How Gris’ Gameplay Helps to Create an Affirmative Experience for People Who Have Struggled with Despair
Disclaimer: I am not a trained mental health professional, so everything in this article is just based on the personal experience of someone who has struggled with depression.
Video of Full gameplay, only watch if you don’t want to play it yourself. Still a beautiful experience if you only watch it, but obviously intended to be played.
Gris’ description on the steam store and on Nomada’s website is as follows:
“Gris is a hopeful young girl lost in her own world, dealing with a painful experience in her life. Her journey through sorrow is manifested in her dress, which grants new abilities to better navigate her faded reality. As the story unfolds, Gris will grow emotionally and see her world in a different way, revealing new paths to explore using her new abilities.
GRIS is a serene and evocative experience, free of danger, frustration or death. Players will explore a meticulously designed world brought to life with delicate art, detailed animation, and an elegant original score. Through the game light puzzles, platforming sequences, and optional skill-based challenges will reveal themselves as more of Gris’s world becomes accessible.
GRIS is an experience with almost no text, only simple control reminders illustrated through universal icons. The game can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of their spoken language.”
I put this description here because they do a better job of describing their game then I might hope to after only an hour of play. Despite only dipping my toes into the experience that is Gris, I already have so much praise and appreciation for this game. The way Gris’, the main character’s, experience resonates with me makes me feel like I am not the only one who has or is struggling, and being able to live through Gris’ positive progress allows me to see progress I make in new ways, from an outside perspective, but also as positive progress that I have had a hand in making.
Let me take a detour to discuss Nissenbaum and Flanagan’s Values at Play (VAP) approach to game design. Their primary goal in designing this approach is to encourage and facilitate game design that strives to present experiences with goals beyond fun gameplay in an industry whose common practices and design philosophies are not presently structured for it, and in which many games are based on harsh violence or competition. Not that those things are necessarily bad, but that the medium has so much potential for variety and ability to disseminate values whether designers are conscientious of the values in their final product or not (Nissenbaum and Flanagan, 2007, pp. 181–188).
Nissenhaum and Flanagan suggest designers incorporate these three stages into their design process:
1) Discovery: the activity in which designers “discover” and identify values relevant to their project.
2) Translation: the activity in which designers “translate” value considerations into architecture and features into game iterations; and
3) Verification: the activity in which designers verify that the values outcomes they sought have been realized in the game. (2007, p. 182)
While I am unaware what kinds of design discussions and processes went into making Gris, these stages serve as helpful reference points for analyzing why Gris is such a powerful experience for many players.
If I had to postulate the values the team creating Gris had, consciously or subconsciously, while designing the game, I would say: Mental Health and Resilience. Mostly because those two values are something, I found myself thinking about while I played. Obviously, the story is about a girl going through an unknown hardship, so it is easy to pick up on the fact that these values are being explored, but how does a game with no dialog or text explore these things in a way that is complex and affirmative?
Obviously, the art is a huge part of the visual and auditory experience, but I’d like to focus on the gameplay specifically. On how the developers translated their feelings about mental health and resilience into features of the game. When the game starts there is a short cutscene and then Gris falls to the ground. The player’s first input is to make Gris stand up. A choice to start moving, a choice to not be stagnant, but to change the situation. It is also a simple input, just one button press, but then you see the progress. At first the player moves slowly, and falls down a couple more times, but after Gris picks herself up a couple times, you start being able to run and jump.
As you progress further there are obstacles where the environment works against you and you just have to try again to progress, the game rewards your perseverance. There are also environmental obstacles where you can change something and then the environment starts working to help you. There are also environmental bottle necks where what you need to progress is obvious, but you aren’t quite sure how to get it or you need to plan ahead a little. These obstacles and the progression beats are very reminiscent of how it feels to progress your mental health in a world where some things are out of your control, some things that seem like hurdles can end up being helpful if you can change your perspective, and where some goals are long-term, but worth working toward.
You also cannot die in Gris. You cannot fail. You can slide backward, you can remain stagnant, and you can progress. While you can die or fail in real life, I think it is a helpful choice to not include that in an exploration of emotion. It might help people on similar journeys to Gris see their setbacks as setbacks rather than failures, which is a helpful reminder when even the smallest setback can feel devastating.
All of the goals and gameplay in Gris may sound similar to goals and gameplay in other games. I think that is a fair assessment. I imagine the feeling of accomplishment and progress one can experience when playing games, is exactly why they’ve been such a staple coping mechanism in my life. I like that Gris seems to combine gameplay and mental healing beats in a way that makes a lot of sense and in a story/world that brings mental health and resilience into the conscious mind, because rather than simply coping, I am now analyzing and identifying why watching Gris progress and progressing as Gris makes resonates with me and makes me feel like my experience with hardship is not mine alone.
Nomada website with links to purchase Gris on many platforms: Home — Nomada Studio
Flanagan, Mary, and Helen Nissenbaum. “A Game Design Methodology to Incorporate Social Activist Themes.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems — CHI ’07, 2007.