The Turtle in the Deep

In Gris, a 2018 video game by Nomada Studio, you play as a young girl who travels through bewildering landscapes that represent the five stages of grief as theorized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Each stage is depicted as a natural setting you must explore, accompanied by a series of puzzles you must solve. And each stage is tied to a color: gray to denial, red to anger, green to bargaining, blue to depression, and yellow to acceptance. Since the game is wordless, interpretations of what exactly the girl is grieving abound. This open-endedness means players can, at least to some extent, come to their own conclusions. Lay their own narrative atop the game’s interactive visual metaphor.

For me—and, I think, for many people—images do something words do not. I say this as someone whose primary method of processing the world is language. I live and breathe books, teach books, talk about books and the language within them every day. I love art that combines words and images too: comics, animation, video games. I have been moved by wordless comics and wordless short films. But I had never played a wordless game before. I had never been the one to push buttons and react to a story absent of language whose advancement depended on my participation.

In the gray Denial setting, for instance, despite having many buttons you can push, most of them result in the girl simply collapsing, head down. The only command that will further the game is the right arrow button on the directional pad, causing the girl to trudge slowly forward. Her walk takes a long time. There is no way to avoid it. The landscape is lifeless. You trod through the dusty wasteland.

In the next level, Anger, you venture through a desert that burns blister-red. Hot winds bellow and knock you off your feet. Each time this happens, you roll backward. It undoes some of your progress. I found this to be the most frustrating level of the game. In a meta way, it made me angry. Eventually, you acquire a skill that allows you to transform into a sturdy block, negating the wind’s effect. You plant yourself, a solid square, and wait for the howling sands to pass before resuming human form. I liked this. A metaphor for stubbornness, I thought. A refusal to be unmade.

Bargaining is a forest of green. But the trunks of many trees there still bear tones of red. Rather than confining each color to its level—as if emotions exist in tidy boxes—the game allows them to bleed and run. And isn’t this just the way of grief? As soon as you think you’ve cleared one stage, its traces drip down the sides of the new terrain like sudden rain, like sneaky mist?

The game takes emotion seriously. It understands that grief both is and is not like a series of levels, that clearance doesn’t always mean closure. It understands that even as you leave the winding forest, part of you might still be collapsing. That even as you gain new skills—gliding! dashing!—you may, at times, still need to become the block. To hold yourself tightly and focus all your energy on the effort of simply not dissolving.

In the blue level, Depression takes the shape of a deep, deep sea cavern. No matter how deep you go, it funnels you deeper, past pale hues and into cobalt. Here, the metaphor extends not only to color, but to space. The level’s verticality a testament to sorrow as you plunge, somehow, even deeper.

In this underwater level, you encounter what looks like an ancient urn, painted shades of muted mauve. After solving a few puzzles, you earn specks of light. You bring them to the urn and watch it come alive. It rotates on its axis, revealing a red-pink side formerly unseen. Flippers, a head, and a tail sprout from the vessel, which, it turns out, is a shell. Inside is a turtle. Its body softly glows. I would call the color fuchsia. Not quite magenta. Not a sunny pink, not a soft one.

The turtle swims off, and you continue on your journey. Later in the level, you bump into a monster that has chased you since the anger level. It stands for despair, perhaps. Its body is smoke-like, shifting and elusive. It first appeared as a giant bird. This time, it appears as an eel. It is enormous—like a skyscraper lunging at the tiny girl as she thrashes and paddles away. It alters its shape, splitting in two as the path forks, pursuing you no matter which way you go. It fuses back together and snaps at your heels, sending you cartwheeling through the waters. Despite your best efforts to outrun it, it picks up speed and unhinges its jaw to devour you. You are inside its mouth. The jaws are poised to shut. But then, the turtle soars up from the bottom of the frame, bursting through the eel, dissipating its body.

The turtle climbs upward, out of the depths, with you on its back. It draws you ever higher. Its red-pink shell glows, quiet and triumphant, as the spiraling traces of the eel fall away. The dive has been deep, so the ascent is long. The turtle swims and swims.

I wept when I saw this. Unexpectedly. In comment sections online, I read that others did the same. Perhaps because the scene is wordless—just image, motion, and music—it unlocks some guarded gate. It provides abrupt catharsis, whether some players are ready or not. Whether we can fully grasp its meaning or not. Whether we can give it a name or not. The turtle could be community, some say, or hope, or epiphany, or self-love. Symbols don’t have to have one fixed meaning, and the turtle seems to signal different things to different people. Karl Paulnack writes that “[m]usic has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us,” and I believe images can do this too. Combine the two, and you can make a kind of magic. One that moves the pieces around. Unsticks what has been stuck.

What fascinates me personally is the color of the turtle. That irrepressible fuchsia. The game takes pains to link colors and emotions, and the turtle is closest to red. Red, meaning anger, an emotion with mixed connotations. Understandably so: Anger can be reckless and destructive. But to me, the turtle is an anger that scoops you from the depths. A kind of anger that rescues.

In a 2020 Tweet, Lynds Gallant shares advice from a therapist: “Your anger is the part of you that knows your mistreatment and abuse are unacceptable. Your anger knows you deserve to be treated well, and with kindness. Your anger is a part of you that LOVES you.” The Tweet went viral. It clearly hit a nerve. It nudged at something unspoken.

A while back, I was subject to mistreatment that veered into cruelty. So when I played this game, I felt it shudder through my bones. I felt the girl’s slump as each button provoked collapse. I felt her slow march, grim and determined, as she put one foot in front of the other. I’m sure the rage I felt while playing the Anger level was due to my own experience of being blown back again and again. I’m sure the block skill satisfied because I get called stubborn, because my stubbornness has been a shield.

And still, I have moved forward. The last level is Acceptance, golden and warm and bright. Like the girl, I have moved upward, learned to glide and dash, learned to swim and sing and make things bloom. In the end, the girl is not swallowed by her grief. She makes it. So have I.

Again, this isn’t to say that clearance is closure. Even in the Acceptance stage, blues, greens, reds, and grays appear. They just aren’t the dominant hues. The game understands how these things can coexist. Happiness and glances of pain. Healing and dressed wounds that sometimes still ache.

A friend asked once how I was managing to heal after everything that had happened. It was, she suggested, a heavy thing to bear. And it was. It pursued me like a ravenous eel. Its jaws might have gobbled me whole. But something else was there, even in the deepest waters. Even that far down, where unknown creatures dwell.

Thinking back on her question later, I remembered a time when I heard a woman say that she could not begin to heal from certain things that had happened to her until she allowed herself to imagine the healthiest version of herself. With that image in her mind, that aspirational self, she kept moving closer to it, step by step. She made it something buoyant that lifted her.

The woman’s story prompted a thought in my mind: There was someone she could not give up on being. An inner mirror rotated and turned the question back on myself: Who could you not give up on being? That question, that hope, is joined by fierceness that defends. A hard shell that holds gentle cargo.

“A sixth stage of grief,” my friend suggests. Not solid-block anger, but anger that moves. Anger that carries us toward clean air.

Like others, I still do not know the name of the turtle. Maybe it is “sacred anger.” Maybe its name is “will to live.” The fighting spark that keeps us alive. It feels like protectiveness. It feels like a flame. It feels like saying “no.”

This is the thing that saved me, in part. I did not expect it to be anger. And maybe it isn’t anger, exactly, but a cousin, like fuchsia isn’t red. Maybe it does not have a name. Maybe it swims outside of language. Holy and furious, tender and resolved. A thing with fins that cannot be repressed.