With the rise of the indie market, games are becoming a method of self expression. Some games even throw entertainment out the window, like Depression Quest or The Static Speaks My Name, in favor of bringing sensitive social and personal issues to light. Sym is a puzzle platformer that explores social anxiety disorder through a melancholy black and white world.
Games with serious messages have the difficult task of balancing engaging gameplay with an often depressing topic. Not to mention the risk of alienating a large portion of the audience if the message happens to be too on-the-nose. Sym has taken a very subtle approach, with the game’s mechanic of switching between dual worlds serving as an allegory for anxiety.
The duality of Sym works very well in terms of both getting the point across and creating interesting puzzles for the player to solve. It’s very clever that only external forces like monsters and evil plants can hurt on the outside world, implying that anxiety can come from dealing with other people and situations. Yet the inner world’s spinning saws are just as dangerous, as isolation and the trappings of the mind can be equally devastating to a person suffering from anxiety.
The puzzles themselves are very well put together, forcing the player to dip in an out of each world to avoid death, and these puzzles can, in fact, be very anxiety inducing. The levels stretch farther and farther as the game moves forward, which wouldn’t be so bad if not for the absence of checkpoints. Players are sure to die very often due to the unexpected nature of certain puzzles, such as sudden drops onto seas of moving platforms.
While it’s understandable that a game about anxiety would engender some level of distress from the player, Sym tends to feel an awful lot like a rage game. There would be nothing wrong with this if the game didn’t depend mostly upon the difficulty of the puzzles to cause the player unease. The heavy reliance on the stressful gameplay to drive home the feeling of anxiety is not bad by any means, but it may have been more effective if a portion of the tension came from actual stressors that contribute to social anxiety.
Though Sym favors the subtler approach, it feels like certain aspects of the game were underutilized. Perhaps there could have been better use of the words and sentences scattered throughout the background of the puzzles, considering that anxiety has plenty to do with repetitive, noisy thoughts. It seemed like there were some missed opportunities to make the game more specific to anxiety as opposed to simply a game with a somber atmosphere.
This complaint is more of a nitpick than anything else, since there are so many other factors that were successful in contributing to the frantic ambiance of Sym. The ever trembling animation, the lidless eyeballs, and a gorgeous soundtrack are all combined to create a truly unsettling experience reminiscent of Limbo. The feeling of isolation is especially palpable in the dark, underground world.
Isolation is a prominent theme in Sym, and rightfully so, since loneliness is a pain that many of those who have anxiety feel very keenly. The two endings of the game reflect a choice that people have to make every day. Either step out into the light despite the fear of failure, or slink back to the safety of darkness at the cost of being alone.
A wonderful way that Sym has symbolically linked players together is through the level editor feature. Players can create their own levels and link those levels to other players’ creations, meaning that Sym holds the potential to be a huge network of user created content. This is an exciting opportunity for collaboration and the development of a community.
Sym is sure to strike a chord with players suffering from anxiety, though anyone can enjoy the game due to the subtle way with which the topic is handled. The artwork and soundtrack are both delightfully creepy, and the puzzles are punishingly hard, making for a challenging pseudo-horror experience that all players can enjoy.
Sym is now available for PC and Mac. Game Rant was provided a PC code for this review.