Video games aren’t usually the first place most people look for emotional release. Plenty of games offer emotional depth, of course, but those often come after bouts of challenging gameplay or hours of narrative buildup. When you’ve had a bad day or work or gotten broken up with, it’s much easier to just sink into your couch and put on a movie to cry to.
The first game from Nomada Studio, Gris, breaks that mold. This short, not particularly challenging platformer won’t interrupt your catharsis with any major difficulty spikes, so you can focus on its story of overcoming trauma.
Gris is striking from the moment it begins, with its titular heroine perched in the hand of a giant stone statue. In the hand-drawn opening scene awash with watercolor blues, yellows, and reds, she stands and sings before the statue cracks and her voice catches in her throat. As the statue falls apart, Gris tumbles an impossible distance, landing in a black-and-white desert.
If it isn’t clear yet, Gris isn’t a game concerned about presenting a literal, concrete version of reality. Its wordless story eschews any traditional notion of plot, instead following Gris on a journey that’s purely metaphorical and open to interpretation.
That fact got Gris some criticism when it was released in 2018, but in my mind, it’s to the game’s credit. Loss and recovery are everywhere in video games. Sometimes they’re implicit in gameplay as you grow in power, and other times they’re explicit parts of a game’s story. When games do want to focus on topics as weighty as trauma and mental health, they tend to lean heavily on representing their specifics (often with a near-sadistic focus on pain) rather than depicting how they feel to experience.
Gris leans hard in the other direction. Its heroine’s journey is set in motion by her fall from a colossal statue; it’s not exactly a relatable experience, but the way color, music, and even her identity seem to fade away afterward may feel familiar to anyone who’s been through depression or grief of their own.
Back in that monochrome desert, Gris trudges on, her bright blue hair providing the only color on screen. The music is sparse, a tinkling piano song that spurs her through the barren landscape.
This first area serves as a brief tutorial, introducing Gris’ simple core gameplay. Across the world, you’ll pick up tiny scattered lights, which you can use to form bridges or unlock doors. Each area has its own environmental twists to complicate the platforming and Gris herself learns a few new movement abilities, but it remains simple and approachable throughout.
As Gris explores the world, it begins to fill with color and life. First, the desert fills with red watercolor clouds, and birds dot the sky again. In this still mostly desolate area, abandoned but functional machines serve as signs that life once existed.
Later stages introduce blue and green, along with more creatures swimming, flying, and crawling across the screen. The music likewise changes, adding more instruments and swelling from the timid sounds of the first stage to overwhelming orchestral tracks.
Without complex gameplay or story to share the spotlight, Gris does everything it can to push its artistic limits. It’s full of intense, driving music to underscore the drama or heroism of each major scene. Visually, it’s even more inventive, using pools of color to represent its heroine’s emotions and blending elements of painting and traditional cel animation. The camera frequently pulls back, offering you a zoomed-out landscape of Gris’ gorgeous environment in which your character is just a tiny speck.
Although Gris only lasts a few hours, it’s stayed with me since I first played it years ago. Dramatic scenes where your character’s emotions take the form of predatory animals certainly leave an impression, but so do smaller details like the movements of fish in the background and the masterful use of color in environments.
Gris isn’t the only game that’s gotten me out of a depressive slump in my life, but it may be the most pleasant to revisit. While the punishing difficulty of games like Dark Souls and Celeste can be motivating, putting yourself through a meat grinder isn’t always what you need. If you’re looking for a gorgeous story of self-renewal you can finish in a single long night, you won’t find a better option than Gris.
Gris is available now on Xbox Game Pass. It’s also available to purchase for PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch.