There’s an age-old discussion about whether games are truly art. Or rather, there’s an argument that wonders if that conversation should be continued. Video games are art, that much is sure. The more interesting dissection, then, is how certain experiences are artful. Gone Home was a master-class in emotional, thoughtful, environmental storytelling, as was Journey. 2016’s Doom was a fine-tuning of decades-old shooting mechanics, contorting them into something new yet familiar. It could be said that most games are works of art with their own specialty; you just need to turn your head and find the perfect angle to see.
Gris, the colorful platformer from Nomada Studios and Devolver Digital, is one such example. Many titles have already scoured the territory of “thought-provoking platformer,” like Limbo, Bound, or even the aforementioned Journey. And while it’s difficult to experience Gris and say it’s a pale imitation of the preceding tales, it’s also difficult to understand what makes Gris so special. It’s apparent that Gris deserves praise and recognition, but why? What’s the specialty that sets it apart?
That answer begins with Gris’ story, which is told entirely without dialogue. Creating a cohesive story without a single shred of spoken tongue is a tough feat, one which Ben Esposito initially tried (and decided against) with Donut County. There’s nuance, context, and clarity that creators try to convey with their works, all of which are lost in the absence of conversation. Gris falls victim to this. The story of its pain-stricken titular character feels hazy at times, as players piece it together fragments at a time.
Then again, this lack of clarity isn’t really a downside. Even if unintentional, Gris makes a statement with its plot: sometimes concrete details don’t matter. A young girl journeys through a vaguely-Euclidean dreamscape that morphs around her. What part of that signals a clear-cut story? It’s all understandable enough. Even when you don’t understand what’s happening, everything’s okay. Sometimes stories are meant for emotional response, not the stories themselves.
This is where the experience shines. Even as it gets caught up in its artful, silent storytelling and trapping players between cloudy recollections of an untold trauma, Gris manages to make you feel. As “levels” are completed, new colors bleed into the world around you. This largely sets the tone for the next area; red presents an angry, lonely desert, while blue paints a dreary, soaked forest.
Color creates an emotional atmosphere that surrounds you, while the platforming and puzzles churn at a rhythmic pace. Exceptionally dreary sections may have sparse platforming or long jumps, while more upbeat rooms will use multiple quick puzzles. None of these are overly challenging, and honestly, some of the best ideas are used twice and never return. But they’re so entwined with the soundtrack and artistic landscape that they set a sort of pace.
Jumps become heartbeats and backgrounds become emotions as Gris morphs into something beyond a game. It’s a playable synesthesia, conveying feelings, impressions, and stimulations in the form of color, atmosphere, and motions. As I said, individual details become irrelevant because the experience makes you feel. In the end, you’ll understand the general gist of the protagonist’s journey. But you’ll have felt the rest, even if you don’t fully know why it happened.
Does that disconnect matter? Is slight context enough to justify a larger swath of emotion, or should more be presented? After Gris, I’d argue it doesn’t matter. Not every game needs an expansive, cohesive world to ground itself in. And by extension, maybe not every exquisitely-built world needs a humane story. Gris dabbles in the surreal, ethereal, and unknown. It reaches past conscious world-building and into a land of pure emotion, successfully grasping whatever goal it yearned for.