The Evocative Storytelling of GRIS

It was January, and I was sitting on my couch having just finished playing GRIS. I was crying, and I found it difficult to explain why. GRIS is a game with no dialogue and almost no text, yet it is easily one of the most poignant games I’ve played. Even just thinking about this game still causes an emotional feeling to swell up in my chest. So why is this game so moving?

At its heart, GRIS is a story about grief, but the story easily captures the experience of depression and mental illness. The storytelling in GRIS is largely visual, and the emotional core is supported by a quiet ambiance and musical swells. To play GRIS is to be a character in a multisensory piece of art. If you haven’t played GRIS yet, there will be some spoilers moving forward (and also seriously, you should play it).

In the beginning of the game, you are sitting in the hand of a statue as it begins to crumble, sending you tumbling into a colorless world. This statue reappears throughout the game in various states of disrepair, but who is the statue? Is it the person you lost? A god? You? 

If you discover all the places hidden within the game, the game suggests that this statue is your mother. At its most concrete, GRIS is a story about a young girl grieving the loss of her mother. But that was not the experience I had playing the game. I was playing as a person grieving herself.

Because GRIS focuses on emotions rather than the events that caused them, there’s freedom in how you experience the story. Scenes are colored by your own experiences and emotions. Sometimes, you want a game to tell a specific story, but sometimes, you want to capture a feeling.

The game is a journey through your mind, a space turned gray and lifeless, filled with monsters born from the experiences that hurt you. As you wander through the environment, you slowly return colors to the world around you. As a story about grief, you wander a world left ruined by the loss of your mother. As a story about depression, that loss could be anything. To me, the crumbling statue felt like a destruction of self. 

Each stage in the game is labeled with one of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In reality, there is no linear progression of grief, no direct path for healing. Each of these stages focuses on an environment, but the emotional trajectory of the game is far from linear.

In the anger stage, you discover a newfound ability to turn into a heavy block, crushing the objects beneath you. You use this ability to break through the environment, crushing the rocks that block your path. As you do this, you startle a small spider, and it runs away from you afraid. Its movement creates a path so that you can progress further ahead, but it momentarily dampens the catharsis of anger.

In the bargaining stage, you befriend a small creature that mimics your actions and helps you to solve puzzles. You then find bright red birds who act as your wings, launching you upward to otherwise unreachable platforms. But even as these creatures in your mind help you, others seek to thwart your process. You also encounter monstrous birds that push you backwards with their shrieking caws.

From there, you move into the depression stage, where you swim through murky water barely able to see anything in front of you. When an eel bursts threateningly through the water, you race quickly away. The search for a way out in this stage feels different from standard exploration. You’re moving toward an exit that you cannot see.

Eventually, though, you find that exit, and you reach the acceptance stage of GRIS, and an already emotional game turns the level up even higher. You climb further and further upward until you find yourself in the hand of the statue, but this time, the statue is whole again. Color fills the world around you, and somehow, this scene perfectly captures what healing feels like.

GRIS is the sort of art that causes an emotion to swell up in you, so vast and indescribable, that you feel as if your heart might just tear loose from your chest in an effort to express itself. Sometimes, you want to play a game that tells a specific story, but sometimes, you want to play a game like GRIS.