Symbolism as a Narrative Device In Video Games
Stories can be told in many different ways- from written works to visual works. However, storytelling in-game is completely unique because it mixes the two together while also adding a layer of interactivity. Like any good story though, foretelling is a powerful tool. One of the popular ways to foreshadow is through the use of symbolism- either from preconceived notions or from notions made prior to the game.
As said by C.S. Lewis, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning”(Lewis). This has to do heavily with how symbolism works. This is because symbolism uses imagination to give reasoning and meaning. In terms of reason, there is an item there with a rather literal meaning. There is a stone sitting there, a tiger’s eye. That is the literal meaning. But, once you use your imagination, you can see Tiger’s Eye symbolizes courage for the upcoming battle facing the protagonist in the near future. Once you give something more meaning than what it has literally, it takes on a new form. This is very frequent with symbolism.
There’s some very common symbolism in all media that carries the same meaning no matter where. For example, doves often symbolize peace and tranquility, much as they are peaceful within nature (Nediger). This also goes for the crow- one which shows up rather frequently in dangerous areas. They symbolize death and doom, which makes sense as they are corvids (Nediger). There’s also a more subtle way symbolism is done. For example, color theory is used consistently throughout art, movies, and even logos. Some of the basics of color theory are that “Warm colors are generally associated with energy, brightness, and action, whereas cool colors are often identified with calm, peace, and serenity” (Decker). Warm colors are reds, oranges, and yellows while Cool colors are blues, greens, and purples. However, when it comes to Symbolism in games, it ends up getting even more specific as it is a unique form of media.
When it comes to more of the specifics with how colors are used, a lot of it is based on where the colors are seen in nature. For example, when a player is at full health or is recovering health, green is normally used. This is because green is the color of life- the color of plants growing and of healthy leaves still upon a tree. Red is used for damage as it is a color of pain- the color of blood. Blue is used for magic due to its associations with water and how the flow of water can sometimes seem magical. Another example is purple, since it’s a color not seen often in nature, it’s used to represent materials that aren’t natural.
Currently, many games use symbolism very heavily. An example of this is The Legend of Zelda series. This series follows the adventures of Link throughout the land to take down a great evil (usually Ganon, but there have been other villains). Being as this series is approximately 34 years old, there’s a lot of symbolism with already existing things within the series/references as well as outside symbolism. For example, recurring themes of music are used frequently throughout the series in order to foreshadow things. In the game Ocarina of Time, it is revealed at the end of the game, Shiek (a character appearing later on) is the same person as Zelda. However, this is foreshadowed earlier on as Sheik’s theme has musical similarities to Zelda’s theme. The same medleys appear in both tracks. Another example of Symbolism in this game is the Ocarina. At the beginning of the game, as a child Link, your childhood best friend gives you a wooden Ocarina. As you progress through the game, right before the time skip causes Link to be an adult, you receive the Ocarina of Time. This is meant to show how he has matured and how he is growing into adulthood. There are other examples of Symbolism in games that stand out to me.
Another game that uses symbolism is Life Is Strange- a choice-driven narrative game released in the year 2015. This entire game is based on the concept of the butterfly effect, which states that a small action can have a big consequence that might not be noticed at first. The exact saying of the butterfly effect is, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”. This game keeps this sort of dramatism with the reactions to the player’s actions. In fact, the biggest choice in the game does cause a storm, much like the “Tornado in Texas''. In this game, the main character Max has the power to turn back time. Max turns back time in order to save her best friend, Chloe, from being killed. A blue butterfly is seen in this scene. Later on, due to this choice to save Chloe, the entire town is threatened by a storm powerful enough to kill everyone. This is a classic trolley problem- Max has to choose to either save Chloe at the cost of everyone or to let Chloe die. If the player goes back and lets Chloe die, a blue butterfly appears on Chloe’s casket at the end. Beyond this, the butterfly shows up on the GUI every time Max makes a decision that affects the overall world. This is such strong use of symbolism that created a narrative strong enough to inspire others in creating stories.
In the future, I wish to be a narrative designer. This means I want to be in charge of creating the stories of the games and be in charge of how the stories are told. Now, this means I will have to learn numerous ways and methods of storytelling. I have a basic understanding of stones and crystals, which I can use to convey stories. For example, the stone Rose Quartz. Rose Quartz is a stone of love and romantic relationships. I believe that there are many ways for this to be used for foreshadowing future relationships. Say that a character gives a dagger to another character with a silver hilt and rose quartz in the middle, leading up to a sharp blade. This could be used to symbolize a future relationship between the two. Another way this could be done with this type of stone is by combining it with other aspects. For example, say there is a cave with a rose quartz deposit next to a completely empty pond that was turned purple with poison. Since the purple and poison could symbolize a future death and rose quartz focuses on love, this could foreshadow the death of a character’s lover.
Games allow for a lot of symbolism and storytelling, more than is available in books or other media. In order to make sure the points get across properly, it is important that it is done concisely and with reason. With this in mind, I believe there is a large amount of potential for symbolism in games to tell a large majority of the story. Knowledge of nature and it’s meaning will allow for better storytelling.