Gris is a Mini Masterpiece

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

Gris came out on December 13, 2018 and didn’t really stand a chance at getting a ton of traction. It’s a short, small game from a tiny game studio and it came out right before Christmas when people are catching up on all the games they missed throughout the year. It also didn’t manage to get as much attention from the gaming press at the time because they were all full up on getting year end lists out before they took holiday break. But it’s 5 months later and Gris is still totally, absolutely, completely worth your time and money.

So obviously the big draws of Gris are its visuals and soundtrack. The game looks hand-drawn and has a gorgeous aesthetic that surely has been done before, but is completely new to me. It just looks dead gorgeous and constantly had me staring at the screen in awe as I moved through the world.

And like any game that emphasizes beautiful visuals, it has a gameplay loop that inherently makes the game look even more vibrant and unforgettable as it goes on. This is a minor spoiler, but the objective of the game is to bring color back to a colorless world. You start out in a quiet, black and white environment. You soon unlock red and the world lights up, but only the elements that are red. Then other colors come into the picture and the world you’re exploring gets more striking every time you add a new color to its pallet.

By the end of the game you’re running and jumping and swimming through a lush, vibrant world that is teeming with life and character.

The game completes the presentation package by having one of the most gorgeous soundtracks to any game I’ve played in recent memory. The soundtrack, written and performed by Berlinist, is unforgettable. The music not only matches the tone of the game perfectly, but it’s integrated with the gameplay in a way that makes sure you’re always hearing exactly the right music at exactly the right time. Considering there are few cutscenes, and even those are not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the music crechendoing right when an enemy bursts into the room or a note holding at the precise moment you jump off a cliff edge.

And that brings me to the gameplay, which is less amazing than the elements I’ve mentioned already, but it more than holds its own and is simply enhanced by the music and visuals.

This is a 3D platformer and you can do all the things you expect to be able to do in the genre. You are presented with increasingly difficult jumping puzzles, but these never get too challenging. It’s more a matter of figuring out where to go rather than actually making the jumps when you figure out what to do.

As the game goes on you get to do more than jump, and over the short 3 hour run you will have a handful of abilities that build on each other and let you do more and more in the world. It’s not a Metroid-vania by any means, but the game does do a great job of guiding you through the world so you never get lost and there are parts where you’ll return to that have new opportunities in them later in the game.

The colors that you’re unlocking throughout the game play into this as well, as parts of the game world are not available to you until their color is revealed. Once it is, you look at the world differently and will sometimes see whole new ways to move around. It’s a very clever mechanic that builds up to an ending that has you combining all the skills you have learned and colors you have revealed to perform some pretty complex, but always achievable maneuvers.

The game is not terribly difficult, and this is definitely a game that skews a bit more casual than something like Celeste or Dead Cells. You’re not going to be fighting enemies nor is it even possible to die. The game makes you feel clever when you solve a puzzle, but it’s clearly intent on you always moving forward rather than have you try the same platforming challenge over and over again.

And finally there’s the story, which is completely wordless and relies entirely on imagery to get its point across. I did not do any research on this before making this video so this could either be totally off base or literally what everyone says, but I found it to be a story about loss and redemption. It’s about a character who goes to literal dark places and strives to get out of them. Even as they are on the tip of escaping, the darkness comes back more intensely than ever. This may not resonate with everyone, but if you have suffered from depression or even generally dealt with severe sadness I think this will resonate with you. By having no explicit story or character names or anything like that, Gris allows the player to attach things to their own experiences and I think that’s a great quality in any piece of art.

I think Gris is a miniature masterpiece. It’s quite short and there is not a ton that’s super innovative from a gameplay perspective, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s in the top 10 video games of all time or anything, but it had more or an impact on me than most games I play. I can’t stop thinking about the visuals and the soundtrack has been on repeat while I’m at work for the past week. More importantly, it made me feel something intense. The story of Gris, as much as it has an explicit story, resonated with me at a deep level, and struck an emotional core that I was not entirely expecting from it. It pairs an open-ended story with engaging but not overly complex gameplay with and audio-visual package few games can compete with, all to create an experience that I think was criminally overlooked in 2018 and should be experienced by as many people as possible.