The Grief In Gray And The Rage In Red
A journey through human emotions told through the colors of a video game
She walks across the top of a broken building made of white marble. She reaches the edge and jumps down to the red sands below. To her surprise, the ground has a sharp incline and she finds herself gliding through a massive reddish-brown landscape. Her skirt catches the vibrant crimson hues of the scene as the wind flows through it in sublime motion. The silence is broken by warm music that swells with hope, yearning and excitement as the sun rises behind her, turning her into a dusky silhouette. The camera zooms out and you notice that the incline is about to curve upwards. She is launched into a turmoil of dust and clouds as she goes into free fall. Yet, she emerges from it all, the sun centering around her body in the background as she plummets towards the unseen ground. The music reaches its crescendo and we finally glimpse the level rocky bridge she is headed towards. With a flutter of her dress to slow the impact, she makes an elegant landing just as the ending note of the mellow musical piece reaches you.
This sequence of events is one of many that left me in a state of wondrous joy and astonishment in a roughly five-hour run through of Gris. Released back in December 2018, the game immediately caught my eye for its fluid visual art style and the glorious musical masterpieces that accompanied it. Finally, amidst the global quarantine, I found the time to sit down and enjoy this piece of art from start to finish. Going in, I expected to be blown away by the beauty of the game owing to my ardent love for minimalism and vibrant color palettes. However, what stayed with me long after I watched the credits roll was the candid, vulnerable and sometimes scary exploration of human emotion that the game sets out on, and its portrayal of the wars we fight within ourselves.
Using the power of symbolism, Gris effortlessly manages to tell a story of fighting through loss, depression, anxiety and trauma. The young girl that we follow throughout the stunningly crafted levels has no dialogues to say or speech bubbles to fill. Yet, her tale manages to resonate with the deepest recesses of my being, reminding me of what it means to be human.
The word ‘Gris’ actually translates to gray in Spanish, and that is where the game opens. We are introduced to our protagonist, sitting on a large palm made of stone. She slowly rises above the surface and starts singing an almost hauntingly beautiful tune. We see that in this scene, there are splotches of color all over; in her hair, in the stone and even in the sky behind her. However, I immediately realize that something is amiss as I notice the numerous cracks running along the stone. Suddenly, her voice cracks and she is unable to sing anymore. She falls on to the palm as the cracks widen until finally, the entire structure shatters, leaving her plummeting towards the ground.
This shows us the exact moment in which denial gives in to despair. She was singing as though everything was alright, ignoring the deteriorating state of the stone statue until the weight of reality was too much to bear. The statue here could be symbolically interpreted in many ways. It could be a personification of her current state of mental health, barely holding together. Another popular interpretation is that the opening scene represents the loss of her mother, which is alluded to in a hidden scene later on. However you choose to look at it, it represents a critical turning point in the story of our protagonist — one that sends her spiraling into the depths of despair.
She lands in a world devoid of all color. Save for her hair, every misshapen stone, crumbling building and leafless tree is rendered in grayscale. She is shocked at first, unable to get up from where she lands. Yet, she slowly picks herself up, dries her tears and sets off to explore this new place she finds herself in. She walks through the crumbling remains of several stone structures until she finds a glowing white orb. This orb proceeds to follow her wherever she goes and becomes an important gameplay mechanism later on.
She proceeds to collect more of the floating orbs until she reaches a point where she cannot proceed because of the large distance to be covered. The orbs suddenly fly out in front of her and ‘connect the dots’ to create a pathway for her to tread on. This leads me to understand that the orbs could perhaps be representations of the core ideals upon which our personalities are built. They could be character traits or life-changing moments that shape the person you are today. Even in darkest of times, they become your pillars of strength, showing you the way forward even when you fail to see one.
Our protagonist continues on her journey of exploration until she finds what appears to be the broken, crumbling palm that had fallen with her from the sky. It serves as a reminder of her tragedy, triggering a sudden flow of emotion and pain. The music swells with a melancholy note as she rises into the air, shutting her eyes with her hands, until an explosion of red slowly takes over the screen, painting the landscape in what looks like splotches of blood.
