Saturday, 15 May 2021


I pride myself on staying up-to-the-minute, so in honour of President Nixon's recent trip to China let's have a look at Gris (2018), a platform game for almost every modern gaming system except, curiously, the Xbox. As of this writing it's out on budget. I played it on the PlayStation 4.

Is Gris the time, the place, the motion? Is it the way we are feeling? Does it have a groove? Does it have a meaning? Does it give me chills? Are they multiplying? Does it make me lose control? Is it electrifying? Read on, dear reader, and be thankful that all of the Grease references are in the first two paragraphs because otherwise I would have had to weave them into the body text and it would have taken ages and you wouldn't be reading this until June.

What is Gris? It's a platform game with lovely music. It attracted good-but-not-great reviews when it came out and went on to sell over a million copies, which is impressive for a low-key art game without much marketing behind it. The reviewers compared it to Journey, but it actually has much more in common with the 2014 platformer Ori and the Blind Forest. They have similar mechanics and progression, and in both games you are menaced by a bird, although in Gris the bird is a manifestation of self-doubt whereas in Ori the bird is, from what I remember, an actual bird:

Ori and the Blind Forest - it resembles a Roger Dean painting.

Gris owes something to Aubrey Beardsley, but it does have floating rocks, which was a Roger Dean thing as well.

One thing that separates the two games is the difficulty level. Ori looks cute, but underneath the pleasant exterior it's surprisingly hard, almost sadistic. Last year's Ori and the Will of the Wisps is apparently even more difficult. On a personal level I enjoyed Blind Forest but it was a frustrating experience. Periods of platforming brilliance alternated with frustrating wall-jumping puzzles that just left me feeling drained and annoyed when I finished them instead of happy.

I grew up with Jet Set Willy and Head Over Heels, so I'm used to frustrating gameplay. I didn't enjoy it in the 1980s and I don't enjoy it now. I played those games because there was nothing better, although Head Over Heels was more sophisticated than most. In my opinion the designers of Ori should have made the main story easier and reserved the really hard jumps for secrets, but what do I know? It sold millions and lots of people enjoyed it.

In contrast Gris is mellow. You can't die, and there are only two or three head-scratching puzzles and difficult jumps. The absolute worst that can happen is that you mess up a jump and have to retrace your steps a little bit. The developers wanted to make a mood piece, introspective and sad, although surprisingly there is an actual game underneath the lovely graphics.

Gris tells the tale of a young girl - her name is Spanish for "grey" - who is trying to cope with an unspecified personal loss, strongly suggested to be the death of her mother. At first she can only walk slowly through a landscape of broken statuary, but over the course of the game she learns how to jump, swim, sing, and turn herself into a solid weight. Not necessarily in that order. There's no dialogue, there are no subtitles, there's no story in a conventional sense, just a pervasive sense of loss and fragility.

She also makes friends with a cute little stone cube who eats apples. He jumps when you jump, and there are a couple of puzzles where you have to synchronise your actions in order to proceed:

The game has a simple hub design albeit that you can only replay maps after you've finished the main story. In each level you have to find a couple of sparkling stars that form a constellation; optionally you can hunt for memory fragments that unlock a special cutscene at the end. During the platforming sequences Gris only has a few powers, but the game mixes things up so that it never gets boring. In particular there's a late-game section in which Gris has to carefully leap out of some water blocks without crossing a gravitational line that gets particularly tricky.

Multiplayer? No. The PlayStation 4 version runs at 1920x1080 but the PC version runs at any arbitrarily high resolution. Ultra-widescreen support requires editing a .dll with a hex editor but is otherwise unproblematic.

Gris has some flaws. On the positive side I was pleasantly surprised that it's an actual game rather than an interactive music video. Based on the trailers I was expecting Gris to be an elaborate Flash animation in which you walked to the right and occasionally slid down some hills while the sun rises in the background - the most obvious nod to Journey - but it's a proper hub-based multi-level platform game. It could have gone on longer and I wouldn't have minded. It's more of a game than e.g. Far: Lone Sails and far more of a game than visual demos such as Proteus or Linger in Shadows. It even has a certain amount of reply value, if you want to collect all the memories.

On the negative side Gris has a habit of introducing some interesting ideas and then quickly abandoning them. The section with the little forest guy could have gone on longer, but almost immediately after solving a couple of puzzles he runs off and the game never repeats the experiment. A section with platforms that appear and disappear as you jump only amounts to a couple of screens and isn't complex enough to be challenging because the platforms never go out of sync, so once you work out the route you can't fail. The game launched at around £15.99; any more would have been too ambitious for something so slight. Perhaps the team didn't want to overstay their welcome.

Of note the game is only available digitally. It takes up around 4gb of hard drive space. There were short-run physical editions by Special Reserve (Nintendo Switch, with an artbook) and Limited Run Games (PS4), but they have long since sold out.

Other problems? If you're really old you might remember Amiga Power and its dislike of slippy-slidey ice worlds, because they were a cliché of 1990s platform game design. Slippy-slidey ice worlds, and power-ups that reversed your controls. Gris is guilty on both counts. Technically it has a scrabbly-wabbly desert world scoured by irresistible winds, but the end result is much the same. On the other hand the scrabbly-wabbly desert world is just one short sequence and the antigravity section only reverses your controls vertically, so it's not onerous.

Good stuff? The music is excellent. It's lighter and less symphonic than for example Journey, with a hazy, melancholic air. The hub level in particular would be a fantastic audiovisual screensaver if you were spending a week binging on tranquilisers. Parts of the music reminded me of Hiroshi Yoshimura's Nine Post Cards but with lusher orchestration. And on a visual level the game is of course striking, with a stark, clean style that gradually fades from grey to multi-colours.

It also occasionally put me in mind of 8-bit platform games. The following screen in particular made me think of Mikro-Gen's Frost-Byte:

It has been a long time since I thought of Mikro-Gen. The ZX Spectrum was popular in Spain so, who knows, perhaps the developers really did intend for parts of the game to pay homage to Starquake et al.

Of course a good game is more than just a bunch of sounds and graphics. For all its faults as a game Far: Lone Sails stood out because it had a mood and told a story. Gris is like that. After learning how to jump and fly Gris seems to be on the mend, but she is menaced by a giant bird - and then a giant eel - which is presumably a manifestation of her depression. I don't want to spoil the ending but she does eventually overcome this, although the grand finale is bitter-sweet. I felt sad at the end and wished Gris luck for her struggles in the future.

The ending unlocks a gallery of concept art plus some unused musical tracks.

Some people will probably detest the twee graphic style, the pretty music, the prissy art design and inoffensive theme etc, but on the whole I'm impressed with not just Gris but the art game movement in general; it must have been tempting to churn out cynical imitations of Journey but the likes of Bound and What Remains of Edith Finch are clever and surprisingly iconoclastic. Gris straddles an odd half-way ground, both an art piece and a decent albeit simplistic platform game, although it's more of the latter than the former.

Nomada Studios was formed purely to develop Gris, and to date it's their only product. There's no world on a sequel. My hunch is that they're in an awkward position; they can't repeat Gris' storyline, so a sequel would have to be a fully-fledged 8-12-hour game along the lines of Will of the Wisps, but that would require a much higher budget and a longer development cycle, and realistically what kind of market is there for Gris 2?

Still, I'm digressing. I finished Gris in three brief sittings over three days but at £5.98 I didn't feel shortchanged as the music is excellent and the ending is sad. It runs on a potato and it's worth it purely as an illustrated music video with a surprisingly decent platform game underneath it.