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Gris is about the fear we live with, and finding voice to defeat it

I shall not fear

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Ever since I read Dune, I’ve kept a quote from it close to my heart, tucked away for times when I needed it most. If you’ve read the book, you probably know it as well. It’s the Bene Gesserit litany against fear, and part of what Paul Atreides learned on his way to becoming a hero.

I must not fear,” it begins. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

That quote has given me comfort for a long time. At times, I’ve used it to visualize myself standing in a sea of turmoil, solid and immovable, while the flames of fear scour the land around me. In moments of stress and conflict, anxiety and panic, it has been a balm for rattled nerves and failing resolve.

But I realize now that there is another kind of fear. That kind of fear lives inside of you. That kind of fear can become like a poison in the mind and of the spirit. It is self doubt. It is worry. It is remorse and regret. It is so many things that can’t be washed away by standing still and finding calm.

It’s the kind of fear that stops you from simply doing anything.

Gris - giant black bird demon
Eventually, the flock of birds that plagues you will coalesce into a massive, shrieking demon.
Nomada Studio/Devolver Digital

Gris is a game that wants to teach us something about these fears we hold inside. It does so with a beautiful art style, a moving soundscape, and gameplay that, at times, flashes over into metaphor.

In Gris, you play as a woman (also named Gris) who has lost her voice and, with it, her agency. Her fears and her pain initially take the shape of a flock of birds that works to harass and punish her. She begins the game terribly weak, unable to even put one foot in front of the other. By the end, though, she’s become incredibly mobile and skilled. Hers is a journey to reclaim an intangible, inner kind of power. It is a journey toward rediscovering the self, and toward peace.

Gris is one of the most beautiful games that I’ve ever played. The art style is rendered as smooth, seemingly hand-painted watercolors that are light and airy on the screen when the game begins. By the end, however, Gris is awash with vivid color and movement. The art is not static like the technique used in Valkyria Chronicles. Instead, it works in layers of pattern and shape that become more complex over time. The art expands its depth as well, playing with parallax elements that both surprise and delight.

The gameplay as well grows and evolves, adding on little flourishes to its animations as new mechanics are introduced. So much of those mechanics are vital to the storyline itself, so I’m hesitant to spoil them all here. But let’s take just one as an example.

Like the protagonist in Dune, your avatar first learns to become like a stone, standing firm against violent winds that will push you across the screen. If you’ve seen promotional art or trailers for the game, you’ve likely seen the main character flounce her dress up into a cube to weather these storms. It looks silly in still images, but in motion, the mechanic works well. There is weight to it, but also intentionality. Once you’ve learned to use that shape to survive cruel winds, then you’ll learn to harness those same winds to move forward.

swimming underground in Gris
The sound design in Gris is full of little surprises. In one scene you’ll swim through a rain storm. Dive underwater and the timbre of the sound changes to match. Meanwhile, the sound of rain itself falls away.
Nomada Studio/Devolver Digital

Only by embracing those winds that have held her back is Gris able to reach new heights. What was once an obstacle becomes a resource, propelling you forward in the game. The analogy works as well visually as it does mechanically.

Gris is simply packed with little details like that, tiny things that, when considered, blossom into meaning. There’s a powerful feedback loop at play there as well. Even as I noticed more about the game’s symbols, I began to look for them in everything I touched. The environments themselves call out to the player, inviting them to pause and reflect on pain and loss and how to move on toward fulfillment and peace. You’re not simply moving through the environment, either. It reacts to you, welcomes you, and empowers you to think cleverly about solutions.

Gris will only take you a handful of hours to play from start to finish, but I can’t recommend it strongly enough. I only wish the experience lasted longer.

Developed by Nomada Studio and published by Devolver Digital, Gris is set to be released on Dec. 13 for Nintendo Switch and Windows PC.

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