GRIS and Return of the Obra Dinn

For the last O.D. of the year, ROW checks out one of the standout games of the year for him: GRIS, from newly formed NOMADA studio, published by Devolver Digital.

GRIS is just one of those games. An artistic vision that some people will just love its particular art style, story, and mechanics, which will stay with them for some time; for most, GRIS will be a beautiful, yet simple, game that has a great soundtrack. While those qualities are true, GRIS is much more than that; it is a testament for what video games CAN be, if they are treated as art.

On the surface, GRIS is a puzzle-platformer about a girl traversing through a bizarre and picturesque world; however, even taking the events of the game uncritically, it is very clear that GRIS is about dealing with loss and the incoming stages of someone’s mood after a tragic loss; sadness, wrath, acceptance, rebuilding the picture of that person, moving on, etc. As a story, GRIS is not that great; there aren’t enough interesting events or satisfying analogies, metaphors, or character growth. However, this is where GRIS showcases its excellence and how it creates a fantastically bittersweet experience; what it lacks in actually satisfying narrative, it more than makes up with its poignant soundtrack, thematically appropriate and varying interactive portions, and charming presentation.

Let’s start with the soundtrack; simply put, it’s the best I’ve heard this year. Besides the sweetly melancholic vocal work, Berlinist does an incredibly good score for a game that is just as much about dealing with our darkest and most difficult emotions, as it is about overcoming them and walking on the other side with experience and peace; that’s no easy task, but even if it was, the score produced here is so thematically appropriate and mouth-wateringly good that it would not matter in the slightest.

Moving on to the art style, GRIS uses an impeccably detailed and beautifully rendered animation style that brings the serene world of GRIS to life; I would have liked a bit more variety, but NOMADA studio does a lot of visually pleasing things with their world that keeps the world looking beautiful and feeling different after revisiting some of the locations in different points. GRIS also uses some fantastically beautiful cutscenes at certain points, which were highlights and good resting spots for the player, as well as more focused attempts at delivering the themes behind GRIS’ story.

What makes GRIS an excellent game though, is the interactivity and the level of detail in both mechanics and how they correlate with the story’s themes; GRIS is a linear, puzzle-platformer that gives the player certain abilities as they advance the story—like being able to turn into a rock to withstand heavy winds and break through obstacles—which allows them to proceed even further and attempt optional challenges. As GRIS is a “no death screen” game, the world is meticulously designed and the challenges are always fun to do and figure out, but the pacing and variety are what shine above all else; while the mechanics and controls are good enough to not be frustrating or feel inaccurate, GRIS excels at making new elements feel like advancements from both the story and the gameplay elements. After turning to a rock to withstand elements, GRIS then uses it to break through her world and advance; after learning to double jump, she uses her environment to reach higher places and glides to reach harder platforming challenges. This brings variety, pacing, and thematically appropriate progression to the game, which combined with the soundtrack, the art style, and the overall atmosphere make GRIS so good as a game and as an experience.

While GRIS is an exceptional game, Return of the Obra Dinn is unique and one of the best detective games ever made; I’ve been playing ROTOD for a couple of weeks now and have not finished it yet or been able to stop thinking about it. I love a game that makes me take out a piece of paper and write down clues, locations, details, and names like a TV detective. ROTOD makes some exceptional “suggestions” to making a detective game interactive, challenging, and as satisfying as possible, without leaving players on their own. As the insurance agent sent to the unexpectedly returned Obra Dinn, the player is tasked with figuring out what happened to the crew, using your magical compass to look at characters’ dying moments or memories from important events; you’ll have to correctly deduce who each crew member is, what happened to them (if they are murdered, who killed them), and in the process you’ll find out the story of the ship and why the events happened in the first place. ROTOD uses several checks to see if you have the correct answers; have you figured out the name, cause of death, and the perpetrator of the crime? Have you figured who left the ship alive, and where they are? The game tells you that when you’ve had three correct answers it will let you know, so you’re never quite sure if you are correct or not, and it will only tell you if the full statement is made (name only does not count as an answer). This removes the immediate satisfaction of deducing something correctly, but essentially triples that every time you get something correct, as well as the thirst and determination detective game elicit when we think we have something correct, but we overlooked a key detail.

ROTOD is not uninviting though; on the contrary, it has some of the most useful “nudge” mechanics I’ve seen thus far, like faces remaining blurred when you don’t have enough information, but becoming focused when there is enough. Furthermore, the game lets you know the difficulty of finding the information for each passenger, thus allowing the player to move on when they hit a “dead end”. It is also a very smart game, designed for the people who want a “proper” detective game; crewmembers are not randomly placed on the ship, and they do not wear varying uniforms to keep things visually interesting; you can deduce the name/fate of the member from being observant in various ways. For example, the first member you can figure out is pretty easy and is designed as a tutorial to the mechanics (btw, this is your spoiler warning for the first member); you can figure out the captain by his uniform and by the fact that he is the person in this scene dressed as a captain (and because “captain” is called out in the dialogue, we can safely assume that the captain is present). But I figured out who the captain is by focusing on the fact that the people calling him out are asking him to “come out” suggesting he is behind a door, so when the scene presented me someone opening the door, I immediately deduced that he is the captain. That’s just a small, and pretty easy example of how ROTOD feels like magic or like a breath of fresh air; my only complain about it is that it relies on the player to “enjoy” it’s very particular art style and take in all the details that come from that art style, which I did not and I had to search for help in some occasions to nudge myself towards the correct solution.

ROTOD may not be a “perfect” game and I don’t love all aspects of it, but it is such a challenging and unique experience that—similarly to Pope’s last game Papers Please—tries to suggest new avenues on tackling difficult design problems; “how do you make the subtle evil bureaucracy breeds into people through an interactive medium?”; “how to make a detective game that allows the player to truly deduce the solutions on their own, while still being an interactive, gameified experience?”. These are the questions Lucas Pope attempts to answer through his games, and in return we have one of the most talented person in the industry providing us with unique and engrossing answers in the form of engaging and excellent games; hopefully he will keep making games and will keep attempting to answer the difficult questions with as much accuracy and efficiency as he has shown until now. 

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