Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium. Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.
People often describe despair as an all-consuming black hole. Whilst that may be its crushing final act, for many people I suspect grey is a more appropriate colour than black. Rather than an oppressive force, it has a tendency to drain away the colour from the world, so that it loses its joy, its allure, and its meaning. Gris wordlessly explores this concept, following a strong-willed woman standing against the fears, doubts and depression that plague her mind.
“I slipped into a state beyond my usual grief and restlessness and anxiety and despair — one of not feeling anything at all. And when I felt nothing I became almost nostalgic for the grief; at least when you felt pain you knew you were still alive. I had tried to fight this, forcing myself into life and noise. I had gone, on my own, to a few of the new music halls, always sitting near the front, right in the heart of the noise and laughter, and I laughed or sang along, trying to feel some of the joy that filled the room. But I was immune.”Matt Haig, How to Stop Time
At a basic level, Gris is a 2D platformer in which progression is marked by restoring colours, one at a time, to an initially greyscale world. It is rendered as a flat cartoon against a layered, parallax scrolling background with swirling inks. The beautiful world is striking in both its initial stark simplicity and its colourfully detailed ultimate form. More impressive, however, is the inner struggle communicated solely through its mechanics.
The eponymous protagonist awakes in the palm of a crumbling statue that acts as a clear analogue to her own eroded sense of self. Gris tries to sing out but chokes up, the statue’s hand crumbling and dropping her to the earth below. She trudges through a grey world, hunched body language conveying her emotional state. She is buffeted by winds that rise and dwindle, forcing her to hide behind structures to avoid being blown backward, undoing her progress.
“There are many fools, Sorwa, men who conceive hearts in simple terms, absolute terms. They are insensible to the war within, so they scoff at it, they puff out their chests and they pretend. When fear and despair overcome them, as they must overcome us all, they have not the wind to think… and so they break.”King Harweel, The Judging Eye (R. Scott Bakker)
After a time she gains the ability to turn herself into a squared off, stone block. This cartoonish power serves not only to allow Gris to explore further by breaking through cracked floors when falling from a height, but the additional weight allows her to withstand strong winds without needing extrinsic cover. The metaphor for resilience is clear: Gris is learning to become more robust. You are not saving this woman; she is saving herself. The wind then shifts from an oppressive challenge to an enabling experience as Gris begins to use vertical gusts of wind to access new areas, previously out of reach.
There is a button that, throughout the game, does nothing but cause Gris to exhale in a plaintive sigh. The sound design is real and touching, as pointless as this feature seems to be. However, once Gris has recovered the world’s colour, the same button unexpectedly serves an entirely new purpose as that sigh is replaced by song. We realise that this button has always represented her voice: muted and weak at first, but now rediscovered and liberated. With this discovery, her voice restores life to the world, causing trees to grow and flourish, carrying her higher.
It is the rediscovery of her voice that allows Gris finally to combat the formless, inky blackness that has been pursuing her. Her earlier attempts at passive evasion merely to survive now become a defiant challenge. This antagonist adopts at times the more stereotypical mental health motifs of a huge black bird, squawking angrily, and a giant face capable of swallowing Gris whole. When this finally happens, Gris finds herself ascending a tower to escape a rising ocean of toxic black sludge. As Gris sings, her statue self reforms and, moments before Gris succumbs to the rising tide, the statue sings back. This song banishes the creature and the sea of despair.
“Most things fail with age. Our hands and backs stiffen. Our eyes dim. Skin roughens and our beauty fades. The only exception is the voice. Properly cared for, a voice does nothing but grow sweeter with age and constant use.”Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear
The transition from a sigh to a song represents, to me, a shift from a sense of despair to one of hope. Gris’ ability once more to hope forges positive changes in the world around her. However, finding her voice is not itself the end of the game. It is a tool, and it needs to be taken actively out into the world and shared in order for it to change. Hoping for change is not an excuse not to act. Hope is a reason for not ceasing to act through despair.