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Gris: The Art of the Game

By Jordan Kushins

Grief is powerful: at once debilitating and dynamic, piercing and numbing, ever-present and ever-changing. In the video game Gris, released in late 2018 by Nomada Studio, grief is also a kind of catalyst that sends the title character on an exploration of growth and personal discovery.

Gris is the journey of a young girl lost in a beautiful, dreamlike world, struggling with the loss of a loved one,” says artist Conrad Roset, whose illustrations inspired the haunting digital universe the girl inhabits. “It’s the symbolic representation of her journey through trauma.”

The journey is told through the careful orchestration of color, movement, and music. The result is a 2D puzzle-platformer that is equal measure interactive art and video game. 

Gris trailer

Watch the Gris trailer. "Gris" means "grey" in English and is also the name of the main character.

FROM STUDIO ARTIST TO GAME DEVELOPER

For Barcelona-based Roset, bringing Gris to life was a serendipitous next step in his own artistic evolution, building on skills he’s been developing in different ways since childhood. “Every kid draws—it's just that people usually drop it as they grow up,” he says. Instead, Roset got more serious about cultivating his natural talent in high school. Later, he studied at the city’s Joso School for comic illustration, as well as the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Barcelona. 

He started to perfect a style that would become his signature: loose and lively, and infused with incongruous drops, swaths, pops, and gradients of bright tones. “I prefer abstract coloring over realism. My work is melancholic, but my lines are fresh and spontaneous, even sketch-like,” he says. His freelance career flourished with a combo of client and gallery work, until a chance meeting opened up the potential for an entirely new type of project. 

At a party for a mutual friend, he was introduced to Roger Mendoza, a programmer who had long been interested in making an indie game with his colleague Adrián Cuevas. “We clicked instantly,” Roset says. “He liked my art and seemed to think it had potential.”

It didn’t take long before brainstorming began, and the trio came up with a narrative concept that centered on a monochrome microcosm that regains hues as the player advances—an idea ideally suited to themes of bereavement and regeneration. “From there, it evolved into a tale around depression, and overcoming it,” Roset says. “Gris awakes in a colorless world, and each recovered color changes not only how it looks, but what can be found and interacted with inside.”

As the game progresses and Gris gains new skills, color slowly seeps back into her world.

Within months, the trio were working on a prototype, and soon they quit their other gigs to focus on the game. It was a leap of faith for all three men, and an especially bold move for Roset, who had precisely zero experience creating a game. He did, however, love playing them. He counts Sonic the Hedgehog as an early fave, but says Final Fantasy VII was the first to truly wow him. “Playing that made me realize how much could be inside a video game: story, art, sound. I was simply blown away!”

As a team, they looked to a handful of touchpoints within the industry for reference: the architecture of Shadow of the Colossus, the aesthetic minimalism of Journey, the gameplay of Monument Valley, even the adventure of Hollow Knight. But they also went beyond the console, pulling from a vast and varied mix of multimedia influences that included Studio Ghibli’s masterful characters in Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Disney’s film backgrounds, Möbius strips, and Alexander Calder’s mobiles.

GIVING FORM TO AN EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE

Still, the arc of this surreal mash-up needed structure, and it took a bit of maneuvering to find the right fit. 

“In the beginning, we thought about using Gris’ dress as a progress marker, adding patterns with each new section of her story,” says Roset. Ultimately, they abandoned that idea for a more holistic approach, where Gris’ growth is expressed through abilities she attains along the way and conveyed through changes in the animation.

New skills are expressed through the animation of Gris’ clothing.

“Each upgrade represents a new stage of her journey, and the variations are meant as a reflection of our protagonist’s state of mind when she gains them,” he says. “For instance, the block power is rotund, harsh, and sudden, while the diving power is flowing and calm.” (If that all sounds intriguing but slightly cryptic, that’s the point. Roset is deliberately coy when asked about the particulars of how everything unfolds, unwilling to spoil the experience for those who haven’t played.)

Of course, a game does not exist on visuals alone. The team was also constructing a complementary and complex aural environment with Barcelona-based musicians Berlinist.

“Art and sound were organically and simultaneously developed, and many decisions were made taking into account how both aspects continually influenced each other,” Roset says. To get the desired effect, the team referenced sonic scales that corresponded to specific colors, using synesthesia research dating back three centuries.

The result is a thoughtful blending of multiple senses, as if the player has entered a sentient, sound-filled watercolor painting.

A garden scene from the game.

COMBINING TALENTS

Eventually, the original trio expanded to a team of nearly 20 people with a range of expertise—many, like Roset, newbies to game design.

“I don't actually know how to animate,” admits Roset. “Before, I only ever worked on still illustrations, so this was a whole world; creating not only inhabitants, but landscapes, paths, and interactive elements. It was a really refreshing change of pace.” His role—along with the art team, which he led—was to set the stage with concept art. “I did a lot of sketching in notebooks, but mostly drew with Adobe Photoshop from the beginning. The most attractive thing about the digital format is the efficiency; it saves a lot of work and time and resources.”

Early concept art for the game.

This art was then handed off to the animation crew, who would fill in the gaps between key frames to give the illusion of movement. Next, the cleanup gang made corrections and final polishes.

In December 2018, nearly three years after the fateful night when Roset met his partners, Gris was introduced to the world. “It was a lot of hard work, and there have been rough times. It’s been tiring but very satisfying,” Roset says of the experience. “In the end, I have nothing but pride and gratitude for our team and the amazing game we created.”

Gris is immersive and poignant, pushing beyond outdated notions about gaming—that it must cater to a stereotypical male audience—while helping to redefine what games can be, how they look, and the tales they tell. “We wanted to break stereotypes,” says Roset. “But the artwork also just fit with the narrative we were trying to convey: a strong character, hurt, on her path to become whole once again.”

Roset hopes that Gris, and other games like it, might introduce gaming to a new audience, while engaging longtime players in fresh, unexpected ways. “I hope everyone gets something unique from the experience. It was really important to our team that each of our players interprets our work by themselves, and try to figure out what that means to them.

You can play Gris on Nintendo Switch or PC, through Steam.