I recently played the puzzle platformer Gris, which has been hailed as a beautiful, emotional journey. I think it kind of falls short, but it prompted me to think about the larger genre of emotional indie games.
Obviously, I spend a lot of time thinking about emotions and how to deal with them. Like most people, I’ve had strong emotional responses to specific forms of media (particularly TV) in the past, like the first season of Jessica Jones, or the “I only have eyes for you” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have trouble listening to Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” at this point in my life. These media are made intentionally to provoke that kind of strong emotional reaction. It’s the reason I’m always a little reticent about watching Pixar movies.
Video games have made serious headway into this same genre of gut-busting emotional experiences in recent years. Game journalists and enthusiasts often cite games like Heavy Rain as intentionally emotional journeys that utilize the first-person nature of play to explore difficult stories. My husband, who is a lover of games to the point that he switched careers to work for a gaming publisher, would argue that even shooter games are now geared toward emotional impact, as a way to explore violence and the horrors of war in a safe environment. These games often hinge on universal traumas of family relationships and loneliness, as well as nightmare scenarios of lawless societies. I think these are important issues and I like that they’re making their way into immersive media. But, personally, I don’t play them. In general, I tend to avoid media that I know is going to try to overwhelm me with terrible experiences, because I do well enough with that on my own.
I make an exception, though, for games that I think help me explore the emotional difficulties I myself am working through. Maybe this is self-centered. But media consumption is a personal choice, and ultimately I think it’s better for me to use it to work out my own crap so I can be a better person in my interactions with other people, rather than consuming other people’s trauma as entertainment.* Most of my past explorations into this sub-genre of what I’m calling “emotional indie games” have been unintentional. I found the games appealing mostly because they were pretty or seemed accessible from a gameplay standpoint to someone like me who did not become accustomed to the mechanics of video games as kid. When I recently picked up Gris, though, it was exactly because it was advertised as an emotional experience with beautiful visuals. And maybe because that was its aim, I was predictably disappointed.
Gris is a wordless story about losing what you have and building it back up, step by step. I think there is a pretty heavy-handed message about depression in there, as well as about growing up, as Mike Fahey wrote for the Kotaku review in the previous link. Gris is extremely literal in the service of these messages. The opening sequence is full of color, until the world literally crumbles and the heroine becomes voiceless and turns gray (hence the name). Every skill you learn adds another color to the world and the game culminates in a major boss fight in which you discover that you now have the power to literally chase away your demons. Except that the mechanics that you learn in the game don’t really serve that final realization – the ending sequence could largely be a cutscene for how little the player actually does – and every time the mechanics are used to make a point it’s extremely literal, like when you learn how to turn yourself into a block so that the harsh environment doesn’t bowl you over. Yes, the art style is lovely, but after a while it becomes boring because the art is just there to be looked at without any particular purpose. Gris has you watching an emotional experience with little nuance or immersion.
While I was playing Gris I kept comparing it to a small list of emotional indie games that I think successfully achieve what Gris was aiming for – visual and experiential depictions of depression and personal struggle that take the player through emotional hardships to come out stronger on the other side. Two games really stood out as obvious parallels to me. One is the 2011 Alice: The Madness Returns and the other is the relatively under-the-radar 2016 Hue.
Alice is a visually stunning action platformer that interprets the setting and premise of Alice in Wonderland as an exploration of deep trauma. Each level has a different visual theme that echoes an evocative object or setting of Alice’s childhood, like her nursery or a Japanese hanging scroll in her parents’ house – Alice jumps into these environments to recover memories associated with them, but because these memories have been suppressed, the environments are full of hazards (this concept is actually extremely similar to the animated sequence in the new Mary Poppins Returns). In each level, Alice recovers memories and information that help her uncover the mystery of how her family died in a fire, an event that Alice doesn’t remember but has been blamed for. The final boss fight of the game has Alice face off against a figure who has systematically abused her since childhood, and he becomes a nightmare behemoth of black ooze and doll parts – defeating him is a cathartic experience of overcoming the restraints that we put on ourselves not to fight back against people who have an emotional hold on us. Alice succeeds in many places where Gris doesn’t because it uses its visuals in the service of the plot, so as they change they enrich the emotional experience the game is trying to convey. Alice also works a lot more in symbolism, albeit very obvious symbolism, but that one layer of distance from literal depiction makes it easier to feel like you’ve reached a realization as a player, rather than having it fed to you from the start.
