Developed by: Nomada Studio
Published by: Devolver Digital
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC
In recent years, platformers have proven to be a hospitable genre for video game developers looking to flaunt their artistry. For the generation of designers who grew up playing “Super Mario Bros.” platformers offer a sound formula. Though the goal of such games is usually to get from one area to the next, that framework supports copious possibilities. Determining how a character moves through a world and what sorts of things should impede or assist in the process allows plenty of room for creativity. It is why games like “Journey” and “Inside” can both be constructed around jumping avatars but otherwise appear quite distinct. Both of these renowned games are cited by the developers at the small, Barcelona-based Nomada Studio as being influential to their work. A line can be drawn between the high artistic ambitions of those earlier games and Nomada Studio’s first game, “Gris.” — a platformer that stands as one of the most visually arresting games of this or any other year.
“Gris” (which means “gray” in Spanish) is a game about bringing color and song to the world. It is also about loss, pain, and endurance. It starts with a mystical young woman singing in the open palm of an otherworldly statue. Briefly, she is lifted into the air by the current of her song, but her exaltation ends after she loses her voice. She falls into the statue’s hand, which fractures beneath her; so, she falls again, tumbling down in the sky. The woman finds herself in a world whose only feature is a black line running along the bottom of the screen which demarcates foreground and background. (Her misery is readily apparent: a tap of a button causes her to slump to the ground.) As she walks, faint lines emerge in the background giving the environment more depth. The woman rouses herself from her torpor as the background gives way to more definite shapes — from rocky outcroppings to architectural ruins. By the time she gains the ability to jump it’s clear that the game is fashioned around giving players a strong aesthetic experience constructed around the expressive ability of lines, shapes, and colors.
Guiding the woman further into the black and white world, one discovers a floating orb. Approaching the orb sets it in motion. It hovers around the woman when she is standing still and trails her like a little comet or a gigantic sperm cell when she is darting about. Seeking out orbs is a vital part of the game. Acquire enough of them and they can build bridges in the air that appear like constellations. They can also unlock things. Collecting orbs typically requires solving none-too-vexing puzzles and platforming challenges. The relaxed gameplay meshes well with the beautiful art design. I lingered over many sections of the game as I might if I were touring a gallery. “Gris” owes its visual style to Conrad Roset, the game’s creative director, who came to the project from the art world. One can only hope that his example encourages other artists to explore the medium.
As the woman advances further, the black and white color palette shifts to red, then green, then blue, etc. Changes of this sort occur after the woman comes across open-palmed statues. (Female statues posed in anguish constitute one of the visual motifs in the game.) Rising into the air, the protagonist balls herself up, placing her head in her hands, and from out of that posture she infuses new colors into the world. These shifts in color are so emotionally resonant that they reminded me of the visual strategy at the heart of the films in Kieślowski’s “Three Colours Trilogy.” In a forest area, there are platforms that ripple between squares and triangles, respectively, making for aerial floors and steps. Later in the game, in its blue period so to speak, one can swim among blocks of water arranged like an ascending row of treetops. “Gris” forgoes the use of game-over screens while still sporting a nice challenge curve. There are optional orbs or mementos to collect that require a bit of sleuthing to uncover.
I welcomed the chapter select feature that unlocks after completing the game so that I could search for the mementos that I missed. Such is the quality of “Gris’s” visual art that replaying it struck me as a mandatory indulgence. I think the entirety of its composition demands to be seen.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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