Gris might be one of the most commanding works of video game art I have played in a decade. Thanks to the artisanal touch of the artist Conrad Roset, Nomada Studio’s indie hit made waves back in 2018 – and now, five years later as it arrives on Game Pass (free to play for anyone with an Xbox Game Pass or PC Game Pass subscription), it’s as impactful and relevant as ever.
A vague story about grief and loss – and the mind palaces we involuntarily create in order to compartmentalise the inky depths of our mourning – is complemented by some oddly familiar platforming. You have never played Gris before, but it feels like you have; it’s the ghost of a hundred other platformers living in your fingertips, the memory of thousands of jumps, dashes, floats and falls summoned from nostalgic corners of your brain on a whim.
It feels like the mechanics, insistent and ever-pushing forward, are made to rhyme with the story. You’re moving forward, inexorably, but something follows. The controls remind you of something that you can’t quite put your finger(s) on. The occasionally taxing puzzles always have their solutions in sight, but rarely is closure as simple as just walking up to it. Gris, similarly to Brothers, knows how to make your brain and your hands work as one, and how much you take away from this gorgeous meditation on the more desolate parts of the human psyche depends on how much you read into it. Softies and lovvies, eat your collective hearts out.
Some of the visual metaphors the game employs would have been a touch better with a little subtext, mind. How many more times can a big, intimidating blue lagoon represent depression, ey? How many more sharp, red things can manifest anger? When it’s not going all Pixar with its over-wrought visual language, there’s a real beauty to the subtlety, a distinct flavour to its design. Most impressive is how cinematic it is; so much of the narrative legwork is done by confident camera pans, scale-revealing zooms, impeccably well-timed needle-drops for that hypnotic soundtrack.
Weighing in at a neat and tidy four hours (or so), Gris is a perfect Game Pass title – the sort of thing to boot up and experience in the dead of night when you can’t sleep, when the sticky heat of the dying summer forms a slick little barrier around your brain that stops rest for sinking into your head. It’s the sort of game you can eat whole, swallow down, and digest for weeks. In fact, I’d say that’s almost a prerequisite for playing it: block out some time, experience it front-to-back, like a concept album or arthouse film.
Gris is yet another affecting example that publisher Devolver Digital knows exactly which games to support and showcase, all the way from development to release. Like Journey and Rez before it, Gris is watertight proof that games can be as much a sensory experience as they can be entertainment products. There’s something about the living, moving ink of Gris; it can bleed through the screen, onto your pad, and into your fingers, leaving an indelible stain on you that won’t wash out – even if you want it to.
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