Gris was one of the last notable games to release in 2018, but it was definitely worth the wait. There’s a lot to love about the Nintendo Switch and Steam game: the smooth, balletic sense of movement; the gorgeous soundtrack that feels completely in-tune with the gameplay; and the touching story that’s vague enough to read into it what you will. As great as those things are, they aren’t what first comes to mind with Gris. Instead, you’re likely to hear just how beautiful it looks — and rightfully so. In my review, I described Gris as “a stunning animated movie that you can play.”
Naturally, making a game as pretty as Gris required a lot of work. The game was developed by Spanish studio Nomada, founded by a group of industry veterans who partnered with artist Conrad Roset to turn his evocative style into something interactive. But translating Roset’s art into a game was challenging. Take the main character, for instance. In the final game, she’s fairly simple, a head sticking out of a long, flowing cape, running around on tiny stick legs. But she started out with much more detail.
“The main character went through several design changes,” explains Nomada co-founder Roger Mendoza. “Initially it was more complex, we even wanted to show the colors unlocked on the dress itself, but we decided to simplify it a bit for two reasons: it didn’t work well with extreme zoom outs, which we do a lot, and it was much more difficult and time-consuming to animate.”
In fact, one of the most difficult parts of development was turning the art style into something that could be easily understood by players. “It was also a struggle trying to find the balance between art and readability,” Mendoza explains. “You always want to make sure every frame is beautiful, but at the same time don’t want to confuse the player. There was a lot of iteration on the level design and using visual and camera cues to make sure the player always knows where to go.”
One of the most notable things about Gris is the way it changes as you progress; initially the world is bleak and grey, but steadily you unlock color that brings the space to life. This means that the game is much more beautiful towards the end — which made creating a compelling opening section its own unique challenge. “We wanted to give a feeling of loneliness without making it look boring, so we used some Iwagumi aquarium-style as inspiration on that initial area,” says Mendoza.
Green, lively aquariums weren’t the only place the team looked to for inspiration. When it came to the architecture, for instance — Gris takes place in a world filled with crumbling buildings and statues — the artists based designs on real-world structures in India and Venice, as well as fictional locales, like the ruins of Shadow of the Colossus and the city of Naboo in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
The combination of color and architecture is what helps Gris tell its story. The game doesn’t have any dialogue or narration, instead relying entirely on visuals to convey the narrative. “We tell a big part of the story through the statues while relying heavily on the colors,” Mendoza explains. “The colors mark the progression of the story and the characters. That’s why at the beginning we did a color script to see the general palette of each area to make sure it worked well with the story.”
For a better look at the process behind making the game’s stunning visual style, be sure to check out the concept art below, which includes a handful of designs that didn’t actually make it into Gris.