The 2019 Steam Game Awards winner GRIS is a prime example of a successful project from a small, independent company. Despite likely budgetary and production constraints, the game has been extremely well received by both players and the press. Perhaps the reason is not only in the unusual stylistic solution of the game world, but also in the fact that it is a metaphor for the heroine’s inner world, into which she plunges to overcome some kind of trauma, still unknown to the player at the beginning of the walkthrough.
GRIS’s gameplay cores in simple spatial puzzles and exploration of the world, which is a series of enviromental riddles. Despite its apparent simplicity, the game hides a deep metaphorical meaning.
In each level that the player must complete to progress through the story, the main character strives for the statue of a woman, where the next stage of the passage ends. Opponents, which I take for the defense mechanism of Gris’s mind, in every possible way prevent this. An equally significant element of the gameplay is Gris’s dress, with the help of which she solves riddles — in my opinion, the dress embodies a kind of psychological defense, adjusting to the needs of the hostess. However, despite the importance of these mechanics for the gameplay, the game environment is a much more crucial part of the game’s architecture.
World as a metaphor
One of the most important aspects of GRIS is its visual style. The creators paid special attention to the aesthetics of the image of the heroine’s inner world. Over the course of the gameplay, this world changes: after passing each level, the color scheme develops along with the story. The initially monochrome color scheme introduces the colors red, green, blue and yellow. In addition to the variety of color palettes, the detail and complexity of spatial puzzles also increase, with more emphasis on the player’s mechanical skills.
In a sense, what is happening can be interpreted as a metaphor for human adaptation to grief, superimposed on the gameplay. In this case, the playing space is the inner world of the heroine, trying to cope with the grief that gripped her with her own methods. However, the world is not able to independently overcome the feeling of loss, for this it needs the inner “I” of Gris — in some way her self-awareness.
As the player progresses through the plot, Gris’ psyche gradually “heals”, going through five stages of grief according to the Kubler-Ross model. Let’s analyze each of them.
First stage: Denial
The game opens with a two-dimensional animation intro. The screensaver was created without any color restrictions and represents the beginning of the story of Gris — a moment of voice loss and a traumatic event shown through the destruction of a statue of a woman.
At the end of the introduction, Gris falls down for a long time. As she moves, the colors gradually fade, and she finds herself in the middle of a black and white desert. In all likelihood, the fall of the heroine resonates with her own psychological devastation, and the simplicity of the landscape expresses an emotional shock, thoughtless denial of what happened, an attempt to isolate herself from grief, ignore it.
Gris does not stay in this state for too long and when, upon completing the level, the player reaches the fragments of the statue, the world is colored in shades of red. The heroine’s experiences seem to transform the reality around her.
Second stage: Anger
The crimson shades of the landscape seem to reflect the intensity of resentment, anger directed at the sculpture of a woman. At this level, Gris encounters the first elemental obstacle — a blood-red storm that knocks the character down. In a sense, the storm represents the heroine’s emotional outbursts. In response, Gris learns to form a bulky cube out of her dress, which reduces movement speed, but is able to withstand the elements. This can be interpreted as Gris’s gradual adaptation to the emotional pits that a person tends to fall into when grief.
Also thanks to the dress, Gris can destroy a number of structures that make up this level. At a certain point, Gris again plunges into the monochrome stage of denial, where red is absent. In the dark room, only pots and many statues of women in poses of suffering are visible. Gris has the ability to smash the most fragile of the statues, which can be interpreted as a longing to forget the unknown woman.
Probably, the scenes of her torment cause pain in the main character and she seeks to erase them from her own memory. On the other hand, this episode may express a naive accusation of the victim (woman) for her own death, in view of the impossibility of blaming anyone else. In this case, the destruction of the statues is a kind of act of aggression and anger towards the one whom the statues represent.
Third stage: Bargaining
When the player reaches the next group of debris in the world, a green color appears and plants, vines and branches bloom around the heroine. The world begins to become more and more detailed, acquiring a certain authenticity.
The next level is a forest of square trees and a tall stone tower. In this forest, Gris first encounters a dark clot that takes the form of a huge swallow. In other words, the figure of an unknown enemy is being shaped into something material and sinister.
In all likelihood, the unknown enemy personifies the depression and fear of the main character, preventing her from recovering. It is worth noting that Gris does not want to face her enemy one-on-one, trying to escape from its influence, but refusing to destroy him. It is possible that she does not fight the enemy physically due to the fact that this enemy can be part of her own “I” and must be fought with in other ways.
Forth stage: Depression
The player’s transition to the next level is marked by the appearance of blue, pouring blue rain on the surrounding world. The statue of the woman is in its final stages of restoration, but it still has no eyes. The absence of eyes at the statue and the cold tonality of the rain suggest the tears shed by the heroine.
As for the level itself, it is an underground semi-underwater world. Deep waters in this case personify the emotional stagnation of the psyche. Gris soon adapts to them — now the dress allows her to move in the water column, like a nimble ray. In the dark waters of her grief, Gris finds a protector — a sea turtle, helping her to get out of an emotionless pit.
Fifth stage: Acceptance
With the help of a turtle, Gris finds the last of the missing colors — yellow. The statue of the woman is completely assembled from the rubble, and we expect that the voice lost by the heroine returned to her. However, her attempts to sing lead only to a quiet wheezing and the return of a dark clot. The shapeless mass destroys the statue, collected with such difficulty, and Gris almost ends up in the toothy jaws of a giant eel, the shape of which this time the enemy takes.
To avoid seemingly inevitable death in the abyss of despair is helped by the same turtle, which disperses the darkness with its light. This, perhaps the longest in terms of time, level is followed by another full stage: the crystal palace.
All the colors of the surrounding world are open, and the heroine regains the ability to sing — this becomes a new mechanic, from the action of which plants bloom and birds chirp. Probably, this level can be interpreted as the complete healing of the heroine. In other words, with her song, Gris also helps her own inner world — normalizes it, returns everything to its place.
When a seemingly happy ending is imminent, the dark mass returns, assuming the guise of Gris herself. Apparently, the darkness received new forces in parallel with how Gris returned hers, and therefore can be interpreted as its evil component.
Darkness engulfs the restored, colorful world, Gris falls again, and after a few moments, darkness engulfs her too. The heroine finds herself in troubled water surrounded by fragments of the statue. Having floated out and climbing over the rubble onto the palm of the statue, Gris must sing her last song. With the song, the statue is slowly restored, the fragments fall into place one by one, the statue comes to life and responds to it. The darkness recedes, the world is restored and shimmers with all colors, personifying the inviolability of the good memory of a loved one.
GRIS aims to metaphorically depict the loss of a close person and the fight against depression, trying to evoke an emotional response in players.
The deep interpretation of the GRIS’s story falls on the shoulders of the players, looking at the game through the prism of their own experience. However, the artistic metaphor of GRIS is revealed throughout the gameplay, primarily visually. The game not only visibly changes along with the course of the gameplay, its changes are thoughtful, story-based: each development of the picture in the playing space is due to the structure of the metaphor and sends the player to the psychological recovery of the heroine.