colorless place, and Gris herself has only a couple of actions that she can take. The quiet atmosphere is punctured at times by forces that threaten to overwhelm her, in the form of giant, dark animals that block her path and push her back.
Each stage is a series of small puzzles that you solve simply by trying to find your way to the next stage. You have to learn how to adapt your movements to the challenges the landscapes bring. As the story progresses, Gris slowly starts to move with more freedom, and the world starts to take on more color.
There are no big bosses to fight, and you can’t die in the game. You can only move further along your journey. As new parts of the world were revealed, my wife and I kept saying to each other, “Wow, that’s so beautiful.” It’s a one-player game, as you would imagine for a metaphor for going through grief, but we’d take turns passing the controller back and forth. It was equally enjoyable to play as it was to just sit back and take in all of the exquisite visuals.
Despite its simplicity, the game always felt like it was evolving. We played the whole thing over two days. More experienced gamers might be able to finish it in about three hours, but we enjoyed taking our time with it. Since there’s no dialogue, the plot is entirely suggested—more of a tone poem than a short story—but it still felt emotional. By the end, it even felt cathartic.
You don’t have to have a PS4 to play Gris. It’s also available for iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch, and on Steam. You can find it here. If, like me, you’re not a die-hard gamer, I think it’s worth crossing the threshold to experience. It’s unlike any other game I’ve played.
- I curate a Spotify playlist called NapCaviar, and I've just added one of my favorite pieces from the Gris soundtrack to it.
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