As a young woman who struggles with depression and anxiety, it felt validating to play Sea of Solitude and Gris, two gorgeous videogames that tackle mental health through the eyes of women. While Sea of Solitude is grounded in metaphors and Gris revels in abstraction, both look at depression from multiple angles. One of the most fascinating is through the intersection of gameplay and art design—more specifically, how both play with color to emphasize their themes and communicate their messages.
Immediately upon reaching the Sea of Solitude title screen, you’re greeted with an image of a shadow monster with razor sharp teeth, a figure on a boat in its maw, set against the backdrop of a stunning blue ocean. This image follows you throughout the game as you play as Kay, a girl shaped like a monster with red eyes that mirror those of the large monster that haunts her every step. But there are also other beasts—equally enormous and covered in darkness, reflecting how society makes those with mental illnesses feel abnormal, monstrous, ugly.
At times, you’re in vibrant areas. After the game’s opening, you find yourself on a boat in a scenic environment where the water reflects the sky and the buildings are varying shades of red, orange and pink, communicating warmth and safety in a dreamy landscape. However, when Kay meets the monster, the pastel landscape shifts to desaturated, harsh and unwelcoming dark blues and blacks that overpower any gentle color that attempts to seep through. The only significant splashes of color are Kay’s blood-colored eyes and her bright orange bag, which she uses to remove sources of corruption.
Scenes fluctuate between the dull and lifeless and colorful and picturesque. When Kay must face a monster representing her little brother and her selfishness, she runs through colorless areas of his high school, overflowing with twisted figures that represent his bullies. She has to traverse this area by activating light, by introducing comforting yellows that match the light that guides her throughout her journey, and standing in it to wait for the monsters to reach the light and dissipate. When she gets hit, her world loses color, and the closer she is to death, the more devoid of color it becomes.
This absence of color is constant for Gris, whose entire journey explicitly focuses on facing her traumas and bringing color back into her world. It’s one of the few explicit details in this otherwise abstract game, which never quite specifies what happened to Gris or much else in general. While there are no grounded metaphors here like in Sea of Solitude, there is power in this abstraction, too, allowing the player to project their own sources of pain onto the story.
Gris begins with the protagonist running through a landscape that is entirely monochrome. She collects sources of light to help her explore different areas, with each one introducing one color back into her world. The first color is red, which dyes the scenery in rubies, scarlets and wines but lacks all other color. It’s not just about there being no color; it’s about Gris’ world lacking the diversity of color—of the various ways in which we must process hurt and treat our scars, of the various aspects of life that make it beautiful and worth living. As she progresses, she slowly re-introduces the other primary colors into her world. Greens, blues, pinks and the intersections between culminate to ultimately let her see the world for what it is once more.
It’s not as if her world is permanently filled with rich colors, either. Right before the end, Gris is swallowed by darkness and taken back to the grey ruins from the start of her journey. But as the hymns and violin playing in the background crescendo, Gris faces a representation of herself, embracing her and subsequently bringing back color to her world on her own terms. The game ends with her jumping from light orb to light orb in the sky, reaching greater heights, with there being so much color that all of the hues ultimately combine to create a dazzling light.
Traumas and mental illnesses are things we never quite overcome. They stay with us, mold us and shape the way we view and traverse the world. There will always be sources of grey, sadness and suffering in Gris’ and Kay’s lives, and in ours. But no matter how colorless our worlds become, the cycle of life demands colors to gradually come back. Perhaps in different gradients and levels of saturation, but they are meant to return nonetheless, and we can always look forward to that.
Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things at @heartimecia.