12 Days of Christmas #7: Grief, Loneliness and Meditations on a Rainy Day (1)

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Ever since I started playing Breath of the Wild last year, it’s been very difficult for me to get into video games. I’ve tried playing a bit of DeltarunePersona 5, and other games, but none of them have seemed to stick. A lot of this I think, is due to lifestyle changes – I’ve become more focused on my career and spending time away from the internet and trying to discover new things in my life. Another part of it is also due to the fact that in some ways, these games emphasize, rather than detract, a sense of loneliness and impatience in me. (Or it could just be that League of Legends has ruined me forever in terms of the exact intensity and frame of time to get into a video game)

Last week, a game called Gris released. I had kept my eye on it for a while ever since a coworker recommended the trailer to me, and so I was quite excited to give it a try. Others had mentioned it as a “side scrolling Journey-esque game” and while I could see that from the images and demos, it still seemed something more personal and different.  I was curious nonetheless, and decided to give it a try. When the game dropped, it was pouring rain. I opened the door to my patio and sat impatiently as Gris loaded on my Switch, and then proceeded to play five and a half hours of one of the most gorgeous games I have ever seen in my life.

Gris is no doubt, aesthetically wonderful. It plays like poetry, allowing you to draw your own personal meaning from minimalistic imagery and interaction. Instead of being overwhelmed with moving bits and pieces across the screen, it focuses on the quiet and the still. Smoke bellows through deep red ink blobs. Pieces of pottery tremble as you quietly pass by them. And the sky – oh the sky, it extends and sweeps, blanketing you in darkness, and in spirit, as you traverse through levels of grief.

Gris is a lot about grief, but specifically, it’s about a woman going through grief. This is incredibly important of a detail since so many video games this year have been about loss from a male-dominant perspective. God of War for instance, is a fantastic game and all around one of the best AAA games I’ve played this year, but it’s heavily throttled by  existential masculinity. Red Dead Redemption leads you through a cowboy’s pain and, well, redemption. Tomb Raider travels with Lara Croft, but recklessly portray her injury, recklessness and struggle as an empowerment of victory. Very few games offer meditation on loss, and far less focus on the importance of making peace with it.

One of my favorite things about Gris is how it easily translates moments of vulnerability. The first few moments of the game are about wrenching away any sense of agency from both you, the player, and the main character. You watch her fall. You watch her crumple into the sand. I pressed multiple buttons, almost thinking I had broken the game. I hadn’t – I had just struggled with the concept of her, being broken.

But then she gets up, and the first action you can perform, is breathe.  It is a very small moment; her chest rises, her back arches a little as she gasps for breathe and tries to stabilize. Does it serve any purpose to the gameplay? No. But throughout the game, I pressed that action over and over again. It rooted me. It wasn’t just a way of showing me that throughout her journey, the main character was still robbed of voice; it was a harrowing reminder of the constant silence I – and no doubt, many women – have had to endure for years while we suffer the torture of living in our current society. Of living with ourselves, and beating against the tide of loss, loneliness, pain, and sheer grief.  No game has ever translated such a simple concept so powerfully and elegantly.

Some reviews have found Gris to be self-indulgent, pretentious, obtuse, and oversimplified. I couldn’t disagree more. In a landscape where mental health, vulnerability, meditation, and especially women’s stories are ignored and often misused in less than respectful ways, Gris is a breath of fresh air, visually and narratively. It stuck with me that rainy day, and even now, I think about its mesmerizing and heartbreaking splendor of value.

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