Gris and Gaminess

Gris is available on Nintendo Switch and PC.

It’s hard to deny that Gris is nothing short of a fantastic game – and I don’t mean that in a “review-score” way, but more in the traditional way; that it’s gorgeous, poignant, and transportative with its gorgeous visual composition, ethereal soundscape, fever-dream-like sequences, and wordless communication. This is absolutely one of those works that fans will be pointing to as evidence for the “Are Games Art?” discussion that I’m sure will continue for years yet.

Unfortunately, its myriad positive points in that field can feel compromised at times by Gris’ seemingly-obligatory affordances to its format.

Namely, achievements and collectibles.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably much more affected by this than the average bear. From cutting my teeth on the player-driven pacing of early Pokémon and wringing all the value possible out of the half-dozen games I had back at the time, I’ve long been of the habit of fully exploring every nook and cranny available to me, and to undertaking every little sidequest and challenge on offer. Completionism is a hard thing to shake once it’s ingrained in you, but it’s certainly not the way that everybody plays, and so the point of this may not hit as hard with everyone.

But personally? The presence of non-narrative objectives was my one hang-up with Gris.

Gris is the kind of thing that wants you to play it front-to-back. It’s short – designed for playing in a single three-hour sitting – and its five acts feed into one another so seamlessly that you often feel like you’re on a single path from the game’s opening moments to its conclusion. (You’re even prevented from moving backwards into previous “levels”, but I’ll circle back to that.) There’s a flow to both the level design and the narrative that urges the player onward.

But achievements stand contrary to this momentum.

It’s not much, but it’s a persistent thought.

Even worse, there are small vignettes tied to these achievements – little morsels of content that fill out the experience just a bit more. But you’ll never even see those unless you drop what you’re doing and the context of the story to execute some (often less-than-obvious) set of commands. Not only are you likely to miss out on some of Gris closer and more personal vignettes without going outside of the game to consult a guide, but doing so will likely require you to break the game’s all-important structure – which is, in its way, very closely tied to the game’s emotional themes and message, the very elements for which it’s been given so much praise.

The game’s main collectibles, “mementos”, are the paper-cut equivalent – as are the smaller level-specific collectibles. Every few minutes, you’ll spy a little glowing orb in a harder-to-reach spot, urging you to once again stray from the game’s rhythm and careful direction in order to spend time collecting something that ultimately does not serve your character or her narrative in the slightest. It’s nothing short of a distraction.

And it doesn’t help that Gris’ aesop around moving onward and upward – fitting as it is in the context of its central tale – has a mechanical component in that you’re forbidden from re-visiting areas until you’ve seen the entire game through to the end. Couple that with the runes in the game’s hub areas that oh-so-helpfully mark which mementos you have and have not collected so far, and many players will feel an overwhelming desire to go back and collect what they’ve overlooked, only to find the game walling them from doing so. Perhaps there’s some hidden message in there about acceptance and letting go, which I wouldn’t put past a game with Gris’ ethos, but in the moment it pulled me right out of the moment and far away from where Gris was trying to lead me.

Then there are some of the hidden achievements, which ask you to almost certainly revisit certain “scenes” entirely out of their original emotional context. That moment of terror or confused meandering? Now an item on a checklist.

All this for what?

I don’t believe that Gris is the kind of game that benefits from the kind of free-form exploration or deft play that these achievements are asking from the player. Everything from its very framework to its expressive and dramatic use of color communicate to the player that it’s meant to be taken in as a fluid experience, to allow oneself to be lost in. But the presence of Achievements – one that the player will be reminded of every time they open the pause menu – flies in the face of this. It’s one of those times where the overall form of the game might be improved by removing these aspects – possibly even just obscuring their presence until after the player has completed the entire narrative without these disruptions present.

But as it is – even and especially with its stunning, emotive vision – Gris feels a bit captive to its medium.

One thought on “Gris and Gaminess

  1. I have a tendency towards completionism and those kind of things also drive me bonkers.

    For instance, Dragon Age: Inquisition had some collectibles that I found very annoying to hunt. Even in the DLC it had collectibles! I got so tired of it that I stopped playing the game and haven’t returned yet. One day I will do it as I’d like to see how the story ends. But right now I prefer to spend my patience for collectibles in other, more fulfilling games.

    Liked by 1 person

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