In grief, our words fail us. We’re alone, at a loss for language to communicate our suffering. Devolver Digital’s latest title Gris turns that wordless pain into a vivid journey, presenting a world devoid of color and voice as a metaphor for loss. With a harmonious blend of thoughtful game mechanics, dazzling art and carefully crafted sound design, Gris’ protagonist maintains a sense of tenacity in the face of darkness. Even as I saw black tendrils literally swallowing her whole, the game encourages finding a voice in the face of despair.
Barcelona-based Nomada Studio utilizes soft, ink-washed visuals with a dreamy, minimalist soundtrack to communicate its themes. The game opens with Gris singing and suddenly losing her voice as the ground crumbles beneath her. She falls from the sky and lands in a gray, colorless ruin. Not knowing what else to do or where to go, she begins to walk.
Gris’ most marvelous feature is its storytelling through color. Plumes of watercolor and ink sprawl across the screen, rolling in and out like storm clouds. Each of its four stages correspond to a color – red, green, blue, yellow, respectively — while highlighting different aspects of the protagonist’s journey. A lush forest with morphing trees decorates the green chapter, a shift I appreciated after the first stage’s harsh, red desert. In the blue chapter, Gris wets her feet in shallow pools. Not long after, she dives deeper, navigating through aquatic mazes before realizing that she’s reached a point so far down that she can’t continue, at least not without help. There’s something Alice in Wonderland-like about this kind of logic — go backwards in order to go forward. In the case of Gris, it’s going deeper, descending into pitch black depths before she’s able to rise up again.
Gris’ inner demons take physical form, as she continuously evades a shapeshifting, inky black creature, desperate to consume her. Sometimes it’s a bird, other times a dark doppelganger. Within each stage, Gris learns a new ability to help carry her forward. She can, for example, turn her body into solid rock to withstand crimson winds or powerful screams. When I first turned her body into a rock, I was surprised to find that she was still able to walk. For a brief moment, the animation shows Gris pulling her arms and legs inward, emitting a heavy, ceramic thud as she hits the ground. I thought of how easy it is to withdraw in the face of fatigue and sadness, disappearing silently like her limbs in a prism of rock. But when I pressed the key to move sideways, I watched her slowly trek through blood-red sands, head slightly pointed down, eyes closed in determination. I instantly admired her; she still continued to walk, even if she was dragging that heavy weight around.
At the end of each chapter, Gris curls up and begins to weep. Despite navigating through beautiful ruins, collecting starlight and even making a friend in the forest, she still mourns for what’s lost: her voice and the colors in her world. No matter what the setting, the grief is pervasive. And sadness, in my own experience, is a heavy weight that’s most powerful at the end of the day. Battling depression or the loss of a loved one is never a linear journey, I found. There’s a flicker of hope that maybe this time, things are looking up. Sometimes I think I’m doing better. But I’ll see something that reminds me of a relationship lost, and the painful process starts all over again. The journey in Gris plays out in similar ways, mirroring the waves of sadness that crash down when least expected.
Towards the end, the healing process begins. The music swells and crescendos to highlight Gris’ breakthrough. Her voice returns, and the world opens to her. Flowers bloom, ancient ruins spring to life, obstacles are cleared. As she vocalizes, a bridge of starlight appears to guide her way back to the top. With every step, I can hear the tiniest plink of her footsteps. Every sound is delicate, pristine and reflective of her ascension.
As leaves rustle and blossom at the sound of her voice, they sometimes yield tiny red butterflies. These are scattered around the ruins, allowing Gris to soar higher when she jumps. As she crouches and readies herself, I notice she’s always looking up. Rings of light explode like fireworks as she takes off, going higher and higher. The immense satisfaction of catching one wave of butterflies after another had me feeling like I was flying too. And when I finally reached the top, I was crying. Even with all the twists and turns, breathless chases, Gris finds a way to give a powerful voice to the most delicate emotions. All without a word.