Gris is a side-scrolling independent platformer with impressive visuals, an excellent musical score and a vague, artful story. It stars a lone young woman and features minimalist menus and text. If this all sounds very familiar, that’s understandable. However, it forces us to ask the awkward question: in 2019, is that enough?
The things Gris does well, it does very well. The animation is genuinely superb and the world is beautifully drawn. Colour is used expertly to show a visual change in the world as the story progresses. The music is emotional and exquisite and the controls are smooth.
Those controls, while perfectly functional, are ultimately not used to do very much. This isn’t a platformer in the sense of tense, difficult precision nor in a clever, puzzle-based way. It isn’t even an exploratory, Metroidvania kind of an experience, as the way forward is generally quite obvious and linear.
What we’re left with is an experience which is mostly quite boring. Towards the end, an encounter with a big creature adds a little pace and excitement, but the low difficulty and vague stakes mean any sense of danger or tension is skin-deep at best. Floaty, easy jumps and simplistic puzzles barely distract from an exercise in holding right on the analogue stick.
What it boils down to is a two-dimensional equivalent of something like Journey or, to use a phrase I generally try to avoid, a walking simulator. This isn’t automatically a bad thing. An interesting or well-told story can use simplistic game mechanics well, and something like Passage shows that there can be a lot of emotion and meaning in a very basic scroll to the side. With Gris, though, I’m not sure there is anything below the pretty surface.
Speaking of that pretty surface, it is not without its problems. The player character is a lovingly drawn young woman, who floats and sings and dances like the textbook female player character. She explores a world of magnificent but broken architecture, littered with towers and temples and statues.
Statues and statues upon statues of, barring a few early exceptions, the naked female form. Now I am well aware that the history of our world’s art is full of statuary of exactly this type. I am certainly not unfamiliar with the beauty of the female form. The context of art history merely shows how unexciting a design philosophy this is. The comedian Hannah Gadsby, in her Netflix special Nanette, described the history of art as a history of men painting women like flesh vases for their dick flowers.
Art is tied to money and power and subsequently men. There’s a reason art museums are full of naked ladies, often without those silly unnecessary limbs and heads. Reflecting this tired idea of “high art” isn’t rebellious and ambitious and interesting, it’s tedious and misogynistic. This isn’t a strong female character, this is an old fashioned image of women in games as desirable objects. This is Lara Croft through a pretentious Instagram filter.
Gris naturally attracts comparison with the other big, emotional, side-scrolling indie platformer starring a young red-headed woman from the opposite end of 2018: Celeste. The two games are offering very different experiences, and other than superficial similarities and the year of their release, perhaps the comparison is invalid.
The point of comparison which I think does stand is that every aspect of Celeste had a purpose, was about something. The mechanics and story were exquisitely intertwined to make the player feel a genuine emotion and follow Madeline on a journey. The sound and visuals used simple building blocks to express something beautiful. Gris, on the other hand, feels like it does everything it does simply to move towards a simple, ill-defined ideal of “artistic”.
That brings us back to my original question: is this textbook, box-ticking idea of “artistic”, with its male gaze and basic, manipulative attempts to draw out an unearned emotional response, still worth automatically celebrating or does gaming as a medium, and we as a culture, ought to demand more?
By Luke Summerhayes