Metaphor serves not only as one of the most used concepts in just about every medium imaginable, but also as the basis for entire works of art. Whole paintings are often metaphors for the artist’s feelings or background, and movies can link chains of symbolism together to represent some more abstract concepts. Games can go further by inviting the player into the metaphor itself through interactivity, conveying difficult real-world problems like illness and societal inequalities. The trick to creating an effective metaphor as a game is to be subtle enough with your themes so they don’t overwhelm the playing experience itself while simultaneously ensuring that the game still communicates the themes clearly. Sym, a platformer inspired by social anxiety, fails on both counts, leaving us with a clumsy, confusing experience whose bright spots are muted by rough design and heavy-handed themes.
Boiling down what Sym is about is simple: You play as a person trying to escape the prying eyes of other people by escaping into a world where they can’t follow you, one where you can be alone. This is reflected in your experiences by your ability to sink into the floor and emerge upside-down on the other side. Suddenly, what were once solid platforms become empty space to move through, and vice-versa. Occasionally, you run into switches that cause blocks to appear and disappear in patterns marked with arrows, and, of course, you have to avoid enemies and hazards. However, most of the game’s identity lies in its dual nature, forcing you to think about how far you need to progress before you have to switch orientation. Mapping out the correct path to the end is the most engrossing part of the game.
Sym’s mechanics falter when they’re put to the test, however. The floaty jumping mechanics don’t match up well with the frequent pinpoint platforming you’re required to do. It’s pretty difficult to land on a patch of safe ground only as wide as you are with the amount of control the jump physics allow, and not in a good way. Compounding matters is your character’s hitbox, which extends past your actual body ever so slightly. You’ll die by drawing too near a saw blade without ever actually touching it. And then there are narrow shafts you have to fall into at just the right angle or else get stuck awkwardly along the edge. The levels themselves are interesting thanks to good use of the orientation switching mechanic, but that’s the only bit that works as advertised. These issues are small, but they add up, sucking away the promising potential Sym initially displays.
But its biggest failing is in how it fails to convey anything meaningful about its inspiration from social anxiety. You can see the obvious starting point for the extended metaphor in the central mechanic. Sinking into the floor is synonymous with hiding from the world’s prying eyes as they try to drag you out into the light and consume you. What developer Atrax Games is going for here is pretty clear because of the game’s very literal interpretation of these platitudes. The first set of levels features giant eyeballs that stare at you without trying to hurt you. In these levels, only environmental hazards, like sawblades and pitfalls, can harm you. Later stages have actual enemies that will kill you, like carnivorous plants that spontaneously grow out of seeds you see on the ground or hungry beasts that pace back and forth looking for a meal. Even the people you meet later on prove to be foes, pulling you out of your hiding place in the ground as you dissolve in a fit of social paralysis. It’s all very on-the-nose, but you can see a vague character progression as fears intensify and you careen towards either finding friends amidst your anxiety or hiding away forever.
Though the game practically screams its inspiration at you, it has nothing coherent to say about social anxiety. The levels feature the aforementioned allusions to a hazardous world you must hide from, but everything else is muddled. The levels themselves rarely tell any sort of story on their own. Instead, anguished phrases are used to fill in the gaps where the game’s thematic design drops the ball. But these also confuse any thematic ties the game manages to establish by reading like a moody high school student’s musings scrawled in the margins of a notebook. That in itself is a cool idea, and it goes with the pencil-inspired graphics. But they don’t reveal anything or lead the themes anywhere except to depict anguish for anguish’s sake. Until the game splits off briefly into two different sets of final levels, the messages convey the same depth of pain and panic throughout. In fact, they sometimes border on incoherent ramblings not dissimilar to the stereotypically exaggerated dialogue you’d hear from a schizophrenic person on an episode of Law and Order, which matches poorly with the meager thematic progression the levels suggest. It’s confusing, distracting, and occasionally insulting to those who suffer from social anxiety.
The few themes that do come through loud and clear–hiding from social situations, the fear and consequences of being caught in one, and the eventual message that finding and sharing the connections and burdens between people is the beginning of the answer–all would make a fine foundation for a game like Sym if they were handled with more subtlety. Likewise, the erratic writing plastered everywhere contributes very little, actively obscuring any sense of progression the themes try to develop. Even when divorced from its themes, Sym manages to be mildly entertaining but just shy of a competent game thanks to the many small yet significant design flaws you have to work through. Most disappointing, though, is that Sym manages to successfully convey nothing enlightening, moving, informative, or even coherent about social anxiety. Hiding may be a central mechanic in Sym, but obscuring your meaning to this baffling degree is never the answer.