The Symbolism of Simple Actions
Climbing a ladder. Looking out of a window. Opening a door. In the literary world, more than just simple actions, these are often moments that the writer uses to give insight into the psyche of a character. These actions can be layered into a story to subtly hint at or subconsciously influence the perceptions of the reader. They can support or betray a character's intent, and in games they can be a strong opportunity to inject some authorial notions without take control away from the player. We have these physical moments in games all the time, so why don't we use them as often to reflect the theme as much as the purpose?
Getting Past The Pretentious
"...a novelist should make his spade a spade before he makes it a symbol." - Nigel Watts
Few ideas are so quickly labeled as pretentious art fluff like symbolism. In fact, when I first entered college, I was always first to roll my eyes when it entered into critiques. No matter how many portrait paintings we had to dissect in regards to the placement of objects or the environment, I refused to believe such things honestly held that much importance. In fact, it wasn't the visual arts that swayed me towards believing in the power of symbolism. It was literature. Specifically, one piece.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Since you are already reading something, you should go ahead and read that too. If you want to deny yourself with the TL;DR version, here is the Wikipedia entry.
Beyond the fantastic and haunting imagery of the yellow wallpaper itself, what has always stuck with me was the fact that the woman is locked upstairs and the window is overlooking the garden. Think about what it means to be upstairs in your home. It is your most personal space, furthest away from the outside world. Now imagine being locked away in your most personal and secluded space. It really is the perfect setting for the story and truly adds to the narrative. The window and it's garden view is as equally important. The garden illustrates the chance to flourish and grow outside of the room and the window represents the narrow and fragile view she is afforded towards that actual growth.
Those two elements are so fundamental to the theme of the story, and felt so deeply, I couldn't help but be converted to the importance of symbolism.
Symbolism As Authorial Suggestion
"Write your story or novel the best that you can - write it truly and well, as Hemingway might have said - and don't worry about what will be symbolic and what won't be. Let things and characters that turn out to be symbolic simply materialize." - Ron Rozelle
So how can we approach this in games? Suggesting goals is a good place to start, and as luck would have it, I just recently started Dark Souls, which has a great example. After you get through the tutorial section of sorts, you are dropped into the main world with the option to go either up or down, both presented as equally terrifying. I instinctively traveled up first. It wasn't until I read Chris Dahlen's article about this moment that I realized it was actually the easier path which should be tackled first. So I wonder, why did I inherently choose to go up, which was essentially the designer's intended path? Maybe it is due to a little suggestive symbolism?
Going up, towards the light of the heavens is definitely a far more appealing option than heading down, closer to the home of demons. Traveling up embodies the idea of getting closer to our self, while traveling down is a journey into our worst fears. Certainly the visual framing of the cliff and the towers, with the bright sun reflecting down also directs our attention, but for a game so intent on occupying all the senses of the player, it is hard to not feel the symbolic ques upon further reflection. In both narrative and objective they strengthen the experience.
And that is when symbolism is most powerful. Not in the moment, but upon reflection. Not heavy handed, leading the player in a straight line by their nose, but as a faint whisper in the air. It is just another tool of the designer to suggest goals, direction, and emotions that the player can then weave into their own narrative tapestry. It becomes a tangible detail during moments of hyper awareness, recalled as players recount their experiences. But because of its subtlety it can be as easily ignored by those not wanting to hear or look for it.
When seeing a new area or creature for the first time, think about what it means to view it through a window or through a doorway. Is the window or door open, intact, broken or boarded? Are you entering the scene from above or below? Those are just a few of the spatial and architectural clues that can double as symbols. These can be great details that, if thought about before important moments or areas in your game, can become emotional highlights without much polish time or rework needed.
Symbolism In The Actions
"... keep any symbolism subtle - present but hidden, there but not there." - Harvey Chapman
Beyond just the symbols of the world, how we move through them can mean just as much. Crawling, running or jumping each have their own meaning and emotional purpose beyond the action itself. Running down stairs has an entirely different feeling than crawling down them. While these are things animators often try to inject into their work, it is often these more banal movements that are tilted towards the generic in lieu of more exciting sequences. But what if going down ladders was signified in the design as a symbolic gesture of diving into a character's fears? Then the enter, climb down loop, exit and even slide should reflect that in the posing and pace. Not so much as to drastically change the movement speed of the character, but just a slight hesitation in the speed to suggest what lies ahead. With animation layering, the possibilities of any number of symbolic actions can take place without drastically affecting the controls of the player.
How a character uses its weapons and items can be equally important. Is your character a cold and emotionally distant assassin or a rowdy and resourceful warrior? In the case of the assassin, they will always keep hold of their blade, using it to symbolically keep everyone at a distance from them and to never feel human contact. They would also never use a fallen enemies weapon, because that is too personal an object to them. Likewise, when knocked down, they will clutch tight to the blade because it is such an intrinsic part of them. As for the boisterous warrior, they ARE the weapon. They have no problem letting go of whatever they are using to get their hands dirty or using the weapon of an enemy against them. They relish the personal touch, and when knocked down don't need to hold on to their weapon to get back up.
But beyond combat, this can be carried through in their general movements. With the assassin, their blade could be a spear that they actually use to navigate around the world, again keeping it as a buffer between themselves and the world. Contrast with the warrior that rolls around or puts their entire body into contact with the environment. Neither of these have to come as a hindrance to the gameplay that takes away from the player's control or playstyle, only as slight personality cues that can further connect them to the world.
A Symbolic Gesture
“Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity.” - Stephen King
Symbolism can be used to subtly imply goals or suggest themes and emotions. They can also be overly blunt and rip the player out of the experience when they come on too strong. They are, after all, completely authored by the developer. But when built subtly and organically into the world, they can be a true moment of interactive reflection by the player, where the designers meaning is as much felt as it is seen.