Gris and the problems of definitions
Many scholars have tried to frame what’s a game or, rather, define the essential components of a game. Perhaps one of the most memorable ones comes from Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman:
A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome (2004).
What bugs me with this approach is the “quantifiable outcome” aspect; sure most games follow that pattern and answer to that mental model, which calls for straightforwardness: win or lose. Certainly, I might be making logical leaps here but it all boils down to that bipolarity. What happens with games that don’t incite such results though?
We’ve first seen that occur on a massive scale with Journey, a game which was more of an aesthetic experience rather a game in the traditional fashion. It’s the same with Gris; it’s a game where you can’t lose, so by following the traditional reasoning, you always … win?
See where I’m going with this? Are we prepared or, rather, educated to process such gaming experiences, where we are presented with a situation that goes beyond our former knowledge and understanding? This is what the film-goers in the Film noir era must have felt when the motion pictures shed some (chiaroscuro) light on the grim aspect of life: “good” people can be “bad” and vice versa; nothing is taken for granted.
You can feel it throughout the game: the creators’ excitement to introduce you to their stunning work.
Similarly, yet more favourably I’d say, games such as the aforementioned require a different approach than usually. I can understand game critics pointing out Gris’ game-play weaknesses (and they should be doing that) but, at the same time, they should be asking themselves this: does it really matter if the mechanics aren’t as complex? Games are aesthetic works; some focus more on the aspect of graphics, mechanics, sound design and so on. Every bit counts in providing an aesthetic experience and in order for a piece of art to achieve aesthetic greatness, that is emotion, there needs to be a fine blend of the above.
Gris does this exquisitely. Imagine if you died in Gris while jumping off a platform: merely the fact that your heroine would be invincible (i.e. reborn to replay) would break her fragile existence. Our heroine can’t die because she’s, in a way, already dead without her voice. It’s a game-design choice that’s totally in concert with the world she lives in; it’s organic. Same goes for the puzzles: they are well thought-out, creative and as complex as necessary so they won’t disturb one’s experience.
The game isn’t here to frustrate you nor pamper you; these are legit challenges that you have to overcome and you will certainly overcome because the designers are eager to welcome you to their world.
Sometimes it’s too much to handle but you just nod along with a smile because you just can’t help but appreciate what they’ve achieved. We need more Gris-like games in our lives, not only because they are created with love but, also, because we need better, more well-rounded and educated players and critics.