Games are an interesting thing when it comes to delivering a message. We’ve seen games that are as blunt and ineffective at it as Depression Quest to more mechanical implementations like Papers, Please. There’s a wide variety of games with messages, from blunt trauma examples to those that tend to more subtle delivery.
Sym is more on the blunt side, but thankfully, unlike Depression Quest, it has a firm grasp on its message and what it wants to show, and provokes thought with some of what it leaves in ambiguous territory. Sym is a game that looks into social anxiety and attempts to communicate how people with that feel through a mixture of platformer game play, carefully chosen phrases, and effective use of metaphor and symbols.
Given my earlier toss at Depression Quest and the topic of Sym, it’s important to preface this that what interested me in Sym is its topic. That is due in large part because I have been diagnosed with Social Anxiety, as well as Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, among a few other things. I’ve been dealing with these various issues in some form or another for over a decade and have spent more of my life having them as issues to deal with than not.
Sym is a tough game to review because there are two different but connected parts: the game play and the message. While the game is all about delivering the message, I do think that it is important to look at the mechanics as well and how well they function.
Sym’s game play is a relatively standard platformer. There are enemies to avoid, environmental hazards to avoid, and certain platforms you have to hit. While there are some simple puzzles in the game, for the most part it is about figuring out how to avoid the threats that are there using the core mechanics of the game.
Those mechanics are pretty simple when you boil it down. You can move about with the arrow keys and jump with space as your only ways of moving about. The main mechanic in this game that differentiates it from other games is the ability to change which world you are in, either the "real world" or the "inner world." We’ll dig in a bit more to the symbolism of that later, but you have to use the transition between the worlds to get around to different areas.
In each of the separate worlds there are separate challenges. When in the "real world" there are seeds you have to avoid as if you step on them, they will gobble you and enemies wandering about who will gladly munch on you if you run into them. On the darkside there are whirling blades of doom and later on enemies who will pull you out of your personal world into the "real world." In essence though, the threat is the same in both—one static type you have to avoid, and one moving that you can’t let touch you.
Sym also relies on switches and changing parts of the level between white and black when you hit them, allowing you to either jump on the paths it opens or go into the other world and use the path opened in the other world as a way around.
Level design is solid and mostly takes advantages of the game's core mechanics, creating different puzzling situations to piece together utilizing them. With only 44 levels it is a bit on the short side, especially when you consider that the first bunch of those levels are spent introducing mechanics or different ideas. These levels are relatively short in the first two groupings of rooms until the game begins to hit its stride, giving more freedom in the later levels. While the game comes with a level editor, it is a bit shy on flexibility on a quick look, and the user created levels available for the game appear to be essentially non-existent.
However, this brings us to the big issue Sym has in gameplay: precision. There are a couple elements here but any platformer relies heavily on precision, and Sym tends towards wanting that more than many. The first issue you’ll find really quickly is that the controls are unresponsive to some extent. They are clumsy, clunky, and often just feel bad. Compounding that is a bit of a hitbox issue where it feels inconsistent with the exact points the plants will gobble you up or the spinning blades slash you up.
In some genres clumsy controls would be an irritant but far from a major flaw. The same would go with what are relatively minor hitbox issues. However, when the game relies heavily on precise jumping and positioning, those things become major flaws.
After going through Sym’s game play, which is decidedly average, how does it go about delivering its message?
It nails it. It’s clear the creators of Sym know what they are dealing with as an issue and make great use of not just straight up words and statements all around but excellent use of allegory, art and, ambiance.
Throughout the game, you’ll often find different phrases written about in sentence form on the background. While early on these tend to be instruction for the most part, what they fit are thoughts that people with social anxiety have—the sort of thoughts that tend to loop and feed the problems and can get out of control.
While those are relatively blunt, the game manages more subtlety as well. The game has numerous eyes throughout the levels—that have little more than aesthetic purpose—open and watching as long as you are in the "real world." That is how it feels often with social anxiety, people are watching everything, there’s always something going on, and always judging.
The core dual world mechanic also heavily ties into this, as the white top area that you can go around in is the real world. There the eyes are watching, seeds of doubt wait to grow and swallow whole, and people, the ever constant issue of people, wander about. In the dark world, your private world, it feels safer. That is where you control it—where those people cannot go and where you can withdraw. However, in the dark world you’re in more danger of those thoughts getting out of control, of self harm potentially, as represented by the spinning blades.
While withdrawing can be the safer answer it feels in many cases for people with social anxiety, it is often not the best one. And Sym's story travels through some of the trials and struggles a person with crippling social anxiety may face with each of the different chapters having themes that cover them and hit a very poignant note on them.
Almost everything in the game when you step back has some symbolism if you think about it. The seeds that gobble you are self doubt, the eyes are those of pressure and feeling of people around you, the monsters are actual people, the switches are the way things seem to just change sometimes with no real rhyme or reason—and there are multiple meanings potentially to some of them.
Long story short, Sym from a message stand point is absolutely nothing short of brilliant. It provides enough direction to let people see inside, as the thoughts written out can help give that insight necessary to understand and empathize, but it avoids relying on just them instead using atmosphere and game play to back it up. They also connect great with people who've had those issues because it helps show that no, they aren't alone, and that it is something others feel at times. One of the chapters themes is loneliness, and it is an issue often for people with mental illnesses to feel that way given the stigma towards them, and anxiety especially tends to get dismissed as "everyone feels some."
Speaking of the aesthetic, it does a good job with the art style for the most part. It's clean and crisp, and unlike some black/white games, never feels disorienting. It has a stylized take that helps emphasize the fact that this is in someone’s head and is an abstraction with the odd way it looks.
The music is solid but can get a bit repetitive. One of the strengths it has is that it reacts to when you swap worlds, quieting down and changing tunes to help emphasize the differences.
Overall, Sym as a message is fantastic. As a game it’s much more middling, so while my final score will be below, I am going to list two here just to make it clear.
On pure game play and content I give Sym a 5/10 as the controls really drag it down as does the lower amount of content but varied, if few, levels and a good aesthetic help.
As for how it delivers its message, and if you want to experience it, I’d say an 8/10 is where Sym is. It is a wonderful example of how a game can do it using mechanics, sharp writing, and art to come together to inform and share information with people.
Sym is available on Steam for $8
This key was obtained from the developer via Evolve PR.