At first glance, Sym is a 2D style puzzle-platformer that tells the story of Joshua, a stick-like figure who journeys through a twisted world littered with enemies and hazards. Joshua isn’t like your average hero. He has no real strengths or powers. He doesn’t carry weapons or even fight his opponents. Instead, Joshua can literally retreat into another world, an ‘inside’ world, to bypass obstacles and journey on because Joshua is a teenage boy with social anxiety disorder. Not exactly saving the Mushroom Kingdom, right?
The British National Health Service describes Social Anxiety as ‘a persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations’. In regards to social situations ‘someone with social anxiety disorder will worry excessively about them before, during and afterwards. They fear doing or saying something they think will be embarrassing or humiliating, such as blushing, sweating or appearing incompetent.’ Often treated with a combined program of cognitive behavioral therapy, anti-depressants and psychotherapy, social anxiety can poison the lives of sufferers and is a truly horrible condition. Sym is an attempt to codify this experience and maybe even start to push back against it.
With knowledge of the disorder comes awareness of its implications in the game. As Joshua lurches through the stark world, what could initially be passed off as slightly dodgy controls becomes an integral part of the experience. Instead of the lightening quick and perfectly balanced controls of something like Super Meat Boy, Joshua awkwardly stumbles around his environment catching on corners and lurching from platform to platform. Joshua’s main form of escaping the horrors – his retreat to an inside world – suddenly takes on a despairing edge. He isn’t shifting dimensions, rather he’s retreating into himself to bypass those fears.
This inner world isn’t any safer than the outside though and is host to its own monsters and perils, a telling nod to how living with social anxiety can mean never feeling safe or comfortable anywhere. Words and phrases litter the background ranging from the mundane (‘a little effort’) to the almost unbearably sad (‘WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME’) and the soundtrack is haunting and minimalist, fading away even further into the background when Joshua switches to the inside world. The whole game hangs heavy with an almost unbearable melancholy that only gets worse with time.
Let me tell you a secret – it’s really hard to review a game when it straddles the line between therapy, art and entertainment. What do I start with? The complex weaving of ideas, style, atmosphere and gameplay all need to be experienced as a holistic whole and not distilled into its constituent parts. It also exists in a very specific setting and one which may need some prior understanding to fully appreciate what message is trying to be conveyed.
Sym could look like just your usual arty-nonsense if you choose to take it that way. The developers, Atrax, are from a creative/design background as opposed to game development but they’ve dealt with a sensitive, complex issue with real care and grace. Sym isn’t a fun or entertaining game and trust me; you won’t get any joy out of this. It’s a stark, haunting portrayal of a young man struggling to deal with his demons and it’s worth every minute of your time.
A bridge between me and others. I try, I fail.
Gameplay - 6/10
Plot - 7/10
Design - 9/10
Powerful imagery and stark material lead to a game that is short but certainly not sweet. Give it a try if you’re looking for something thought-provoking.