Making ‘Sym,’ a Haunting, Poetic Game About Anxiety

May 8, 2014 | Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Francesco Lanciai and Sebastiano Morando—together Atrax Games—about Sym, an intricate little game that explores its creators’ multi-faceted personalities.

Sym eventually asks you to make a choice, but not before it puts you through a vicious wringer of self-loathing. Its black and white levels are decorated with the protagonist’s inner monologue, and it’s sometimes painful to read. His name is Josh, and his abstract form represents a person wracked with doubt and anxiety.

“I want to change but I can’t. I don’t want to talk at all. Please don’t stare. Miserable person, odd, freak. But inside, I hear grinding noises and tears dropping.” These words and many more are writ large across the spaces Sym explores. This is the brain of a teenage boy, according to co-creator Sebastiano Morando.

“We like the idea of saying something with video games. It can be to narrate a story, or it can be like Sym, to explore more complicated concepts,” Morando said. This is also personal for him; like many teenagers, Morando was shy growing up and was usually nervous, especially in social situations. He thinks many gamers can relate.

Josh, the protagonist, shifts through the floor in Sym‘s two-dimensional levels, alternating between a black world and a white world. In one, man-eating plants await his footfalls; in the other, sharp-edged flowers chop him to bits. The black world is the real world, where Josh feels small and exposed. The white one, no less dangerous, is the world he’s created inside himself, where he retreats to achieve a false but comforting sense of security. At the end Sym makes you choose between them, though neither is technically “right” or “wrong.”

“Maybe this game is a narration of the path to become less shy and more open to other people,” Morando said. “My path is to be happy with other people, but the player could choose to close himself even more.”

Natives of Italy, Morando and his cohort Francesco Lanciai have created several games together under the Atrax Games label. Morando handles programming and Lanciai designs the graphics.

The idea for Sym was sparked by a drawing that showed a person dissolving into his separate personalities. Morando imagined “disintegrating himself” until his various aspects became manifest and battled one another for control. It led to the game’s “shifting” mechanics, where players move back and forth between the light and dark/real and imagined worlds.

“This person will explode into thousands of other little persons, the many personalities that we have,” Lanciai said. “And all the little people who they are made of go everywhere.”

“The protagonist is afraid of contact with other people, with the world in general,” Morando added. “He creates this world to escape from the outside world. The game narrates the battle.” His speech tinged with a heavy accent, Morando groped for the word “bildungsroman,” which he eventually typed into the chat field of our Skype conversation window. It has to do with coming-of-age or realizing one’s full potential; in other words, when your best side wins out, or the many aspects of your personality converge into one.

Unlike many other artistic games that tackle complicated real-world subjects—like the Alzheimer’s-themed ALZ, in which you simply walk to the right for a few minutes—Sym is not easy or simple, with complex puzzles that use devices resembling the “and/or” logic gates found in electrical and computing components.

“The game was only black and white, and I am a programmer, and I am a computer scientist—so what else is only black/white? Zero/one,” Morando explained, referring to the binary code at the heart of computing. “I think that was the perfect match.”

Nevertheless, Morando and Lanciai think Sym is too simple. They consider the existing version something of a prototype, and want to expand it with more levels, more varied puzzles, and a more robust level editor. They want to make it more like Minecraft, Morando half-joked, and enable players to link their custom levels together. “The concept of the game was bigger than the game itself,” Lanciai said. Sym has only 48 levels, many of which are quite short. He has a point.

Still, there is much to be gained from experiencing Sym‘s strange blend of brutal gameplay and fervent, disjointed poetry. So what do they want players to take away from it when they’re done? “I hope they go out and they explore the world,” Morando said.

“But after that I hope they return home and play with the level editor,” he added, laughing.

Sym is available now from atraxgames.com.