Release Date: November 14, 2018Platform: PC (reviewed), SwitchDeveloper: Nomada StudioPublisher: Devolver DigitalGenre: Platformer
Over the past several years, games like Journey, Abzu, Flower, and Bound have challenged the philosophy of “form follows function” by focusing less on traditional gameplay mechanics and more on a decidedly abstract approach to storytelling, using evocative, stylized visuals and atmospheric sound design to tell wordless, epic tales about the human condition. Gris, a new game by the Spain-based Nomada Studio, is a 2D platformer designed very much in the same spirit of the aforementioned titles, telling the story of a mourning young woman rebuilding a ruined, colorless world piece by piece, wrestling with fantastical manifestations of her insecurities as she strives for truth and inner peace.
The wow-factor of the game’s presentation is apparent from the opening moments, which sees our protagonist nestled in the hands of a skyscraper-sized statue of a woman, which tragically crumbles underneath her feet, leaving her lost, voiceless, and alone in an arid expanse. The visual assets appear to be completely hand-drawn and painted, comprised of crisp, elegant lines and brilliant splashes of color invoking watercolor paint. There’s a super subtle filter, too, that mimics bedroom dust on a canvas or construction paper, adding an extra layer of tactility to the visuals, which not only looks marvelous but supports the intimacy of the story. The incredible thing about hand-drawn art is that it’s about the most direct a connection one can make with an artist–every line echoes the motion of the artist’s hand, an organic extension of their emotion and imagination.
The art of Gris comes from the mind of Spanish artist Conrad Roset, whose work largely focuses on the female figure, accented by wild plumes of color. Nomada puts Roset’s art in motion to stunning effect, with each frame of gameplay looking like a gallery-worthy work of art. Cuphead was an equally arresting visual feat with its vintage hand-drawn aesthetic, but while that game might find itself right at home in the Cartoon Art Museum, Gris could easily act as an exhibit at the MoMA.
Execution of the visuals isn’t perfect, however. When scaled large enough, some of the hand-drawn assets become pixelated–hills in the background appear crisp as if drawn on a page, but when the same hill is copied and placed in the extreme foreground, pixels are large and easily noticeable, which unfortunately wobbles the whole “painting-come-to-life” illusion. The game is currently only available on Switch and PC, which is interesting considering that, when using these platforms, players are most often in close proximity to the screen, which exacerbates the pixelation issue.
Aside from this minor imperfection, the game looks genuinely astounding, partly because of Roset’s brilliant vision, and partly because the visuals are so unique. You’ll explore forests with trees whose leaves perpetually dress and undress, caves hauntingly lit by a melange of glowing fungi, towering rock formations blanketed in otherworldly shades of red, the protagonist’s flowing teal hair a constant beacon in the ever-transforming environments. Almost everything you see and hear, from the burbling, inky creature that slithers after you, to the humming flowers that bloom when you rediscover your voice, symbolizes a different aspect of the heroine’s inner struggle, the game as a whole acting as a poignant metaphor for the horrors, epiphanies, and ultimate catharsis of coping with the loss of something or someone you love.
Nomada made a point to keep the gameplay simple and accessible, and for good reason. Complex or exceedingly challenging gameplay runs the risk of distracting from the point of the game, which is undisputedly the art and the story. Controls are in the typical platforming configuration, with running, jumping, and gliding feeling precise and responsive. You’ll acquire a handful of new abilities throughout the adventure, like the ability to transmute your character’s dress into a heavy block (ground stomps!), but don’t expect the breadth and depth of a Metroidvania affair (the game is only around three hours long).
Combat is nonexistent, with most of the game’s obstacles coming in the form of physics puzzles, which start out as rudimentary and borderline uninspired but ramp up in difficulty nicely, incorporating clever devices of anti-gravity and underwater acrobatics. The level design isn’t as intricate or ingenious as anything you’ll see in, say, the Super Mario Galaxy games, but again, the simplicity is in support of the story, which imbues the overall experience with more than enough complexity.
One of the game’s great strengths is its attention to detail, like the unexpected utility of the moving scenery in the background and midground. In one area, you’re navigating an underwater temple, with carefully placed stone columns blocking your way. Sometimes, you can spot tiny fish swimming behind a column and through to the other side, a beautifully subtle indicator that you too may proceed. If you’re ever stuck on a puzzle, taking a respite to soak in every inch the lush scenery may just reveal the way forward.
Video games are a rapidly evolving medium, and games like Gris push that evolution in an exciting direction. It’s slowly becoming normal for games to, ironically, not always be about winning and losing, but about conveying a universal message in a way that’s cinematic, interactive, and ephemeral. Nomada wields this emerging philosophy with power, grace, and pure artistry. Gris might be short, but to understand its true depth takes hours and hours of pondering, and maybe a bit of soul-searching, too.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.