After finishing up Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice recently, I got a bit of a hankering to play through some short (maybe) story games. Next up for me was Gris. I had it in my library already. In fact, I’d picked it up during the summer sale on recommendation from a friend and just hadn’t got around to it yet.
Once I did though, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in a single sitting. Fortunately that only meant around 3 hours, but it still put me to bed on the wrong side of 2am. (Yay holidays!)
I thought next I would tackle Plague Tale: Innocence. (Incidentally, another Steam Award winner — for ‘Outstanding Story-Rich Game’.) I’ve been quite enjoying these shorter-form story games. But uh… Then right at the end of the Steam sale I also made the plunge into the PC version of Red Dead Redemption 2. That’s the farthest thing from ‘short’ story game I can probably get. But ah well. Today! Today we’re here for Gris.
But perhaps calling Gris a ‘story game’ is a bit off. There is certainly a story being told. But beyond the broad strokes, it is utterly open to interpretation.
As a spoiler warning of sorts — I do plan to talk about my interpretation of the story starting below. If you still haven’t played Gris and would like to without someone else’s impressions colouring your own — you might want to skip the rest for now.
Good. Here goes.
The Story of Gris — As I Interpreted it
The official description of the game provides the start, and context: Gris is a hopeful young girl lost in her own world, dealing with a painful experience in her life. Her journey through sorrow is manifested in her dress, which grants new abilities to better navigate her faded reality.
In the game itself, the ‘levels’ are broken down to align to the five stages of grief (aka the Kübler-Ross model). Each unlocks additional abilities — starting with simply solidifying into a rock allowing you to stand strong against the blasting winds.
As you gain new abilities and means of dealing with your grief, colour starts returning to the world.
Jumping back though — the game opens with Gris standing on the palm of a statue of a woman. Then the statue breaks apart. Shatters. Starting Gris on her journey. The statue of this woman is a recurring icon throughout the game.
The first interpretation I came away with was that this statue represents Gris’ mother. And that her mother’s passing is the cause of this journey.
It wasn’t until much nearer the end that an alternate theory started to coalesce. As you move through the game, and colours one-by-one return to the palate… Well, let me show you.
Gris’ mother didn’t pass. You do. Well- Gris does. The Kübler-Ross model was initially designed with terminal patients in mind. Though it is broadly accepted as the stages of grief more generally now, so it could fit either narrative.
There are parts which, frustratingly, I didn’t seem to take screenshots of. The bird ‘boss’ (you never actually ‘fight’ anything, nor can you ‘die’ in a gameplay sense) for example shows the bird made of an oily-fluid substance.
At the time — before I started down the path of believing Gris was the one in the process of passing — I thought it reflected a necessary adversity. Because while it seemed to be acting against you, keeping you away from where you wanted to be — it was also undeniable that you couldn’t get where you needed to go without it.
Then came the sequence of flying up alongside it, and I wasn’t sure it was your ‘enemy’ at all.
…But it came back. Or at least the oily force behind it did. In the underwater sections (which I don’t have a single shot of!) it returns as — at first — a giant eel. It seeks to devour you and is very clearly not in any way looking out for you.
As the chase continues, you swim into narrower and narrower branching passages. The eel splits to chase. The branches becoming more analogous to arteries, possibly. Before making an apparent escape and bursting out — the eel splits into hundreds of tiny ones. They’re everywhere, completely overrunning everything.
It’s after this scene you enter the more heavenly areas of the game.
Despite the subdued palate again — this comes after ascending the celestial stair.
I wonder if it might throw my interpretation to the wind, showing what I thought to be the woman in the statue at final rest.
And it might be.
What I wondered though, was whether this was a representation of Gris laying her future to rest. That the lady at rest here is her. Or what she might have been, if this sickness hadn’t taken her. This level represents acceptance.
I can’t be sure I’m right. The ‘obvious’ answer may well still be the correct one here. I find that difficult to reconcile with Gris herself making the heavenward journey — but not impossible.
It’s a game rife with metaphor after all.