Review #18: GRIS

GRIS is an indie puzzle-ish platformer. I love indie puzzle-ish platformers. It’s on the Nintendo Switch. I love my Switch, and with the recent release of Super Smash Bros, I am putting in a whole lot more hours on this thing than I have in a while. It really is an amazing system, but it’s one that I have rarely used in docked mode. I’ve played a few hours of Zelda, Mario, etc. on my TV, but most of the time, even at home, I do it handheld.

But GRIS changed this. Excepting a couple minutes I spent to prove the point, I played the entire four-or-so-hour experience on my TV. Because this game, though it is on the Switch, isn’t made for the Switch. It would be just as at home – probably moreso – on a PS4 or Xbox One where it could run at higher framerates and resolutions and maybe a little bit of HDR in there for good measure. It’s not a game to play on the go. It’s one to sit with and contemplate.

Let me back up: you should buy GRIS. It is both fascinating and very good. I am not going to be showing much footage from it because any given image is a spoiler. This is especially true as the nature of the game’s milestones becomes clear: you are returning color to a world of gray. Anyways, with each color you add, the world becomes even more beautiful. I paused so many times in awe of GRIS’s imagery. I would spend at least $55 for a coffee table book of moments from the game. I may spend more than that getting fine art prints of screen caps to hang on my wall.

So I’ll show a bit, when it is absolutely necessary to illustrate the point, but the less you see before you play, the more I think you will get from each new moment. And, like, just buy it.

The presentation of the GRIS’s imagery is fascinating, because the camera itself is fascinating – performing this high-wire balancing act of practicality and cinema.

Though locked firmly at a 90-degree angle from your face, its placement in space is constantly changing along all three axes. At times, you are the center of at tention; it swoops in to be there right beside you. This is when it would be most appropriate to play in the Switch’s portable mode, though you still wouldn’t want to.

More typically, you remain at the center but the attention is elsewhere, as the camera has pulled back to reveal more of the world itself – those sparse, beautifully rendered lines and, eventually, their subtle but distinct colorations. You take it all in. This is the cinematic.

Or you are not at the center at all. The level design stands at the forefront as you are tasked with a puzzle that takes up a space many, many, many times your size. And you must see the entirety of the thing in order to understand it. This is the practical. It is also when portable mode becomes effectively useless. Even on a TV of relatively substantial size, you are tiny. On at least two occasions, I found myself lost on the screen and needed to move the analog stick a bit to find the black blob of motion. The camera moves smoothly in and out, never actually “cutting,” which can feel in turn epic and exhausting, depending on how dynamic it feels like being at a given moment.

But the important fact imparted by the constant expand&contract is that you will always see everything that you need to see in a given moment – sometimes more but never less. This is pleasantly reassuring.

Play is simple. Stick or pad moves. B jumps. A… breathes. Eventually, Y does something too. X remains unused. They do what you ask of them when you ask it. Here and there something might not respond exactly as you might like – mostly in water – but those moments are fleeting. On the lovely Switch Pro controller, which is basically a requirement since, again, TV, everything feels quite nice.  

At first glance, GRIS probably appears a little bit like a 2D Journey with a drained color pallete, but let’s return to my alternate title, because I think it’s akin to something a bit more recent. Celeste, which was released earlier this year on a bunch of platforms including the Switch, is a wonderful, brutal little 2D platformer. It tells the story of Madeline, who climbs a mountain to face her own inner demons – those demons also being herself. Madeline’s anxiety and fears manifest themselves in increasing torturous ways. It is not subtle, but it is both effective and wonderful. It’s a unique subject matter for a game in general and particularly a game of its sort. It’s a game in which you will die hundreds or thousands of times climbing up the mountain.

Now, remove the spikes. And beneath that, you find GRIS.

It’s not just that GRIS lacks overt danger or an actual fail state; it’s that GRIS is told in images rather than words. You know that the unnamed girl you are controlling is dealing with the fallout of something, and you help her to come to terms with that and put the pieces back together, but the question of what, exactly, has broken is open.

And it’s one on which you can project your own damage. Celeste tells you what Madeline is feeling, and perhaps you feel it vicariously through her. GRIS tells you nothing beyond the fact that you press A and she takes a breath. But the breath is short, clearly intended to be something more. And so you think about that. You don’t intentionally press A very often, but when you do, it gives you pause. And you think about it some more. And you wonder what she is trying to do and then you try to figure it out. Is it really just taking a breath? Does she want to talk? I called it the Press A to Emote button for a while, because it seemed almost like she was trying to cry. In fact, the first time I pressed the A button, she collapsed. This before she’d even picked up the ability to jump.

And you fill in the gaps with the pains that you know. The times that you were unable to do anything but take a short breath. This girl doesn’t have a name or a voice but she is struggling to cope with something. And even if you are never able to explicitly understand what it is, you feel that pain that she is feeling and you have to help her. You want to help her.

Because you have felt it too.

Eight Point Nine out of Ten

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