My sense of self worth is never lower than it is when I'm in an art museum. When faced with a piece of art I lose all confidence, simply because its value is entirely subjective. Art is always open to interpretation—that’s what’s so key about it—and so there’s always a fear of ending up on the other side of the fence from the crowd, running the risk of "not getting it," so to speak.
I have similar thoughts about Gris, the beautiful 2D platformer from Barcelona-based Nomada Studio, that’s not unlike an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern. Back when I was younger (and full of hope) I made the journey up to the museum countless times in the hope of seeing something new and different. But one time, someone had put together a display of hundreds of white boxes, all scattered on top of one another and around the display area.
This incurred a number of feelings. “What the hell is this?” is the first one that springs to mind; “Am I the idiot for not getting it?” another. There’s no way to know that you are “getting it” when you’re looking at a piece of art. Remember how your high school English teacher had you drill down into every single word from a passage in a book, painfully trying to work out the author's meaning in the words? “The curtains are blue.” Is blue a metaphor for the feelings of a character? Or are the curtains just fucking blue?
With Gris, the feeling of uncertainty appears once again. Aside from the fact that it’s a platformer, with your near-silent protagonist bounding over mountains and ruins, it's hard to know what else to say, because literally everything else can be interpreted in several different ways. Our leading lady wakes up in the gigantic hand of an unseen figure, before the entire structure collapses, sending her plummeting back down to Earth. From there, it’s a journey to put the color back into the world—literally—as our protagonist goes around instilling vibrant reds, blues, and greens into the picturesque world.
The colors in Gris match up to the elements that they represent. You’re going after the color green for the forest-filled backdrop for one area, and it’s only after a long journey that you’ll finally obtain the color, with our silent character emitting an ear shattering scream to force it back into the world. This is about as close to a concrete ‘story’ as Gris gets. I don’t really mind that Gris lacks an actual narrative that I can follow because, once again, sometimes art is best left open to interpretation. I’m not going to scream “But what does it all mean?!” like I’m part of a YouTube movie-ending breakdown, because I’m just fine being taken along for this artsy ride.
Gris is a stunner to look at, there’s no denying that. But underneath the immaculate art direction, the painted world and the stirring score, there’s a pretty average platforming game. Gris primarily features two mechanics: jumping and shapeshifting, whereby our silent protagonist can temporarily switch into a large cube. The former of these is a joy to use for the first half hour, until you realize that the platforming mechanics aren’t going to be built upon in any way for the rest of the journey. Nomada Studio hasn’t got any hidden tricks up its sleeve with Gris’ platforming, and aside from gaining the ability to jump twice in a row without touching the ground, there’s really no other development in the platforming side of things.
That doesn’t prevent the game from having temporarily heart pounding moments. There’s one standout battle (or as close to a battle as you can get without combat) that Gris’ protagonist has with a shapeshifting crow atop a belltower. The encounter with the crow makes use of both the jumping and shapeshifting mechanics in harmony, as you have to shapeshift into a block to avoid being blown off the tower, while working your way perilously close to the bird to activate a platform underneath its beak. It’s just a shame that there aren’t more moments of genuine peril in Gris, where mechanics and aesthetic work together.
A week or so removed from playing Gris, I don’t know what I’ll remember it for, if at all. Gris feels like it almost belongs in a museum, with crowds marvelling at its art and sound for a few minutes, before moving on to something else. There's moments of beautiful brilliance in Gris, all of which is dragged down by a decidedly average platforming game.