Interpreting GRIS – Nomada Studio Interview
A latecomer to the 2018 release schedule, Nomada Studio’s first game GRIS quickly became a front runner for many peoples GOTY list, my own included.
Now, with some distance from the launch and time to digest the game’s beautiful imagery, I started to sift through the pages of notes I had from my review and grapple with what GRIS meant to me and what I believed it was saying about womanhood, psychology, and trauma.
I opened my review of GRIS with a quote from the yogi mystic Jaggi Vasudev, “Inward is not a direction, inward is a dimension.”
This profound piece of personal insight from Vasudev struck me as almost intrinsically tied to GRIS, a game that adapts the emotional trauma of a young woman named Gris into a vivid landscape through which players explore. Not content with simply telling an explicit tale of self-discovery to players, Nomada Studio carefully crafted a world that communicates complex ideas through myriad metaphors and imagery.
Of course, interpretation is a deeply personal thing and while below I have talked about what the game was saying to me, the intent of the author (in this case developer) should also be considered.
I was fortunate enough to ask Roger Mendoza of Nomada some questions about the stunning imagery used in the game and what dimensions the new studio would like to explore with their next title.
GRIS Interpretation – Eye of the Beholder
Interpreting art is perhaps the most subjective experience known to humankind. By its very nature, there is no objectively incorrect way for a person to receive a work of art. My review of GRIS was glowing, not just because I saw something special in the game’s messages, but because I believed wholeheartedly in the ‘objective’ value of the game (mechanics, functionality, pricing etc).
These values can, of course, be subject to the lens of subjectivity also but the role of a reviewer is to assume some of the weight of that, to confidently assess what most may find enjoyable in a game and remark on that.
What we are talking about today, in this piece, is decidedly not that.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that the things I saw in GRIS may not be the things you see. When I rolled credits on the game I had more than a few tears in my eyes, so impacted by the tale that had just been spun by Nomada and almost certain in my personal reading of it.
In choosing to not include any dialogue or narrative beats Nomada afford players a strong connection with the game; the story you tell yourself is the only story that matters.
Nomada has been purposefully tight-lipped about its intentions with the game’s meaning, save for the official description which offers nothing more than a premise to work with. Speaking with Mendoza I asked about several of the theories I had regarding possible metaphors in the game but he remained stoic on the matter;
We don’t want to be overly specific with GRIS. It is very important for us that every player takes their something unique and personal from this experience…the last thing we want is to influence their interpretation…
Mendoza raises a valid concern; for the player’s interpretation of a game to remain as ‘pure’ as possible the intentions of the developer must be somewhat obscured. What Nomada have confirmed however is that GRIS is the story of a young woman working through a devastating life event and with this in mind I began to unravel the game’s many mysteries.
As GRIS begins we meet a young woman whose entire identity crumbles around her, leaving her in a freefall that feels like an eternity. When she does finally crash into some semblance of stability it is a colourless void and surrounded only by the derelict remnants of her former self.
Making her way through this internal landscape Gris must collect fallen stars (which double at musical notes of a sort) and return them to the sky, unlocking a new colour and breathing more and more life back into her inner-dimension.
“The original idea came from Conrad, our Creative Director. He had this idea of a colorless world that recovered it as the player advanced and everything evolved from there” – Roger Mendoza
There are many psychological benefits to the colour green, primarily its ability to set its viewer at ease and instil a sense of renewal to the mind’s eye. It’s no coincidence then that by unlocking green, Gris gains access to a part of her psyche which manifests as a lush forest her exploration through which is aided by a small, assumedly young robot-esque creature.
If Gris’ journey through her mind is be understood as a journey through which she rediscovers her own womanhood it is possible that this creature is a representation of the potentials of motherhood, or even less directly, simply that of human empathy.
The creature becomes almost reliant on Gris after she uses her strength to cause food to drop from the trees, thus immediately establishing a parental-lite dynamic between the two. As they venture further into the forest together this bond grows stronger as the two overcome obstacles together.
Eventually, a sudden turn of events separates the two, leaving the player with the same feeling Gris has at that moment; sudden loneliness.
It is a lesson in letting go, of course, because the creature returns once more just as all hope of leaving the forest seems lost, only this time it is surrounded by its own family. Leaving the forest, and the child, behind felt like a colossal step forward along the path to healing the trauma Gris carried with her.
Learning to care for something, to nurture it and to eventually even let go of it, trusting that it, like Gris and all things, would eventually find its place.
Only What You Take With You
Gris’ journey takes her to a large temple in which statues of broken, weeping women tower overhead. Inside this monument to pain Gris plunges through the floor and buried deep beneath the surface she confronts a mirror image of herself which manifests in silhouette.
Forming an almost literal shadow version of herself.
While early in the game and easily overcome, this is not the last time the ‘shadow’ Gris reveals herself.
Psychoanalyst Carl Yung described the Shadow as essentially a manifestation of the darker elements of our own psychological makeup, the undesirable parts which we would rather not confront. If this Shadow goes unrecognised, or unchallenged, it can have a dire impact on our mental health akin to self-sabotage.
Toward the end of GRIS, as the light of the surface begins to show itself to the young woman, she is attacked by a large shadow version of herself which seeks to hold her down and prevent the growth and eventual healing Gris so desperately seeks.
Gris’ Shadow, and by extension her trauma, also takes the form of a monstrous, hauntingly beautiful bird which stalks the young woman throughout her journey. In this inner dimension, it is a major point that Gris has lost her voice, her ability to call out, but the Shadow bird is fully empowered here with a cry that often prevents progress, a direct inversion of Gris’ powerlessness.
Mind, Body, and Soul
Not long after leaving the forest Gris finds herself again descending deeper into her own mind as she grapples with elements of herself that are not merely psychological but also perhaps spiritual. Having conquered physical challenges and, for the time being, confronted her Shadow, the young woman begins exploring a series of sunken caves and crystalised structures.
In this place, the only way to stop herself from becoming trapped by her own mind is to keep moving, as represented by the game’s ingenious mechanics.
It is in these depths that Gris gains the ability to swim in the game, the fastest and most agile she has been able to move the entire time. With each successful confrontation of her Shadow, she begins to move more freely around her own mind again, deftly weaving in and out of its countless caverns and hiding places.
She is unchaining herself piece by piece which causes her Shadow to push back harder still; for the Shadow to thrive, the self must not achieve actualisation.
Once again striking out at Gris, the Shadow forms into a sinister serpent which stalks the young woman as she uses her new found freedom to search the cave systems around her. Much like the final sequence in the game, and akin to real experiences of fending off your worst self, as she grows closer to her goal the Shadow grows stronger.
The threat becomes omnipresent, culminating in a high-speed chase through Gris’ mind which the young woman loses. As darkness completely overtakes the screen, and Gris herself, a light pierces through as she is rescued by a large turtle which carries Gris to safety on its back.
The World Turtle is a globally recognised mytheme which depicts a giant turtle supporting the world on its back. I had seen it used across many other pieces of media before and wondered if Nomada had intentionally used the symbol, though Mendoza was once again hesitant to go too deep into details.
“Many cultures have a mythos on great turtles and other creatures, and some of that might have seeped in GRIS, but nothing that specific”
Outside the Lines
While GRIS is very much a journey through human pain it is even more so, by design, an exploration of a woman’s trauma and self-discovery. It is evident that Nomada has handled this subject matter with delicacy and respect.
Though, as with any piece of art which seeks to tackle a specific gender or racial identity’s perspective, input from those it represents is crucial.
“There are many women working with Nomada Studio and we consider the feedback from every member of our team,” Mendoza told me when I asked if women had been a part of the creation process.
Regardless of how you personally interpret GRIS, Nomada has presented players with a bold, artistic statement which will undoubtedly be discussed for years to come.
Hopefully, those years will see another release from Nomada too, given that the studio’s mission statement is to create more games like GRIS which blur the lines between art and video game.
“We certainly believe our project, as many others, is helping bridge what for many years has been regarded as fundamentally different,” Mendoza also notes that the team is taking a well-earned break for now, “Right now we are taking a break, but we will come back with a different experience as evocative and powerful as GRIS!”
Thanks to Roger Mendoza for his time.
“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes” – Carl Yung