When you see Nomada Studio’s Gris in action for the first time, it’s impossible not to be blown away by its beauty. The art, the music, the atmosphere, the gameplay – all falls into place so perfectly that it’s truly breaktaking.
During my demo at Gamescom, I was sharing the slot with two other journalists and we took turns to play. We quickly agreed how incredibly peaceful and relaxing the experience was – not only playing it, but also just watching it. To the point where we eventually stopped taking turns, with only one of us playing and the others just enjoying the atmosphere, giving occasional advice on how to beat a tricky moment. Gris is so beautiful that being able to just sit back, relax and watch it feels like a treat in itself – especially in the middle of a hectic Gamescom week.
But Nomada’s platformer doesn’t shy away from its ambition of being a video game; it’s not just a pretty thing.
And that’s exactly what the studio wanted to accomplish.
“Our first ideas revolved around creating a game that evolved visually, not only mechanically, as the player advanced through it. With Gris, we try to go for an emotional, unique and accessible experience, something anyone can play and interpret personally,” Nomada Studio’s co-founder Adrian Cuevas explains.
Composer Marco Albano continues: “The idea was to develop a narrative in which the player can get lost, in which the player can get his own idea of what’s going on the screen, but also to combine art elements, like when you’re standing in an art gallery looking at a painting, with gaming elements.”
Albano is part of Berlinist, a multi-instrumentalist band that’s been creating the soundtrack and overall audio environment for Gris. Gemma Gamarra, another member of the band, is also the titular character’s voice. As Gris loses her voice, the player helps her on a journey to find it back, with her dress giving her new abilities to overcome the challenges ahead.
With the music and audio environment being so instrumental to the game’s plot, it’s no surprise to learn that Berlinist has been involved in the development of the game from the start. But before getting there, we need to go back in time a bit.
Gris’ world comes from the imagination of Spanish painter Conrad Roset, known for his dreamy watercolour portraits.
“It all started two years ago when Roger [Mendoza], Adrian and Conrad, the founders of the studio, met up in a bar,” Albano starts explaining, in what feels like the beginning of a joke. At that time, Cuevas had been working as a programmer at triple-A studios (IO Interactive, Ubisoft) for almost seven years, while Mendoza had spent the previous six years at Ubisoft Montreal.
Cuevas explains this shift: “After six years in the triple-A industry I felt like engaging with a closer, more personal project that allowed us more creative freedom and presented new challenges to face,” he says, echoing what a lot of former triple-A developers have been telling us this past year.
Albano continues the story: “They started talking about the idea of making an arty video game but with some challenge elements inside. So they talked and talked and in the end the idea became a real project. Two years ago, just here at Gamescom, they met up with Devolver and between them and Devolver it was love at first sight. So they started the project for real. They built up a studio, they hired people and Gris started to grow up.”
With its watercolour aesthetic, Gris doesn’t look like anything Devolver has published before. So it sounds like the indie publisher is diversifying its portfolio.
“The philosophy at Devolver is to hunt for very unique games, fun games that you will enjoy from the first moment of playing,” Albano reckons. “So maybe they saw our vision for the final product. It’s quite different from what you would expect from Devolver but in the end it’s a platformer with dimensional elements and a very unique style due the fact there is a painter here and his drawings are unique.”
Cuevas adds: “We had meetings with several publishers, and though everyone was amazing, we really hit it off with Devolver. Both the treatment and creative freedom sealed the deal for us.”
Unless Gris is the first video game you play in ten years, you’ll instantly get some references from the get go. While still being very unique, Gris also feels like an homage to some of the best indie games from the past decade.
“If you play Gris you can notice a lot of elements from other games,” Albano says. “You know, we are a painter, a musician but we are also gamers. So we played a lot of Monument Valley, Journey, Child of Light, Limbo and Inside from Playdead… So the idea was to combine the core elements that we loved the most but try to interpret them, to make a different interpretation of those elements and make them unique.”
For Albano, being able to reference other people’s work is a sign of the industry’s newfound maturity.
“The masters from these other games were really helpful to us, to understand those mechanics,” he says. “We also make it explicit in the game, we called some of these games. In other mediums like cinema, literature, you can put references to other people, other directors. It’s a sign that it’s an art industry that the games industry can make references to other works.”
Much like the games it looks up to, Gris is being brought to life thanks to its compelling audio environment and soundtrack.
And much like some of the best platformers out there (Ori and the Blind Forest being one of them), the music was developed hand-in-hand with the game, with the two thriving on each other.
“The first approach with music with just Conrad drawing a sketch on a paper – just a tree with a sun and some clouds. And he told me this would be the game: ‘start making music’,” Albano laughs.
“From his perspective it’s like: ‘I make paintings, I want music for my paintings’. But then when we were working on the different phases of the development, we received builds. So I tried to combine digital songs with real songs, real voices. You know the game is filled with watercolours so I tried to add a cloudy, foggy atmosphere to the music.
“In this case I looked a lot at music, sounds from [The Last Guardian’s] Trico and games from Fumito Ueda where every time it’s foggy it’s like you’re living a dream. So this was my approach. It was in part classic, as for an art gallery or museum, but also very dynamic because the music changes depending on the action you’re performing in-game.”
He continues: “Nomada sees me as a musician but also as a designer for the game because sometimes the music has changed the game’s approach. So we worked really closely. In the end the music also changed a lot until now. For example when you enter a puzzle zone, the music switches from intense or emotional to more relaxing to let you concentrate or if you pass through a zone and then you pass again with new elements, the music will also change. So I was interested, in a game like this, which is not 3D, with no fights, with no death, you just have to be part of the world… I don’t want the music to overcome the presence of the main protagonist and of the game.”
THE BEST PLATFORM
Gris is coming out on PC and Switch on December 13th, and while this choice is not a surprise in a way, given the incredible popularity of Nintendo’s platform, it’s still intriguing that it’s not coming to PS4 or Xbox One.
“In this precise moment, Switch is a great platform for this genre,” Albano explains. “So you know you have of course metroidvania titles like Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, but it’s also about how the platform feels when you play the game. We want to be on the best platform for this genre. And I suppose when talking about consoles, Switch is the perfect one. But we hope that the game will receive a good [response], that people will love the game so we can do a port for PS4.”
Cuevas confirms that it’s all about how Gris does at launch: “It depends on the reception the game gets at the beginning. If it goes well, sure, we intend to look into other platforms.”
If early impressions are anything to go by, Gris should be doing well really, with Eurogamer and Polygon already labelling the title as “the most beautiful game you’ll play this year.”