According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to their community. Factors such as social, psychological, and biological can determine the level of mental health of a person at any point of time. Poor mental health can also be caused by rapid social change, social exclusion, unhealthy lifestyle and physical illness.
Throughout the world, many events and programs are held to raise awareness of the importance of mental health. Every year, the month of May is celebrated as Mental Awareness Month.
There are already many TV shows, movies and books that talk about mental health. However, during the past two decades more and more video games are talking about this as well. These games largely go unnoticed because they are not often taken seriously or because they usually tend to be indie titles.
In this series, I will take a look at some of the games that talk about mental health. I will also explain the subject talked about in the game and how it is incorporated into the narrative and gameplay mechanics. However, my main objective is to prove that video games could also be a medium for addressing and raising awareness of the importance of mental health.
Firstly, I would like talk about an indie 2D platformer game called GRIS developed by Nomad Studio. GRIS is among the rarest games out there. Not rare because it is hard to find, but simply because it one of the few games where everyone who played the game will agree on one thing and one thing only; that the game is a visual masterpiece. Every scene of the game makes you feels like you are looking at a watercolor painting. The colors and the many backgrounds in the game make you feel like you are looking at a moving art exhibition. I could elaborate further about the art of GRIS, but that is topic for another day.
The topic which I’m going to tackle today and which is talked about in the game is grief. Before I start talking about the game, I think it would be best to explain what exactly is grief. Grief is a natural response that you get when you face with loss. Grief is universal and its very personal. You may experience all kinds of unexpected and difficult emotions. You may cry, become angry, get the sensation of feeling empty or be in disbelief, even drown in deep ocean of sadness. The pain you get from grief can even take a toll on your physical health and make it difficult to sleep, eat or even think straight.
However, there are two things which should be given importance and not taken lightly. Firstly, all of these are normal reaction to loss and that’s completely fine. The more significant the loss is to you, the more intense the feeling of grief will be to you. Frankly, I think that this point carries more importance than the first because it is important for people to know that, everyone grieves differently and that is also perfectly fine.
Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. Grief is mostly associated with the death of a loved one, as that is the most intense type of it. But any loss like, such as a divorce or loss of a job to name a few, can cause grief. In 1969, a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kübler-Ross mentioned in her book “On Death and Dying” that grief can be divided into five stages. Her theory become known as the Kübler-Ross model. The reason why I’m mentioning the model is because, it has a vital role, as it will give you a better understanding of what I’m about to talk about, and the model is used in the game as well.
In GRIS, you play as a young girl or woman (I’m going to call her Gris). Tragedy struck and she lost her voice (her joy or reason for living). She goes on a beautiful and emotional journey through desolate and hostile environments to regain her voice.
The game has a total of five chapters, and each represents one of the stages of grief as shown in the Kübler-Ross model. The game is pretty clear about grief and loss but that is further proved by an achievement you get when you play the game as you go near a certain statue in each of the five chapters.
As I mentioned before, the game is a living artwork and the thing which gives life to it, are the colors which are used. Similar to the symbolism associated with colors in real life, the game also gives each color its own meaning in-game. In addition to the colors, the narrative and gameplay elements have a symbolic value as well. The many challenges and boss battles Gris faces helps her in her recovery. Now, I want to talk about how each chapter in the game shows a stage of grief.
(Disclaimer: In order to show how grief is addressed in the game, I need to talk about the things that happens in the game in detail. Hence, I would like to give a major spoiler warning.)
As the game starts you meet Gris, who wakes up in the palm of a large stone statue of a woman (I’m going to call her Stone Woman). Gris starts to sing and in the background you can see a wide range of colors floating around while she levitates. You may think that this is going well but suddenly, tragedy strikes as the palm of the statue starts to split, her voice breaks and she realize she cannot sing. Gris tries to avoid cracks but to no avail as the hand crumbles and falls from high in the sky. The vivid colors in the background start to fade away while she plummets to the ground.