But Alice is also a much more ambitious and elaborate game, and you could argue that what Gris is trying to do is simpler. So this is where I think it makes sense to look at Hue, which is more on the same level as Gris in terms of design and scope. Notably, Hue uses nearly the same theme of color that Gris does, and like Alice actually uses this mechanic in the service of the story rather than as just a simple background metaphor. Like Gris, Hue is a 2D side-scrolling puzzle platformer in which a new color is added to the environment in each level. The protagonist, a boy named Hue (cute!) has lost his mother, who researches the concept of color, because she has become invisible. As Hue searches for her, he navigates the world around him by discovering or hiding objects in the environment by changing the background color – when an object is the same color as the background, it disappears. Like Gris, this game is about learning to navigate the world around you by developing new skills, and about changing your perception of space and possibility as you do (I think this latter point is one that Gris also tries to make, but really doesn’t do successfully – your perspective doesn’t really change so much as at certain points in the game you have to notice the hints that you should use a particular skill). But the emotional punch of Hue is its coming-of-age element – learning to get by without your parents to guide you, only the notes they left you. I wouldn’t say Hue has a strong emotional punch, rather it encourages a stage of mind that is a slow-burn realization of what it means to discover something on your own. I was shocked how much I loved Hue because it presents itself so simply – it’s pretty unassuming as a game. But I really felt changed once I finished it – I felt I had absorbed a new perspective, which is what I think Gris wanted me to feel.
Perhaps Gris‘s misstep (to me, because clearly I’m in the minority on this) is that it was trying to provoke an emotional response. I think a lot of indie games or games that people have strong emotional experiences with are trying to make a point about something else, and the player only feels something because achieving that realization is itself a journey. Braid (2008) does this. The game is about perceptions of time – all the game mechanics require you to slow time, reverse it, or interact with your past self (and thereby as your past self anticipate interacting with your future self), and so by the end, you see time differently. It also encourages you to look at the whole picture of your experiences and recognize that not everything has an explicit purpose when it is presented to you, even if you can go back later and use it. Which opens you up to the final reveal of the game – it forces to you consider that if your perceptions of time are flexible, your perceptions of other things in your life can be equally flexible, that in fact your perceptions can be very wrong. There’s also a whole thing about the bomb, which maybe goes a little too far. Braid creator Jonathan Blow himself went a bit too far into this idea of meaning leading to emotional experience with his long-anticipated 2016 game The Witness, which was so high on concept that it was totally removed from emotion. And which is why I think The Talos Principle (2014), which I played while I was waiting for The Witness to come out, actually fulfills the whole abandoned-island-filled-with-puzzles-that-makes-a-statement-about-the-nature-of-humanity-in-a-digital-age promise, rather than just going for a gotcha! moment (although I did not finish Talos Principle because it threatened to melt my graphics card). For a game to be emotionally effective, it has to strike a balance between profound enough to trigger a response and accessible enough to actually get to the final payoff.
There are plenty of other games that fit into this category – “indie” is starting to become synonymous with “emotional and profound” – so it seems inevitable that I might just come to the conclusion that emotionally-evocative games are inherently subjective and I shouldn’t go into a game expecting to have my heartstrings tugged. People have almost inexplicably strong attachments to fictional characters, after all – right now I’m playing Thronebreaker, a digital card adventure game, not having played any other Witcher game, because my husband realized that I fell in love with Geralt watching The Witcher III over his shoulder and gave this new game to me for my birthday (although there is no Geralt – I guess we’ll always have these great images of young Geralt, though).
Still, I think developers can, to some extent, successfully anticipate and even provoke an emotional reaction in the player. So what’s wrong with Gris? Or, given the consensus that this was such a moving game, what’s wrong with me? I think that beyond the subjective gaming experience – the circumstances in which you play a game, the events of your life around or leading up to when you play it, your personal preferences – there is an extent to which a game dictates an emotional response, leads you on a conveyor belt through an emotional experience. Maybe that’s a dramatic battle, or a lost loved one, or a sentimental moment. Maybe it’s not in the game at all, as with Hue, but a necessary transformation in the player in the course of completing the game. I think these things are all about the journey. Which, if I’m being overly rational, I can attribute to aspects of gameplay design and mechanics that encourage the player to observe certain events, or compelling acting. But on a macro level, this emotional journey has to build, it has to introduce the player to a concept or a conceit that it’s going to come back to and complicate, and then resolve. That’s storytelling. It’s not enough to just present the player with something that has the trappings of being meaningful, the game has to set up why it’s meaningful, contextualize why the player should care, and do so in a gradual, coordinated, elegant way. Showing vs. telling. And Gris just tells.
* Ok, so there’s a major caveat here. I think that a lot of movies and TV that I personally avoid because they depict traumatic events offer an important learning experience for people who otherwise have trouble imagining those events. This, I think, is the reason that people found 12 Years a Slave so compelling, or why The Handmaid’s Tale has such a devoted following. For a lot of people, these experiences are important exercises in sympathy and understanding. But using someone’s suffering to further a plot can often turn exploitative, and for me this happens very quickly.