Animation is one of those mercurial arts that, unless you have tried your hand at it, it seems simultaneously so easy and also impossible. Draw pictures in a way that simulates movement? What magic is this? To animate requires a thorough understanding of not only how an object looks, but how it always looks, how it changes as it moves and what all can happen to it. Animated is an immense undertaking. It’s easy to forget that with the ubiquity of 3-D animation these days, either as CG effects or entire films and games.
I don’t think it’s especially useful to debate whether hand-drawn or virtual animation is better or harder to do. It depends on what the animator is trying to accomplish, and the end result can look spectacular with either. However, one of the major draws of traditional animation is that it can capture effects like distortion and dissipation in a way that emphasizes the form of the material — something that is still somewhat difficult to do, even with top-notch effects.
Gris is all about that.
It’s a platformer video game with a 2-D art style reminiscent of traditional animation from around the globe. Stills from the game are breathtaking, but it’s the way these forms move that really sets it apart artistically from other wonderful games like it. I can’t adequately communicate how beautifully this game moves, so it’s worth checking out videos and playing the game yourself if you’re interested. But what I can do is talk about how the game uses its animation to tell its story.
3P Reviews Series: Gris
Spoilers: Yes — fair warning, the mechanical spoilers are worth avoiding for this one.
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Shatter
Gris has no words in its entire story. It has a story, and a deeply emotional one at that, but it falls firmly in the box of games that are about ART, first and foremost. If you have a low tolerance for ambiguity… well, I think the game is beautiful enough on its own to still merit attention, but know what you’re getting into.
You play as a girl in a dress, a figure who is initially only capable of running and jumping as is the way of platformer protagonists. The game opens with her sleeping in the palm of a massive statue. The girl floats, attempting to sing, but her voice catches, and the statue crumbles, sending her falling. Through the rest of the game, the girl explores ruins of ancient buildings in several different environments — some exposed to a windswept desert, some underwater, some in crystal caverns, all color-coded by region. The different areas are inhabited by creatures, most of them passive or helpful. When she disturbs several butterfly-like creatures, however, they congeal into a inky, shapeshifting monster that appears occasionally in the other levels. The monster blocks the girl’s path and chases her, disrupting her attempts to find pieces of the statue and make it whole again.
In the final level, the girl uses stars she has collected throughout the game to form a constellation pathway upward, but the ink creature blocks her way. It consumes the world, and then it consumes her as well. She isn’t dead, though; she wakes in a sea of darkness, ruins floating around her, including the fragments of the statue. Climbing them until she reaches its shattered palm, the girl sings and the statue begins to reform. The sea starts to rise, covering her, and she sings all throughout. Eventually, the dark liquid submerges her, but then it dissipates. The statue comes to life, as does the rest of the world, filled with color. The areas come together, temples mixing with forests and flowers and the sea. The girl embraces the statue, the statue cries, and the girl kisses it. The girl then returns to the constellation and climbs it into the clouds.
As you might imagine, the story is highly representative, none of it more so than the shapeshifting beast.
Part Two: Engulf
The shadowy beast is what convinced me to get the game, as I imagine it is for many people. This is where the animators really flex their muscles, the creature rippling like a viscous fluid, constantly forming and reforming with holes and gaps that reveal it to be empty inside. It doesn’t appear as much in the game as one might like, but whenever it does appear, everything else stops.
It also cannot hurt you.
Nothing can, in fact; Gris is somewhat unusual in that it has no discrete fail state, and certainly no death state. When you fall, you often (but not always) have to climb back up. The little stars that you collect to progress in the game cannot be lost. When the creature attacks you, all it does is push you back. None of these are permanent fail states, and many of them are only minor inconveniences. You only lose if you quit the game.