Stage 1 – Denial
The first stage of grief is known as Denial. Denying not only helps to minimize the overwhelming pain of loss but also it gives you time to more gradually absorb the news and begin to process it. This is a common defense mechanism and helps numb you to the intensity of the situation. We are trying to survive the emotional pain as we process the reality of the loss. It will take some time for our minds to adjust to this new reality. Sometimes we might find ourselves wondering how to move forward in life without that person.
As you gradually move out of this stage, the emotions that you’ve been trying to hide will begin to rise. You will be confronted with a lot of sorrow you’ve denied. This is part of the journey of grief, but it will be difficult. This stage helps to slow down the process and take you through it one step at a time rather than be consumed by your emotions all at once.
This chapter starts right after Gris plummets to the ground. You first see her in a white world where she is sitting on her knees while looking down. She gets up and start to walk again, slowly, while looking down but then she falls to her knees and gets back up again. The thing which makes it different this time is that she looks up towards the white sky rather than down, and she puts her hand on her face in the same way that someone wipes their own tears.
It is only after this that you are able to take full control of Gris (what I mean is, that is when she is able to do actions like run and jump, before this point she slumps to the ground if you press any button). Gris starts to move in the world and you come to a realization that you are in some kind of a rocky ruin. Finally, color starts to fill the world but its only shades of grey. The reason that grey was chosen is because the color represents the lack of emotions. The absence of color makes it dull and carries negative connotations.
Gris traverses through the world by doing platforming puzzles on architectural ruins but then she comes across a familiar scene, which is the palm of the stone woman. She goes to it and a cutscene begins. She starts to levitate but unlike before, instead of singing, she weeps.
Then droplets of red color starts to come out her body but you notice that, those droplets actually came from Gris. After that, the entire world starts to fill up with different shades of red. The cutscene symbolizes that she is weeping for what she lost, and that the emotions that have been building up inside her are let go of.
Stage 2 – Anger
The second stage of grief is known as Anger. Where denial may be considered a coping mechanism, anger is a masking effect. The anger that you show on the outside is just a camouflage of the many emotions and pain that you carry and sometimes it can directed towards other people, such as the person who died or even inanimate objects. Anger gives us a chance to express emotions with less fear of rejection or judgement. Since anger is the first emotion that some people release, people might not approach you in the moments when you want to be comforted and reassured. This makes you feel isolated.
Moreover, some people might linger in this stage but others might not even experience it. When you anger start to gradually subside, you are able to think more rationally about what is happening around you and most importantly, the emotions that you are trying to hide.
As I mentioned before, the world gets filled with the color red. The meaning of the color red is lost on no one. It symbolizes anger and aggression and that is what this stage represents.
Gris then slides down a mountain and plummets to the ground but you will notice that the environment has changed. Now its a desert, as there are small sand dunes and big pyramids in the background. Up until this point, the game is pretty easy but then you will first encounter your first obstacle, a sandstorm (crimson colored winds). If Gris gets caught inside it, she will be thrown backward. This sandstorm represents an obstacle to her progress. During the stage, she has to stay in a cover to avoid the recurring sandstorm.
A game cannot truly be a game without a protagonist having powers/abilities (which is debatable). In this game, Gris also gets abilities, and these abilities help her overcome the many problems she faces. She gains the abilities when she collects orbs in a specific stage. In this stage, she is able to transform her clothes into a solid block. It is because of this ability that she is able to walk through the sandstorm. She walks slowly as if she is carrying a weight around. This beautiful scene represents Gris finding her own inner strength and fortitude (block ability), and overcoming the obstacles of her progress (sandstorm).
After this you come across a red temple. The interesting thing about the temple is that the columns have the Stone Woman, but with each column you pass through, you will see the Stone Woman crying more and more intensely. In the temple you come across a platform where you can use the Block ability, if you do, you will fall down, possibly to a basement. The thing about this basement is that it splits from the middle. The top part has a lot of damaged vases and statues of weeping woman but the lower part looks like you are looking at a body of water which reflects everything on the horizon. In this case, it reflects the black background to white and Gris into a black silhouette. There are also birds flying. They start to grow in number the more actions you do. The lower part symbolizes Gris’s inner demons. In a way, they are taking a form.