Red here could represent rage in its purest form. She could be angry at herself for not being strong enough to prevent this situation from happening. Or perhaps, she could be channeling her anger towards the external world, for being unfair and cruel to her. Anger and hatred of oneself and others is one of the most understandable ways of dealing with grief. We try to overpower the sadness with rage so that we can find someone to put the blame on. We also hope that the feeling of hatred will be able to eclipse the sorrow which lies beneath and hope that it makes things easier to deal with.
She continues on her journey to reach a very elaborate structure that stretches far and wide. I like to think that this building represents the very center of our protagonist’s inner existence. The glowing orbs shoot out towards the sky above the building to form a small part of what looks like a giant constellation. This is where we establish what we’re working towards — filling up the constellation so that we can create a metaphorical staircase back to where we fell from.
This not only creates a way to track progression but also makes the end goal seem like it is something that is in fact achievable, provided we put in the effort.
These are two very important steps to remember when we undertake pretty much any task in this world. Up next comes the sequence described at the beginning of the article, which serves as an interesting expansion to the meaning behind the color red.
Red, I realize, can also signify bravery and the courage to let go and see where the world takes you.
She continues ahead from the bridge she landed on and quickly finds herself in the middle of a relentless sand storm which is strong enough to blow her away. The entire screen turns blood red as the music picks up its pace as she is sent tumbling backwards.
These storms could be representative of panic attacks or sudden bursts of negative emotion that could overwhelm us completely. The most important insight I gained from this section was that these frightful events don’t last forever. If you don’t move forward when the wind stops blowing and stay in the same place, you’ll end up never actually making any progress.
The lesson here is that when the situation is dire, one should lie low and wait for the storm to pass, but one shouldn’t be scared of stepping out on a sunny day for fear of the looming rain clouds.
After trudging through more of the desert, we come across a sort of shrine which unlocks the first ability of the game. I was admittedly amused by the sudden turn of events whereby the delicate, elegant girl could now at will turn herself into a solid cube that could break through certain fragile platforms.
Then, the storm came once again and I instinctively pressed the key to use the ability. To my utter delight, I find that the storm no longer pushes her back. Instead, she’s actually able to take slow, powerful steps forward even as the wind howls and screams across the sands. Braving the storm so many times, I realize, has now given rise to a natural immunity within her. The protagonist is not just someone who is an emotional wreck who always struggles in the face of a threat. She has the strength and willpower to grow; she can stand her ground and be as immovable as a mountain.
Gris, I realize, is not just a journey of understanding and appreciating the different emotions we possess but also about the importance of keeping those emotions in check in the situations that require you to.
Our protagonist moves on to find a destructible platform underneath a large bell. The platform gives way to a seemingly bottomless pit that sees her fall into the deepest, darkest part of her inner world.
This space could represent a graveyard of forgotten sorrows and tragedies as can be seen by the weeping, crumbling statues. This is quite literally a visual metaphor of her hitting rock bottom. Beneath her feet, we see a reflection of herself surrounded by winged creatures fluttering about; a manifestation of the darkness and fear that we all carry locked away within. She is unable to leave this realm of grief until the winged creatures finally cross into the upper world. They gather around her and shoot upwards until they reach the red sky, carrying our protagonist along with them.
Down in this chamber is where she has locked away her fear and grief. Yet, we see that constantly suppressing these emotions and playing prison guard for her negativity is ironically equivalent to locking herself away.
She finally decides that she feels strong enough to no longer run from the fear, darkness and grief that plague her. She is ready to face these issues head on and deal with the consequences of living with them in her world above.
Gris makes the bold statement that living in constant fear of your negative emotions is not living at all.
You can buy Gris on several platforms including Steam, the Google Play Store, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Mac to experience the game for yourself. All credits for the gameplay screenshots go to Devolver Digital and Nomada Studios.