This fact is necessary for defeating the ink monster the first time around, when it appears as a bird. In the preceding levels, the girl has gained the ability to fly and turn herself into a solid block that can’t be moved by the wind. The bird corners you in an old bell tower, screeching so loudly that it’ll blow you back as you try to progress. There are few options available, so eventually you may figure that the only way forward is to form yourself into a block and slowly march forward. You don’t even harm the bird, but resisting it seems to cause it damage.
Later, in my favorite sequence of the game, the girl gains the ability to turn herself into a manta ray and swim. Exploring the depths of the ocean, she’ll run into the ink creature again, this time in the form of a hydra-like giant eel. The eel chases you, splitting and re-forming with the winding undersea passageways. It will initially just snap at you if you lag, and as before, it cannot truly hurt you. You can actually set the controller down for this entire sequence and nothing adverse will happen, the eel’s snapping jaws propelling the girl forward until she lags behind again.
The final stretch of this sequence actively requires passivity, most unusual for any game, especially a platformer. The eel grows larger, stretching its maw further until it becomes a greater threat. There are few options open to you; the walls are all closed on the sides, and you have no combat abilities. You also have no stamina bar, so as long as you press forward, you’ll be able to outswim the eel, but only just. After the initial terror of the chase wears off and becomes routine, you’ll soon realize that swimming just ahead of the creature won’t progress the level. What else is there to do? Where else is there to go?
You allow the girl to be consumed by the eel, at which point it dissolves into hundreds of tinier eels and a glowing turtle emerges from within to guide you to the next level.
Part Three: Change
This game is short, which I like, but even so, even with sequences that are similarly brief, and a story that is simple and vague, Gris manages to come together as one of the most complete gaming experiences I’ve ever had. All of it — the animation, the character and world designs, the narrative, the mechanics, and the strategies necessary to complete the game, are loaded with meaning, and their meanings are often closely related.
You gain several powers over the course of the game, each associated with the landscape where you discovered the power. First is the block, which withstands sandstorms and bird cries alike and is the only ability associated with destruction. Next is flight, which seems to turn the girl partly into a bird herself, allowing her to leap great distances and glide. She then gains the manta ray ability, which allows her to swim in the depths freely and rapidly whenever she pleases, the only power that activates automatically, whenever she steps in water. The final power she learns is to sing, which illuminates lights and opens flower blossoms.
The mechanics of each world differ in association with these powers, the light world physically changed by objects within the girl’s song radius, the forest flighty and indecisive down to its vegetation. It isn’t difficult to imagine the world as a mental landscape, the statue representative of something important to the girl, perhaps even herself. The levels roughly mirror the five stages of grief, and the overall story weaves a tale of recovery. The ink creature is the main antagonist, but it too is the girl, perhaps even more than the statue. Its final form is of the girl herself, a distorted, hungry version. But it’s telling that the creature cannot ultimately harm her, that even when it covers her entirely, it cannot last that way for long.
The imagery that arises in the game, as well as surprising moments as new levels or mechanics emerge, evokes a lot of emotions, but often fuzzy emotions. Because we don’t know what, if anything, the elements of the game are meant to represent, we have no context for the girl’s actions. Is she scared of the ink monster? Maybe. The audience likely player her that way. She seems sad about it at times, blase at others. It affects her, and it seems to be mostly unpleasant, but she doesn’t ever destroy it, not fully.
The statue, likewise, is evocative, the main pull for the character throughout the story, but even once she rebuilds it, it still has cracks, and the girl’s story doesn’t end. Her tearful embrace seems like a farewell, as the final acts of the game require you to leave the statue and head into the unknown.
Gris is not for everyone, but it’s a testament to what the medium of games can accomplish. I wouldn’t call it easy, exactly, as it is still a platformer and requires a fair bit of execution finesse, but it’s a peaceful experience, full of wonders in every new region. The animation still floors me, but the colors and composition, the character designs, the world — it’s every bit as beautiful as a well-shot film or a poetic book. You’ll get out of its meaning what you want to see, which will vary from person to person, but both in its sum and its highlights, Gris is a worthwhile experience to try for yourself.