It is due to those demons that you are able to escape from the basement. After that she does puzzles to move forward and come across the palm and the Cutscene starts (when I mention a cutscene, I am referring to the same one I mentioned before). This time, green color fills the screen along with vines.
Stage 3 – Bargaining
The third stage of grief is known as Bargaining. During this stage, people find themselves creating a lot of “what if” and “if only” statements as you want to control the outcome of the event. Bargaining is a line of defense. Doing this helps you postpone the sadness. People tend to focus on their personal regrets as they look back at the interaction they had with the person they lost and note all the time that they caused them pain.
Unlike the other two stages, this stage has two phases. The first stage takes place in a beautiful, calm green forest. Like the stages before, Gris has to complete puzzles in order to progress forward.
At some point she meets a small, cute rock creature (I’m gonna call him Rocky). It will follow Gris but if she turns back and goes near it, it hides. Gris tries to befriend Rocky by giving him apples (this part is optional as either way they both are going to befriend each other). Rocky first follows Gris, then mimics her actions and then even helps her solves some of the puzzles. However, after Rocky helps her get an orb (which is required to get abilities), a sad cutscene plays where both of the say farewell to each other.
This entire phase, especially Rocky symbolizes help and the slow acceptance of help. The help that people want to give you to support you through this sad experience. The farewell sequence with Rocky symbolizes that relationships are impermanent and life can still continue.
In the second phase, Gris ends up in a ruined temple and she has to complete puzzles. Not much happens here but when you reach the top of the temple, Gris meets a black bird and it screams at her and she goes flying backward. The rest of the phase involves Gris trying to complete the puzzle with the interference of the Bird’s scream and defeating it.
The Bird symbolizes her inner demons, another obstacle. The scream represents her demons wanting her to fall back into despair. The demons don’t want her to receive any help.
After that, Gris comes across the Stone Woman and the Cutscene starts. This time the world takes on shades of blue.
Stage 4 – Depression
The fourth stage of Grief is known as Depression. This stage might feel like a quiet stage compared to the two previous stages. Like the other stages, even this stage is difficult and messy. You might feel the loss more abundantly. You might feel heavy and confused. In these moments, you might consider isolating yourself from the world, being unsociable, in order to fully cope with the loss. Dealing with depression can be immensely isolating.
Of all of the stages, I would say that for me, this is the most beautiful stage. This stage takes place below, inside an underground cavern which is full of bioluminescence and the place is filled shades of blue. In this stage, Gris gains the ability to swim and she swims further and further down to the point where she cannot continue. She needs help to go further and it comes in a form of a turtle. She goes deeper and comes across the Stone Woman again, and the Cutscene starts. Instead of releasing colors, this time she releases bioluminescence, which clears the foggy background.
Unlike the other stages where the Cutscene represents moving forward, this one is not that easy. While Gris is standing on the palm, a black ooze slowly starts to appear from below. It destroys the entire statue and starts to chase Gris but this time, in the form of an eel. The eel tries to eat Gris. The direction of the chase is upward and in the chase there comes to a point where she in unable to outrun it. When the eel tries to swallow her, the turtle comes to her rescue and saves her. After that she starts to slowly ascend to a temple (will explain it later).
This chapter symbolizes a lot of things. Firstly, the stage takes place underground and Gris goes deeper inside it. This represents the person falling deeper and deeper into sadness. Secondly, the color for this chapter symbolizes depression and sadness. Thirdly, the the black ooze and the eel represents her inner demons. The chase represents Gris escaping her demons, and the turtle represents the help that she receives from others.
