GRIS: how a video game can improve your mental wellbeing

Some spoilers ahead.

Whether you’re an expert or a ‘noob’, you’ve got to admit that today’s video games are not just a way to escape or to unload your stress. They encompass such a rich, immersive experience that they have a deeper, long-lasting effect on our lives. There is a very simple reason for that. As a friend recently pointed out to me, how many hours do you spend with a video game protagonist, compared to a movie? A hundred?

It’s a sector that changes so fast that some games help you with your own struggles and perhaps, to find a new way to look at your life. I happen to have stumbled upon one of them: it’s called GRIS, and it is magnificent. In today’s difficult climate, here is how and why a video game can have such an impact on your mental state.

Playing a game with no enemies

Video games narratives are getting more and more complex and cinematographic, with POV shots, 360 camera, or complex character development. One thing is for sure: in a video game, you’re the one “in control”, you’re actively moving the protagonist forward — something completely opposite to cinema, in which all you can do is watch it happen. Interestingly, the film industry is starting to blur the codes by adding some elements of the video games — try Black Mirror’s , for example, an interactive episode where the player has to make a series of (more and more horrible) choices. The true novelty of GRIS, besides its beautiful 2 dimensions watercolour visuals, is elsewhere.

One of the many beautiful landscapes in the video game

In GRIS, you cannot get hurt, die, there is no true “villain”, and you don’t have to fight — at least, not in the traditional sense. You’re safe, all you have to do is explore and use your character capabilities to solve puzzles and find solutions. This immerses the player into a bubble. Instantly, by playing this game, you can take some distance and experience a more reflective, contemplative state.

Finding new colours in a world of black and white

The story of GRIS can be interpreted in many ways and acts as a “canvas” for the player who can project his/her own story onto the game. The pitch is simple: after a traumatic event, the main protagonist, a young woman, has lost her voice. She wakes up in the hand of a giant statue, which crumbles and leaves her to the ground.

As you play the character of GRIS, you can only see the world in black and white in the beginning. As you start the game, you only have one capability: moving forward (and not very fast.) Many reviews expressed that GRIS is simply a story about overcoming grief and facing the different stages that go with it.

Indeed, as the game progresses, many symbolic moments mark a change of attitude. The character evolves, simply by moving forward. One big feature in the game is that the more you advance, the more you unlock new colours. The world becomes red, then green, blue, symbolizing different stages the character goes through. As this unfolds, you gain new capabilities while collecting stars that unlock different paths. First, you can turn the character’s dress into a block and be invulnerable to the wind that was pushing you back, but you can also use it to break through stone floors. Then, you can jump higher, run, swim… All of these faculties help solve problems or unlock new levels in the game in some creative way.

Some creatures along the way seem antagonistic, like a giant screaming bird pushing you forward (which I have personally identified with anger). Yes, this bird can make you trip or block you. But its strength can also propel you to higher levels if you use it properly. The use of symbols courses throughout the game and allows you to reflect on the story or your own life through visuals, music, and experience. Yet words, dialogue, or text are absent — making you feel and think through powerful visual symbolism.

Many lessons or insights can be taken from “GRIS”. Even if you just admire its beauty, the symbolism is so rich that it’s impossible not to reflect on how we recover from hardships and traumas, and to draw parallels between the character and us.

Here are some of the takeaways I’ve noticed by playing the game :

  • Recovering from pain or trauma is never linear, and so, the game is not as well. You have to explore it by going forwards, backwards (which is not something you would intuitively do), up, down, to unlock new sequences and advance. Sometimes, in order to advance, you just have to jump into the void, and you fall, and fall, until you finally land on some ground and keep moving. It requires trust.
  • There is no unique “enemy”. At some point, a blackbird screams at you, making you fall, but sometimes it gives you the push to jump up and advance. So, nothing is simply antagonistic, it can even push you into taking action at the right time.
One of the creatures you meet in the game — if you help it, it will help you.
  • No act of self-care, even minor, is meaningless. Even though the main character is alone, at some point she meets a little square character. By following it, you discover that if you catch apples to feed it, it will help you in return. So, noticing the creature and taking the time to help it ends up doing the same thing as helping yourself.
  • Cultivating your self-observation skills moves you forward: in GRIS, the decorum and the background is as important as the character, being a manifestation of the inner torments of the protagonist. It is often by looking around that you get to unlock new ways to advance in the game. The solution is sometimes hidden — and it takes a bit of exploring.

Overall, GRIS is an experience that makes you think about your own trials and tribulations. You get to both wander in a safe environment, when no one is attacking or hurting you, and enjoy the beauty of it. At the same time, you can reflect on your own growth and set-backs. What makes it unique is the combination of stunning beauty, with an odyssey into the heart of a wounded soul. Yes, it’s not therapy. But this journey feels so therapeutic.

I am a content manager at a French startup. Illustrator whenever I can :)