Promotional image showing the protagonist and the weeping woman.

Gris is a game about death (of the author)

The first thing you’ll notice about the video game Gris (Nomada Studio, December 2018) is that it looks like a painting. Watercolor splotches and pastel inkspills craft a beautiful world of geometric ruins and elegantly branching trees. Although not particularly challenging mechanically, it’s always a joy to behold.

The game is pretty clearly about grief and loss. The player character is a young girl, who I will assume is named Gris despite never being confirmed as such. As she explores her world (symbolically processing her grief), it becomes more colorful and Gris moves with more speed and grace. The music — piano, strings, choir — is soaring and emotionally raw. The entire game passes wordlessly. Throughtout the world there are towering, crumbling statues of a weeping woman, and it’s unclear if she is Gris’s friend, sister, mother, an aspect of herself, or some other variation.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in experiencing, then go buy and play it. Spoiler warning, in the vernacular.

Gris’s narrative is split into five sections that reflect the five stages of grief. You might pick up on that thematically, or you may find the secret actions in each section that unlock an achievement named for that stage. What you might not know is that these stages were first applied not the mourners, but to the terminally ill patient. So it’s not even clear who is dead or dying: is Gris mourning someone and eventually going to go live her life, or is she accepting her own death? Is this painted world a representation of her grief, or her hallucinating in a coma?

The wonderful thing about this game is that all of these explanations are valid. At the end of my first playthrough, I felt convinced that the weeping woman was “supposed” to be Gris’s lover (these blue-haired artsy types are all lesbians, right?), but I defiantly chose to interpret the game as Gris having conquered her own doubts and fears. The game doesn’t develop the character of the weeping woman at all, so introducing another person felt superfluous to me. But that’s just my reading; each player has the right to devise their own interpretation.

(Contrast with Monument Valley 2, which is explicitly about a mother and a daughter. The former has to let go as the latter goes on a journey of growth and maturity. The game can actually reflect this in its mechanics; the daughter follows and mirrors her mother before moving on her own. At the end, you feel like you know each character, beyond their generic parent/child roles.)

Except… Gris actually does tell you who the weeping woman is. I won’t spoil it, but if you collect all of the optional hidden collectibles, and find a room hidden in plain sight, there’s a short scene that reveals her identity. You are extremely unlikely to find all of these collectibles on your first playthrough, so you will experience a very ambiguous story and chose your own interpretation based on the rest of the game. Nothing else in the story ever teases the identity of the weeping woman or promises a reveal. It appears to be deliberately ambiguous; you made your own interpretation because you were invited to do so. That’s how these “art games” work, right?

There’s a concept in literary theory called death of the author, which states that a work or text should stand on its own. Any material outside or around the text, called the paratext, is irrelevant in understanding the text. (Lindsay Ellis has a hilarious and quite self-aware video on it.)

Gris’s hidden scene is technically part of the text, but it’s also hidden so well that it feels more like paratext. In practice, most people will never see the hidden scene without consulting some kind of guide or reading an analysis like this one, both of which are paratext. Visually, the scene also feels incongruous — its dozen roughly-sketched color images fading into one another clash with the fluid watercolor animation found in the rest of the work. Deciding how authoritative or canonical this scene is, is therefore… tricky. It’s as if, on rereading a novel, you discover two pages had stuck together, revealing new information that completely recontextualizes the rest of the book.

The hidden scene is therefore troubling because it feels like the author is coming back from the dead to say, no, you are wrong. But not only did the author intend on this scene, they deliberately made it difficult to find. It’s almost as if they included all of the hidden collectibles to only add replay value, and then needed to come up with a reward for doing so. This could be an example of the video game format, and its need for replayability, compromising the artistic integrity of the work in a way unique to this medium.

Regardless, Gris presents a memorable and ultimately hopeful story. It is also cautionary tale about clarifying and standardizing what was best left ambiguous and personal.