‘Sym’ Is Beautiful, Creepy, Confusing

Social anxiety is a relatively common problem, but it’s not one that many people take seriously. When you’re in an anxious situation, sometimes you just want to hide and keep the eyes off of you. Enter Atrax Games and their new game Sym, an indie platformer that wants to teach gamers about social anxiety, all while in a stylized and emotive form. While Sym’s ambition and artistry must be commended, this indie platformer has design problems that loudly intrude upon a creative concept.

Sym 03
Sym
is a game about social anxiety disorder. The main character Josh is constantly torn between two worlds: the real world and a separate world where he can safely hide from his anxiety. The main mechanic is that Josh can enter the opposing world by slipping into the floor. The floor is essentially your portal, moving you into the other plane. When you do change planes, things change up. Some enemies can’t attack you in the real world, but can become dangerous in the other world. Blocks and platforms are identified by color, which invert from black to white (or vice versa) when you pass to the other side. It’s a nice little twist on the light-dark mechanic that so many games have used, giving perspective a way to shine on both sides of the coin.

The demo I played only allowed keyboard control, which makes the sketchy platforming all the more apparent. The stringy animations are stylized well, but the jumping controls have a noticeable delay, making pinpoint platforming tougher than it should be. Using the keyboard isn’t the biggest issue, though. That would go to the level design. The different stages have hazards and enemies that can attack you depending on which world you’re in, but the levels themselves are extremely labyrinthine and don’t provide a good indication on where you should be going. The constant motion between planes can disorient the player, making navigation just as much a guessing game as a surreal trip to an anxious psyche.

Sym 01

Sometimes you’ll need to hit a switch to activate moving blocks for platforms, but the blocks don’t necessarily operate as you might assume. This led to quite a few cheap deaths. In addition, moving from dimension to dimension can actually lock you into a certain part of the stage without a way to escape, forcing you to restart the level from the pause menu. The level design in Sym is too haphazard for a platformer, with confusing detours that will do more to frustrate than intrigue. In fact, there were instances where I completed a level, but was given no context or explanation as to how I did it. The level design is just too cluttered to provide coherence.

Sym’s presentation, on the other hand, is something I can’t commend enough. With a loose, sketchy graphic design, Sym bursts with a morose panache. Enemies and environments look like notebook doodles come alive (an interesting note, since social anxiety does affect younger minds as well). It’s a nice balance between a Roman Dirge comic and the stylized platformer Fancy Pants Adventures. The soundtrack is also spectacular. Level themes are quiet piano themes, while other parts of the game use a mystical post-rock buzz, like it was straight from a modern Moby album. Both graphics and sound give off a hypnotic tension, a perfect fit for a game about social anxiety.

Sym 02
Sym
has the style it needs to captivate, but needs design tweaks before hitting primetime. The level construction is hindered by its own desire to mystify the player, leaving a frustrating lack of direction and some loose platforming. Unlike other indie platformers, Sym’s layout never feels accommodating and rarely keeps its momentum going. You’ll find yourself stopping simply to recall where you are, as blocks flicker back and forth into view. It’s a shame, because the premise and presentation are both superb, intelligent expansions on the theme of anxiety. Sym is still in its early stages, so hopefully these mis-directional quirks are resolved, because this is an indie game that I’d love to see succeed.