There’s a moment in Mary Poppins where, after the children and the magical nanny have leapt out of chalk artwork on London’s streets, the rain begins to pour. As a kid, and an adult, this moment always struck me with a kind of melancholy sadness as the colours bled into one another and ran across the concrete. The children, along with Mary and Bert all leave behind a wondrous experience filled with aural sensations and moments that will last forever. They will forever cherish those moments of exploration through a world bursting with colour – an aspect of life which always manages to translate light into a sense of emotion.
Something that GRIS manages to do so well, is eschew its French meaning; the word ‘grey’ has no place here. While aspects of the world you’ll explore are tinged with this shade, the word has more in common with mood, than hue. As the game opens, our female protagonist loses her ability to sing as the world drains of colour. She evokes a sense of sadness which must, in some way be ‘fixed’ by the player. She personifies the word ‘Gris’, she is grey. Her loss of voice matches her fall from the heavens and she must explore the ground below in order to commune with celestial statues and find her place among the stars again.
GRIS is hardly a game though. It features minor puzzles which might tax the brain for a short spell, but all in all, it shares a lot with the game ‘Journey’. This is an experience which takes you from point A to point B by jumping, sliding and soaring into the sky using a form of magic. Each of these abilities is unlocked over time along with colours which slowly bleed back into the world. Like the chalk artwork, water blends the colours together, creating a watercolour mosaic that will often cause you to pause. In the course of the game, which I played in small increments in order to savour it, I took around 200 screenshots.
Played in both handheld and docked, GRIS looks simply stunning. Our central character has a fairy-tale appeal in both looks and movement. She is fragile, her dress billowing around her – lost within a foreign world. The game is entirely minimalist and the controls, along with the overall aesthetic, echo that. There is no dialogue, no cut scenes, no narrative drive beyond what the player interprets themselves. The controls rely on just a few buttons; jump (which becomes a double jump later), a dash which arcs our character through water and an ability to form a solid block, which is the key to many puzzles.
Interaction with the environment is seen in rotating platforms, pulley systems, vanishing objects which require timing of jumps and wherever you see a patch of floating leaves, you can tap ‘jump’ to boost through the air. Much like the puzzles, the platforming doesn’t push you too much, yet it feels forever rewarding and satisfying. GRIS, despite the occasional bombastic scene, isn’t about bravado. Its focus is subtlety and scale. Capturing the sense of emotion is difficult because GRIS relies so much on kinetics. Even when you take a moment to stand still, tiny (and sometimes large) creatures skitter around you, freezing as you begin to move onwards again. Background details slowly tick along like a metronome as puffs of dust effervesce at your feet.
As this is a game built on such fragile foundations; to delve into the details too much would spoil the enjoyment of others. Some moments will make you smile, others may feel bittersweet and cause feelings of empathy and sadness to rush to the surface, no matter how this game makes you feel, you’ll always be glad you are feeling it. Whether fireflies are lighting your way, or you are admiring a palace in the reflective pools of water. Whether you’re gracefully leaping from dissolving trees or simply standing in the palm of a giant statue, GRIS will make you feel anything but grey.
So, as the closing moments began to tick away I felt that sadness akin to the fading of a memory; the running of a chalk drawing on a London street. It’s not just the comparison of water moving colours, but with the sense of something special happening. Something magical. GRIS captures imagination, the beauty of movement and the lustre of a sumptuous piece of art, all the while letting the player interact with it, making us feel both insignificant and yet ever more important.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital