Game Analysis: GRIS
Analysis & Critique of GRIS' Player Experience (2019)
For this analysis, I sought to examine a game through a UX lens I had never played before. I chose GRIS expecting a challenge as it lacks traditional UI elements, contains simple gameplay mechanics, and is highly stylized and experience-oriented.
This report examines GRIS and provides an analysis and summary of game design pillars, outlines strengths and weaknesses, and provides recommendations for improvement to the player experience.
All images on this page are screenshots of the game GRIS by Nomada Studio (2018). I do not own any of these images. Find more about GRIS on Devolver Digital's website.
GRIS is a 2D side scrolling platformer game developed by Nomada Studio and published by Devolver Digital for PC and Nintendo Switch. The player controls a female protagonist (Gris) through game stages that require the player to complete movement-based challenges and solve puzzles to progress. GRIS is a linear game with one set difficulty- and while there is an emphasis on exploration and gathering of collectibles- there is one conclusion and one way to get there.
Figure 1: GRIS' signature watercolour aesthetic.
GRIS’ watercolour and ink art style is visually striking and acts as a vehicle to an emotionally charged story arc depicting the five stages of grief. The lack of a heads-up display further emphasizes the artistic elements of the game.
The player collects stars to unlock abilities and progress through GRIS’ five stages. Each stage is loosely broken into levels that require the player to complete movement puzzles to advance. Every stage introduces a new ability that is unlocked when the player collects a set number of stars. These abilities introduce new gameplay mechanics that allow the player to traverse the game world in new ways- such as breaking through cracked stone floors or swimming infinitely through underwater caverns.
There is no imminent threat or enemies in GRIS, as the only obstacle impeding the player’s progression is their mastery of the movement system and abilities. There is no fail state- players either succeed or don’t finish the game. Thus, GRIS is a game with little consequences.
GRIS focuses on crafting an evocative, emotionally charged experience through the presentation of strong visual elements. There is no clear story- the narrative of the game is embedded in the experience through the evolution of the game world and Gris’ abilities. The player goes from having limited movement abilities in a stark, gray expanse to being able to jump, break objects, swim, and sing flowers to life in a fully coloured and visually stunning world. Through this evolution, the player gets a sense of the game’s underlying theme of overcoming emotional turmoil.
Game Design Pillars
To better get a sense of strengths and weaknesses, as well as inform recommendations, I identified the three game design pillars that I believe make GRIS unique. These pillars are:
1) Visual Storytelling & Metaphor
Representing the five stages of grief
2) Sensory Experience
Every frame is a painting
3) Exploration & Collection
Collecting and exploring for progression as well as story discovery
The following sections define each of the pillars and provide evidence for their inclusion.
Pillar 1: Visual Storytelling & Metaphor
Every visual detail of the game matches an overall aesthetic and reinforces the overarching theme. There are metaphors for the stages of grief embedded everywhere, with the five game stages embodying Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. The story arc follows Gris’ journey through these emotional states.
GRIS is a visually stunning game that utilizes visual impact to reinforce the central theme and convey progression through the story arc. Apart from the display of controls and ability names when a new movement mechanic is introduced (Figure 2), GRIS contains no text or dialogue- thus requiring the player to interpret visual cues to get a sense of the overarching story as well as currently available actions.
Figure 2: A rare example of gameplay overlay with text.
Gris’ arc is visually represented by the Temple, a central game hub that Gris returns to upon completing a stage. When the player unlocks a new colour by finishing a stage, the temple becomes populated by assets that correspond to the unlocked colour and allow the player to traverse the temple in new ways. With each added colour, new layers of greenery, water, and light are introduced to transform the empty gray ruin into a serene, colourful oasis (figure 3). This visual progression underscores Gris’ arc through the various emotions associated with grief:
Figure 3: The five stages colours & aesthetics
Denial is the first stage of the game. At the very beginning of Denial, the player is dropped into a gray expanse with only the ability to walk left and right very slowly. After a short while of walking, the player gains the ability to jump and run- symbolizing the beginning of Gris’ journey. This stage presents a desolate landscape with ruined buildings and no signs of life (figure 4). At the end of the first stage, the player unlocks the colour red (figure 5).
Figure 4: Denial environmental aesthetic
Figure 5: Colour unlocking animation: Red.
The second stage, Anger, features a predominantly red colour scheme and blustering, blood-red winds that push the player back If they do not take shelter in time (figure 6). The stage itself feels violent, with sharp, angular lines created by fractured rocks and metal scaffolding.
Further along in Stage 2, the player gains the ability to become ‘Heavy’. When pressing K (on PC), the player turns into a stone block with limited movement ability that can break through stone floors (figure 7). The metaphor for anger is clear in the stage, and Gris’ advancement to the next stage requires her to strengthen herself using the Heavy ability to endure the violent winds.
Figure 6: Wind in stage two: Anger.
Figure 7: Gris using the ability 'Heavy'.
The third stage, Bargaining, introduces the colour green and presents shift in the game’s tone. There is life in the form of plants and creatures, and Gris meets a friendly forest creature with a penchant for apples. The visual contrast is underscored by serene music and ambient forest sounds. The serenity is broken by the appearance of an intimidating black bird that screeches at the player, knocking them back and preventing them from advancing (figure 9).
Figure 8: Introducing green.
By using Heavy and the newfound double jump ability, Gris must endure the Bird’s cries and use them to her advantage to sail across large distances- a clear metaphor for inner strength and resilience.
Figure 9: The screeching bird encountered in GRIS.
Depression is stage four and is appropriately associated with the colour blue. Stage four is set in a large cavern, with much of the stage being underwater (figure 10). The metaphor for depression here is apparent- Gris begins in a dark, imposing cave filled with water impeding her movement. When she learns how to swim, Gris is able to traverse the darkness and emerge into the light on the other side.
Figure 10: Underwater 'Depression' stage.
Stage five, Acceptance, incorporates the colour yellow. It is filled with colour and life and uses light as a new movement mechanic that illuminates hidden platforms (figure 11).
Figure 11: Stage five: Acceptance light mechanic in action.
Stage five also introduces the Sing ability, which enables Gris to activate various environmental effects (figure 12). Feelings of hope and enlightenment dominate this stage, with the game’s colour scheme reaching its full potential, and the reclamation of all of Gris’ powers marking the end of the story arc.
Figure 12: Gris using the ‘Sing’ ability to create a new environmental effect.
Left: Environment before. Right: Sing ability activated.
Pillar 2: Sensory Experience
GRIS is geared towards providing the player with a vivid sensory experience. Each stage is carefully crafted and filled with assets that underscore GRIS’ aesthetic design- every frame of the game has visual interest and is simply pretty to look at. Visual elements in GRIS are largely static, but the few animated visual assets add a level of interactivity that contribute to the sensory experience. For example, flocks of birds flee when Gris gets too close (figure 13), small bells ring when Gris collides with them, and little creatures move and interact with each other when Gris is present.
Figure 13: Birds taking flight as Gris approaches (stage three: Bargaining).
Additionally, when Gris gains the ability to sing, flowers bloom when she sings within their range (see figure 12 above). Though singing to open flowers is a mechanic used for new kinds of level traversal, this ability can be used in a strictly aesthetic context to add visual dimension and interactivity.
GRIS’ sound design is intentionally constructed to reinforce the aesthetic, story, and sensory elements of the game. Stage music and ambient noise matches the presented metaphor, and changes in volume underscores the emotional impact of dramatic moments. The sound effects used in GRIS provide satisfying feedback- with things like footsteps, abilities and interactive elements reacting to player actions. Additionally, silence is used to draw attention to relevant sound effects that may hint at a way forward and increase tension in certain situations (figure 14).
Figure 14: A scene that uses silence & visual cue of flying birds to emphasize player footsteps.
Pillar 3: Exploration & Collection
GRIS emphasizes exploration and collection through its stage design and incorporation of optional challenges unlocked by straying from the critical path.
Stars are a collection element required for the player to progress in GRIS. They are scattered around game levels and generally require the player to undertake movement challenges to collect them. When collected, they stay with Gris until the level is completed- then take their place in the sky above the central game hub (figure 15).
Figure 15: Constellation progress above the game hub after stage three: Bargaining.
Within game stages, stars also allow the player to unlock abilities and overcome untraversable obstacles. Star collection is a critical game mechanic- as the only way to progress in the game is to collect all of them in every game stage.
Figure 16: Example of a memento object in-scene (see the little light?)
Additionally, the player can collect mementos (figure 16). Mementos are not required to progress but provide a sense of satisfaction as they are generally located within their own mini challenges off the critical path. The player can see how many mementos they have collected in in the Temple underneath the symbol that represents each stage (figure 17).
Figure 17: Memento tracking in the game hub for stage two: Anger.
It is not immediately apparent what the goal of collecting mementos is until the player has completed the game. At that point the player can replay previous stages and find missed mementos, and when all are collected, they can use a hidden room (figure 18) to reveal a secret ending that gives important context to GRIS’ story.
Figure 18: Hidden memento room in the game hub.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Based on the aforementioned game design elements, I evaluated GRIS' strengths and weaknesses according to how well they reinforce the game's design pillars.
The game successfully incites an emotional response without a traditional narrative.
Figure 19: Hidden Denial sculpture.
Through the combination of its design pillars, GRIS explores human emotion with a depth uncommon in games without an explicit narrative. Players can experience GRIS with little context about the game’s meaning, and still get a sense of the underlying theme of personal struggle and emotional turmoil due to its strong visual and audio design.
GRIS doesn’t force a narrative on the player, giving players the opportunity to interpret GRIS in their own way. By leaving the narrative open for interpretation, GRIS gains additional power as its abstract emotional metaphors can reach a broader audience.
Every moment of the game has exquisite visual design.
Figure 20: Example of watercolour aesthetic during introduction of the colour blue.
GRIS has a unique aesthetic that gives every moment in the game strong visual impact, with watercolour and ink visuals are coupled with bold geometric patterns and intricate line art. Cinematic animations use the behavior of watercolour paints to depict the mixing of colours, creating a distinctive and memorable visual experience (figure 20).
GRIS’ aesthetic is consistent throughout the game and in each of the five stages, constantly reinforcing the story. Though the scope of the game and its interactive elements are limited, the environments presented are rich, populated with plants, creatures, and objects on multi-layered backgrounds.
Weaknesses were selected based on their severity. Weaknesses are ordered based on their potential to be fixed easily, with "low hanging fruit" recommendations.
Slow character movement system punishes exploration and mistakes.
Figure 21: Game introduction with especially slow movement speed for narrative emphasis.
GRIS’ gameplay is focused around the completion of movement-based challenges, yet the movement system is occasionally cumbersome and slow. As a movement-centric game, there are instances where the player is forced to repeat obstacles or navigate large distances to complete challenges successfully. GRIS’ movement system is at times unresponsive- and with the character’s slow speed, this results in immersion-breaking moments of frustration when the player has to reattempt an obstacle or traverse a large distance repeatedly. This undermines the player’s will to explore and experiment in the environment, as Gris’ movement speed is punishing when the player strays beyond the critical path.
Low Hanging Fruit:
Increase base player movement speed and iron out glitches in the responsiveness of movement abilities.
If movement speed increase impacts other areas of gameplay, consider implementing more "backtracking" mechanics (i.e. ladders falling, walls crumbling) to decrease frustration in larger areas.
Visual design undermines gameplay
GRIS is so visually focused that gameplay occasionally suffers due to the ambiguity of visual cues. An example of this can be seen below, where walls that usually present as collision objects can be passed through in certain instances (figure 22).
Figure 22: Example of inconsistency with collision elements seen in the walls in stage five: Acceptance.
Left: a passable and impassable wall. Right : Gris passes through a seemingly impassable wall.
When coupled with GRIS’ movement system, the ambiguity of collision objects can severely impact gameplay by causing unnecessary player errors- resulting in confusion and frustration.
Additionally, there are moments when the player’s position in the level is obstructed or hard to discern due to foreground elements blocking the field of view or changing camera positions. This is problematic in some cases- as losing sight of Gris in critical moments can be punishing, and player positioning in the level is critical to the discovery of collectibles and challenges (figure 23).
Figure 23: Can you spot Gris? An example of foreground elements blocking the field of view.
Low Hanging Fruit:
Use stronger opacity to delineate important collision objects such as walls and floors; at least in critical situations.
Consider implementing an aura around Gris to allow the player to see her even if she is hidden behind foreground objects.
Lack of context and in-game indicators for challenge progression
Weakness Severity: Moderate-Critical
Due to the minimal context and documentation in GRIS, the player’s sense of progression towards the end goal is only represented by the evolving game hub. Throughout GRIS there are optional challenges that reward the player for exploration and experimentation, though their locations and triggers are hidden. There are no UI elements in place to track progression in GRIS, so the existence of challenges are unknown unless they are completed by accident- and even then the platform, not the game, sends the player a notification.
Figure 23: Memento object collection animation.
When the player collects any memento, they are given no context about their purpose. While the player can track memento collection in the game hub by physically navigating the space to find each stage’s corresponding symbol- this is an unnecessarily difficult task that undermines the importance of the mementos in uncovering the game’s full story.
Without an effective UI that tracks- or even communicates- the presence of challenges, the player’s motivation to complete those challenges is diminished.
This would not be a major point of contention if the completion of challenges were of minimal importance to the player’s understanding of the game. However, challenges such as memento collection and “Stages of Grief” give important context to GRIS’ story when completed, and providing no motivation for players to complete these challenges will cause many to miss these contexts. In the case of the mementos challenge it is the only optional challenge that contains in-game indicators for progress. The result of successfully completing the mementos challenge is access to an additional cutscene that provides important context to the story. However, while memento collection is tracked and visualized- the cutscene can only be triggered in a well-hidden room in the game hub that is nearly impossible to locate without consulting external sources (see figure 24).
Figure 24: Hidden memento room which triggers a cutscene upon completion of memento challenge
The “Stages of Grief” challenge is integral to the game’s theme as each stage is an embodiment of the five stages of grief. Much of the game’s design merely alludes to the five stages- there is no explicit, in-game reference to them- a design choice that encourages the player to interpret the game in their own way. It is strange that despite an intentional choice to allude to the story arc- there is a challenge and associated Steam achievements that explicitly name these five stages though no in-game cues are provided (see figure 25).
Figure 25: Depression achievement unlocked through Steam (see bottom right)
Reconsider the implementation of UI elements to visualize challenge progression in-game.
This weakness is complicated and requires additional considerations. See below.
Recommendation: Challenge Progression
GRIS’ lack of in-game indicators for challenge progression are part of a larger problem with the games ability to balance aesthetics & visual storytelling with traditional game mechanics. The lack of progress indicators in the UI is a design choice made to focus player attention on the game world, however this choice is made at the expense of providing additional context to the story, and motivation for continuous play. By failing to communicate the existence of additional challenges and progress towards their completion in-game, the player’s immersion is broken- as they must consult external sources to reap the reward of additional context to the story.
Thus, it is recommended that GRIS implement a more robust UI that visualizes challenge progression and indicates when such challenges are completed. This UI might include:
In-game indicator for challenge trigger & completion
This would be minimally invasive, and should share similarities with the visual cue triggered when all required stars are gathered (figure 26).
In the case of challenges, ideally this visual cue would have a slightly altered appearance or colour that corresponds to the challenge, for example, a red and green circle for the challenge “Apples”.
This may be implemented alone, however it is recommended that it is implemented with the pause menu element below.
Figure 26: Visual cue triggered by collection of all required stars
Pause Menu category for challenges/collections
This ensures specific information can be viewed in-game without obstructing the player’s view or compromising the artistic integrity of the game.
Ideally, challenges will be listed in a sub-category in the pause menu when they are discovered, with a title and a brief description text or image.
As this recommendation involves the use of pre-existing game assets, the cost of implementing this change will be minimal. GRIS focuses heavily on visual design and metaphor, so the impact of visualizing challenge progression might alter the games effectiveness at providing a low-pressure sensory experience.
Once progression- even of optional challenges- is visualized, there is a possibility that the player’s desire for perfect completion may impact their appreciation of the game as a visual and emotion-inducing artefact. Additional research on the impact of the aforementioned UI recommendations is warranted to ensure they would not take away from the experience.