Stories help us express and reflect on a lot of the more complex emotions we experience in our lives, and the stories within games are no exception. Especially around this time of year, when the holidays are in full sprint and we most-often find ourselves remembering those we’ve lost or been separated from by the unyielding and uncaring march of time, it’s important to remember that there are many kinds of grief and we all handle it in our own way.
In a way, Nomada Studios’ Gris has released at a pretty pertinent point in time for me. If you know me, you know I’m a real sentimental piece of shit, and this is especially true around the holidays. I get really reflective, and in general I value my attachments and associations with other people and friends a bit heavily compared to others. The holidays, for me, turn into a time of reflection on the year that’s come to pass, and all the things that came and went with it.
It was about a year ago that I lost the dog I’d grown up with when living at my parents’ place, and as the wonderful art piece my mother made for me in memorandum of Pez sits on my shelf, I find myself thinking not only of her, but of the many friends that have come and gone in various ways within the last 365 days.
I find myself grieving, in a way. I miss people, places, and things. I see them in everything I play, and, reluctantly, it reliably becomes overwhelming as the year comes to an end.
Gris, the beautiful puzzle platformer that I’m eventually gonna start talking about, is a story of grief. I’m glad I decided to write this out instead of doing a video on it, because there’s so much of Gris that could be considered spoilers, so I think it should be fairly easy to avoid them! If you’ve yet to play the game, or just aren’t finished, fret not and forge ahead undeterred!
The game follows a young girl, Gris, through her path of grief. There’s an abundance of symbolism that makes this fairly clear and, due to the nature of grief itself, much of the symbolism can (and does) double for depression and fear. Before the game begins, Gris loses her voice and by consequence her ability to sing, something that clearly brings her joy.
It can be hard to express our emotions when grieving, or even when remembering something or someone fondly, two things that often go hand-in-hand. When we lose something or someone dear to us, we’ll often shut ourselves away from the world at large and those who care about us. Losing her voice, and then her place of safety, is a fantastic analogue for this and serves as the catalyst that begins Gris’ journey to climb out of this hole and begin expressing herself again.
The crux of these complex emotions manifests itself as an inky entity that pursues Gris throughout most of the game’s levels. It chases her relentlessly through earth, sky, and water as it tries to consume her in much the same way grief, fear, and reflection can in reality. If we’re not careful, if we allow ourselves to become stuck in a pit of these things, blaming ourselves for what's not really our fault.
It’s surprisingly easy to get stuck in that kind of cycle, too. I should know, it’s something I’m familiar with. Reflecting on the past is good, and important, as is remembering people that have come and gone from our lives. Without looking at where we’ve been, we can’t appreciate how far we’ve come, and grief is a part of this. That said, it’s also important to recognize that not all grief is negative, not all remembrance should be shrouded in sadness, and not all grief comes from death.
I grieve for friendships that have come and gone. I grieve over the fact that I’m growing older and I have less time. I grieve for the awful places I put myself in. But, through it all, I realize how far I’ve come in the last 365 days, and I find myself smiling.
Without that reflection, that growth may not be realized, or appreciated as much as it should be.
In Gris, there are achievements for each of the five stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These same five stages play into the overarching story tucked away within the game’s symbolism in a way that feels familiar without being overbearing.
Before I picked this game up, I’d been hearing my friends and colleagues preaching the game’s brilliance- saying it’s a life-changing work of art, saying it brought them to tears, saying it’s up there with the best of the best in the medium.
I expected a lot from Gris, and what I ended up getting from this game was very different.
I didn’t garner some greater meaning, or some previously-unknown-to-me truth about life.
What I got was something much more valuable, I think.
Gris is the story of one person’s grief, reflection, and acceptance of a loss in their life. It’s never said whether this is something as permanent as death, or something as slow as drifting apart over time, but the story is familiar in a way that I find comforting.
Rather than being a world-changing game, Gris is more akin to a hug from a close friend. Comforting you, and holding you as they say “I know, this sucks, but it’s gonna be OK. I’ve been through this, too. You’ll be ok. You’ll get through this.” It's nice. It's warm. It's pleasant.
At this time of year, when we find ourselves thinking on those we’ve lost in whatever way we’ve lost them, I find it hard to this of something better to experience.