Mental illness is an interesting topic that has emerged quite frequently within video games. In games such as the recent Neverending Nightmares, we’ve seen this explored with the usage of genre, addressing the dark issues surrounding depression and bodily self harm. Spec Ops: The Line was a title clever enough to incorporate this through character development, showing the deteriorating mindset of Walker and his attempt to cope with PTSD. Papo and Yo, whilst not inherently dealing directly with any specific mental health issues, was able deal with the harsh realities of domestic violence and alcohol/substance abuse through gameplay integration.
Whether it’s through the mechanics, characterization and or general story-telling, there is a wide array of examples evident in a lot of titles, which has seen its areas of both helpful and harmful depictions of mental health. As a person who has suffered from mental illness, I of course had a very keen interest when it came to Atrax Games newest title Sym, a game that tackles the complex issues of social anxiety.
Seeing all the things that developers have been able to pull off in games, it was interesting to see how Atrix intended to incorporate complex issues into an engaging piece of media. Through its dark visuals and creepy atmospheric animations, Sym does a good in job in terms of presenting and tackling the issues surrounding this condition. However, thanks to a combination of awkward controls, frustrating platforming and the occasional technical problem, the results are mixed. It turn’s out that Sym‘s greatest enemy isn’t social anxiety: it’s simply poor design and bugs.
In Sym you play as Josh, a teenage boy affected by the difficulties of social anxiety. Set on the simple path of overcoming his phobia, Josh is pit in an alternate reality under the existence of two alter egos – Caleb and Ammiel. With Caleb, he lives up above the white world, serving as the positive force wanting to overcome his fears. With Ammiel, he lives within the darkness, alone and wanting to remain away from any forms contact.
Within these two worlds, Josh must utilize both alter-egos to overcome various obstacles. Buzzsaws, man-eating plants, walking monsters and bottomless pits are all the many things that players will come across in the game, providing with them their own challenges and level of strategy. After completing a certain amount of levels, players are able to unlock more worlds in the aid of Josh’s quest, before being able to finally help him to recover from it all.
In terms of graphics, characters, environments and monsters are presented in a nice sketchy black and white colour visualisation. Whilst simple enough in design, the concepts remain a pretty effective means of conveying the issues surrounding Joshua’s troubled mindset. As well as Josh himself not really showing any defining characteristics (race, gender and etc.), other creatures circulating the game’s world leave players with the freedom to come up with their own interesting interpretation as to what these creatures could possibly mean.
Most of the monsters inhabit the white world – the world of recovery, which Josh’s alter-ego Caleb lives above. It’s not too far of a leap to assume that perhaps the man-eating monsters are representations of Joshs fear of people. As for the plants and how they’ve been arranged, they possibly represent Josh’s inability to progress or face the outside world, or perhaps his attempt to find order from the unpredictable chaos of social situations.
It’s difficult to tell for sure, because while Sym is steeped in metaphor and imagery, it leaves the interpretation of that imagery up to you, avoiding the temptation to beat you over the head with how clever the developer is. Some may think that pretentious, but I actually appreciated the fact that the game isn’t overly heavy-handed in conveying its message.
Another thing that I admire is the developer’s focus on switching worlds and creating especially hard platforming areas. Providing more depth into how the game can be played, the portrayal of these two contrasting worlds intrigues in how it presents the myriad ways in which Anxiety sometimes rears its head, and how it can distort your perception of the world around you.
Despite the excellent premise and concept, the game’s presentation isn’t above criticism. Random snippets of dialogue are placed all around the levels of the game, obviously intended to give an impression of Josh’s troubled mind; but given the subtlety on display elsewhere, such a literal way of conveying the author’s thoughts felt clumsy and heavy-handed, and broke the otherwise thoughtful nature of the world’s design.
In the case of the level designs, I very much liked how most of them played out. With the difficulty that lays within some of the platforming areas, I felt it captured some of the feelings of anxiety and tension that anxiety sufferers like myself experience on a daily basis. I feel as if with some of the levels like this, the developers were able to successfully present the nature of Josh’s head.
As for the music, the game carries an eerie tone throughout, with discordant notes and slightly off-key melodies which bring to mind a broken music box. But technical issues spoil the immersion: tracks poorly transition over, and awkwardly loop back to the start with every new level.
More technical issues arise when it comes to navigating the levels themselves. Clunky and stiff controls hinder the fun, with little of the fluid sense of motion required to make tricky sections a joy to navigate, and sometimes deaths can feel arbitrary and random. Other times I struggled with falling down smaller gaps to progress, and often fell through a stage entirely while trying to solve a particular puzzle.
Overall, Sym is a game that I went into with a strong sense of eagerness and an open mind. However with poor controls, numerous technical issues, and poor design choices with text, it’s a game that hinders itself in both engagement and immersion.
As someone who suffers from social anxiety, I can appreciate the developer’s desire to explore complex themes within the game and raise awareness for how crippling and isolating the condition can be. In that sense, Sym definitely has a place among a certain type of game – often derided as being artsy, but which seek to inform as much as entertain. But however noble a goal that is, a game still needs be entertaining in order to be worth a recommendation, and ultimately the many bugs and frustrations mean that ultimately I can’t say that Sym is particularly fun or rewarding enough to make it a worthwhile purchase.