When I was growing up we had four TV channels and if you were lucky, a film at the weekend courtesy of our old Betamax. When I jump forward to present day, I often marvel at how much entertainment we have at our fingertips, maybe too much. It is an ongoing joke between my friends how many games lie untouched and destined to be forgotten under the sheer weight of new releases. Our cups hath well and truly runneth over. Gaming is also currently going through something of a phase with ‘open worlds’, each seemingly bigger, more complicated and with more ways for gamers to idle the hours away. But really, sometimes I miss the old days when games were smaller and more humble.
It is a refreshing change, therefore, to experience a game that is pristinely unique in both visual structure and mechanical foundations. Earlier this year I reviewed a game called FAR: Lone Sails and it blew me away (I’m not even sorry). The total time it took me to complete was around four hours and so some might argue this was stunted experience, barely even worth looking at. Yet in truth, this had been my most profound gaming experience this year: that was until I played GRIS.
Like the aforementioned FAR: Lone Sails, GRIS is a solitary experience that, in my opinion, should be played with little to no knowledge of what is to come. My goal for my readers is always that they experience beautiful and amazing games in the best possible way. So before you continue reading I am going to suggest you trust me, go play this game and then if you wish to return to hear my thoughts you will be very welcome. Still curious? Ok then, let us take a none spoiler look at why GRIS is one of my stand out games of this year.
Dancing in the dark
GRIS is described by its creators as a narrative platformer, about a hopeful young girl who gets lost in her own world due to a painful experience. Her sorrow is manifested in the dress she wears, which also helps her learn new abilities to face the challenges ahead. In essence, the dress is a metaphor for change and resistance to adversity. When being interviewed, the developers said they were influenced by games like Inside, Journey and Ori & The Blind Forest. Three games that all came with some emotional clout of their own and you can really see some beats from these wonderful titles.
When you first start the game you can do very little, other than walk from left to right. As you progress you will soon gain new abilities that will be essential for GRIS to complete her journey. As the games play duration is relatively short, the skills she can acquire are not very complicated or extensive. However, the magic is how these abilities employed to solve the puzzles in your path. One of the first skills you learn is how to make your dress become a weighted block, allowing you to resist gales that would otherwise blow you away. If you do start the game thinking GRIS feels a little bit static, just bear with it because later in the game she is given some exhilarating movements abilities that are beautiful to behold.
The Art of Genesis
Watching this game come to life in front of your eyes is like watching a master artist pour their imagination onto the screen in liquid form. There are many artistic techniques on display here but the one that comes to mind more than any other is the discipline of watercolour. As GRIS makes her way through the world, the various chapters are punctuated with a synergy of a certain colour palette. Watching this colour burst forth and spread through the world is like watching the pigment rush from an artists brush and bleed onto the page.
As the opening scene of the game ends and you gain control over GRIS, the world looks almost monotone and devoid of colour. It is up to you, the player, to guide this lost young woman and restore colour to her world once more. The development team actually consisted of more traditional artists than coders and this really shows with the captivating hand-drawn animations on show. The main characters appendages are not pulchritudinous and little more than sticks, but then your eyes are drawn to her flowing hair and billowing dress.
There is also so much to admire in the gaming environment, from strange creatures that scurry from your footsteps to sparks of light where you step. The world feels like a dance of light that is both alive and at the same time shifting in a myriad of ways. Some of the creatures you happen across will actually aid you in your journey by providing a temporary platform or fugacious friendship. These moments are fleeting but still give you a sense that you are connected to this resplendent and fantastical world.
Thou shalt not kill
One of the most obvious things to note about GRIS is that there isn’t really a fail state or indeed any enemies in general. You cannot attack or be attacked and this is worth pointing out because for all the praise I can lavish on this title, this one fact will put some players off. As I always say, this is absolutely fine and no game should try to cater to every taste. This is a brave move in my book because the experience must then hold up on its visual storytelling and platforming shenanigans. GRIS does a remarkable job in this respect, keeping the player both engaged in what is happening and also leaving breadcrumbs for your curiosity to follow.
There is a dark force present in the game world that seeks to hinder your progress and even becomes hostile at certain intervals. The environment and indeed this malevolent being is cognizant of your presence. It is when this being is on the screen that GRIS reminds me of Ori the most, especially when you must flee from its wrath. It must also be noted that the animation of this inky black spectre is some of the best I have ever seen in any game.
The lead game directors have obviously been a bit recherché when it comes to the artists that were invited to become part of this project. This is no more evident than the musicians who provided the stunning soundtrack to the game. Berlinist is an indie band who live and work in Barcelona. I honestly believe I have never seen a better fusion between what I was seeing and the sound coming into my ears. There are moments I would get goosebumps and it felt like the score was tapped directly into my spine.
There is actually no dialogue throughout the entire game, GRIS does sing but these are wordless ballads that convey her emotional state. Sound is also used through sections of the game as a mechanic, which once again works to emphasise how both sounds and images can be fused together as one emotional chord. I also love how this game can be played by anyone, no matter what language you speak, beauty is universal.
This has been a fantastic year for gaming, with juggernauts like Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War and Assassins Creed Odyssey. The latter especially offers the player an extended experience that can last many weeks and even months. While I do love to settle into this type of game, I have got just as much need for games like GRIS that, while offering far less playtime; stay with you for just as long after the credits have rolled.
Considering this is the inaugural game from this new team, Nomada Studio has released a profound and important piece of work that I hope will be the first of many. This what game design can be, it is what I look for in every unknown game I play and in GRIS I have found that exact recipe of wonder and unfettered beauty.
I would like to thank Nomada Studio for sending me a review copy of the game which allowed me to get this review ready for launch day. This is always appreciated as it helps my readers get informed on the day the game goes on sale. If you like what I do here you can always follow me @riggedforepic where I post all my content.