Stage 5 – Acceptance
The fifth and final stage of Grief is known as Acceptance. You might feel different in this stage as you just had a major change in your life and that makes you feel different about many things. This is not necessarily a happy stage, as sadness and regret can still be present. When you come to the point of acceptance, it does not mean that you have moved past the loss but it means that you have accepted it and understood what it means in your life.
This stage takes place up in the sky on a starry night, but in a glass temple and is full of greenery. Gris goes completing puzzles using all of her abilities and to find the orbs. When she collects all of the orbs, a cutscene starts. She gains the ability to sing. Yes, to sing, her joy and happiness in life has come back to her. This is proven by in the fact that in the same cutscene and in the future, the plants and flowers bloom when she sings near them.
I mentioned a temple before. This temple is a place where Gris goes after she completes all of the stage. Think of it like a neutral zone. Whenever she completes a stage, she will bring orbs to the temple. The orbs will go up to the sky, forming a constellation in a shape of the bridge. After collecting the orbs she will fall from the temple in the sky to the temple on the ground and the game points out to head to the peak of the temple.
In order to write this, I had to play the game again. If I have to be honest, the events that take place from this point onward made me tear up. It was sad and beautiful at the same time.
Right when she goes up to the peak, the black ooze comes again and comes near Gris. It has become a Bird, and an Eel before but this time it was Gris herself. She stares at Gris and then screams at her and swallows the entire world (colors and the temple), and later, Gris and the screen turns black.
After a moment you see Gris, floating, or in a way, swimming. As she goes up, you notice bits of rocks sinking but later notice those actually came from the Stone Woman. At the top you are able to climb to a platform but there lies the Stone Woman lying on a platform, in the same way that a dead person would be kept. Gris then uses the floating pieces of the statue to go the piece which is the palm and then the final cutscene of the game starts.
Gris starts to sing and through her singing the statue gets repaired. The bits that were floating or have sunk come together. As the statue gets fully repaired, the black ooze starts to fill the world in a way that you pour water into a container. The ooze then swallows both Gris and the Stone Woman, but despite all this happening, Gris still sings and it’s due to that the ooze explodes, in a way, it gets deleted. She gets up but at the same time, the eyes of the Stone Woman open. Gris sings and fills up the world with color. Not only the temple but also all of the places that she visited before. It was on this playthrough I noticed the Stone Woman is alive and also sings with her. Gris goes and hugs her. Stone Woman tears up and a tear falls next to Gris. Gris then uses the constellation to go up to the sky and that’s it. That’s the end of the game.
This stage represents her healing process. Gris got her voice back and the world opens up to her. Her voice gives life to the surrounding, in a way she is in control of her happiness. The biggest obstacle to the development was her inner demons but despite it trying to bring her down in despair, she didn’t let it happen. She overcame her own darkness. She accepted the loss and moved on. Since, the game ends when she ascends to the sky, there is a possibility that everything that happened inside her own head, her imagination.
Up to this point, some of you might have different interpretation of the identity of the Stone Woman (her lover, sister, friend, mother) but let me tell you, the game actually reveals her identity in a secret ending. The ending takes place on a starry night on top of the hill with Gris and a woman, and they both play together. The woman is actually her mother.
GRIS has a perfect ending, but it can be said that good ending to sad games are not necessarily happy but bittersweet. The game is about a daughter trying to cope with the loss of her mother. Gris gets her voice (happiness) back but not by being happy and overcoming the darkness but by accepting that life can sometimes not be alright. The game illustrates that you are able to unite with yourself even after grief.
I could have just simply told the events in the game and explain only what it represents. However, I chose not to. Simply because reading that might not give you the same experience I did when I played this the second time. My experience with the game with the knowledge about grief was far more influential. It made me look at the game how the developers intended and I want you to experience that as well.
It’s debatable that video games can be considered as art but its games like GRIS that proves that even video games as a medium can be an art form to express emotional and mature themes. I do recommend playing this game if you are interested after reading this.
Thank you for reading through this very long post. I hope this feature would help you in a time of need.