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Four Ways to Use Symbols to Add Emotional Depth to Games

Max Payne. Elite Force. Theif. Ico. Deux Ex. Oddworld. Medal of Honor. Baldur's Gate. The more recent Final Fantasy games. More and more developers are pushing the game design envelope, forging new entertainment experiences and art forms that draw on the roots of traditional gaming, but also partake of more sophisticated storytelling and characterization. For game designers involved in creating each successive advancement, these are exciting times.This article will explore four different ways to use symbols to evoke emotional response from an audience.

David Freeman, Blogger

July 24, 2002

33 Min Read

Max Payne. Elite Force. Theif. Ico. Deux Ex. Oddworld. Medal of Honor. Baldur's Gate. The more recent Final Fantasy games. More and more developers are pushing the game design envelope, forging new entertainment experiences and art forms that draw on the roots of traditional gaming, but also partake of more sophisticated storytelling and characterization.

As the production values in games continue to soar, the trend toward equivalent advancement in storytelling is inevitable. For game designers involved in creating each successive advancement, these are exciting times.

Remember in Braveheart when Mel Gibson charged into battle holding a handkerchief his wife gave him before she was murdered? That handkerchief is a symbol. This article will explore four different ways to use symbols to evoke emotional response from an audience.

But first, let’s look at some of the fundamental issues relating to the role of emotion in games.

Why Put Emotion into Game Stories?

This is an important discussion, and probably one that deserves its own article. But, in a nutshell, other than the inherent joys of creating a rich work of art, the reasons also boil down to potential profits.

First of all, many more people watch film and television than play games. Most will never be lured into playing games until games begin to offer the emotional range and depth of the entertainment that they’re used to enjoying. Also, a more involving game experience means better word of mouth and more buzz. The press likes to write about these kinds of games, which results in more sales. Seeking out better profits also means staying ahead of the competition. Certain game developers are working hard to advance emotion in gaming. Those creating games with stories and characters without investing in putting emotional depth into their games will find themselves further and further behind, and their games will be eclipsed.

And, the better game visuals get and the more games look like films, the more people will want to compare them to films. Thus, weak writing and shallow emotional experiences in games featuring stories and characters will increasingly stand out negatively in consumers’ minds.

Many of the challenges that designers face in creating emotionally rich game experiences have already been addressed in other media. Traditional screenwriters, deprived of the game designer’s ability to actually insert an audience into a film, have figured out perhaps thousands of ways to induce emotional involvement.

Game designers will want to test the applicability of these techniques to their new games and modify them so they’ll work within an interactive experience.

A big part of successful communication between a writer and his or her audience is writing outside of the audience’s conscious awareness. No one expects the game player to pick out every sound used in a game’s sound design, nor every instrument utilized in a piece of music, nor every tiny shadow. So too, an extraordinary amount of what a writer does is designed to affect a game player emotionally but not be consciously noticed. This article will focus on the use of symbols, which are almost always employed in a way so that they’re just on the edge, or preferably just outside, of a game player’s conscious awareness. A workable rule of thumb is that no more than 25 percent of the players who come upon a symbol should be consciously aware that it actually is a symbol.

The five arenas of “deepening.”

I use the phrase “deepening techniques” to describe all those writing techniques that impart a sense of depth to a piece of dialogue, a character, a relationship between two or more characters, a scene, or a plot. Other words that mean something similar to deepening include poignancy, soulfulness, layers, and emotional or psy-chological complexity. When people talk about these things, they’re talking about what I call emotional deepening. Symbols are always a deepening tool.

One game designer who has taken some of my story and writing workshops pointed out that to focus on more subtle or sophisticated techniques such as the use of symbols is putting the cart before the horse. Many game designers might benefit from learning more basic techniques for creating rich, complex, and compelling characters and natural dialogue. This is true. But one nice thing about symbols is that, with very little effort, you can easily and precisely enhance the depth of your scenes and plots.

When you create a symbol, you’re not trying to create an intellectual puzzle in which the player tries to figure out what the symbol means. Such an intellectual exercise would work directly against the goal of increasing emotional immersion. Instead, symbols, when employed artfully, should evoke emotions — even though, when you do your work well, most players won’t consciously notice the symbols that you use. It’s not necessary for a game player to notice a symbol in order to be emotionally affected by it.

It’s certainly O.K. that a small percent-age of players who consciously notice your symbol might stop and think about the symbol’s meaning or meanings. But it’s only acceptable if, at the same time, the symbol generates in those players an emotional experience as well. Following the guidelines in this article will help ensure that this is what the player actually experiences.

Another advantage to using symbols in game design is that games often offer an opportunity that films do not. In film, symbols, when used artfully, enhance emotional depth. As we’ll see, when used in games, symbols can not only perform this function, but can also be used or given a function in gameplay as well.

Symbol Type #1: Symbol of a Character ’s Condition or Change in Condition

This use of symbols is what I call a scene-deepening technique, because you use it in a specific scene and might never use the same symbol again. Its use can be either visual or verbal, meaning that there must be either something visual on screen or something said by one of the characters that reflects what an on-screen character is going through emotionally.

Example #1:Visual.

In a particular episode of Star Trek: Voyager, Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) finds herself in an extended battle with the captain of a rogue Federation ship. The captain and crew of that ship are killing harmless aliens in order to use the chemicals in the aliens’ bodies to propel their ship. But Janeway herself becomes so obsessed with stopping the rogue captain at any cost that she crosses the bounds of ethics and good judgment and imperils her crew. This conflict generates a series of arguments with Chakotay (Robert Beltran), her first officer.

A metal plaque with the words “U.S.S. Voyager” falls off of Voyager’s bulkhead during the battle with the rogue ship. This plaque is a symbol that the spiritual core of Voyager — including the moral codes of the Federation, the Starfleet tradition of honor and humanity, and the moral center of the people who uphold these codes and traditions — has been damaged. It’s a symbol of Janeway’s and Chakotay’s conditions or changes in condition.

The plaque falling off of the bulkhead affects us emotionally. If viewers make only an intellectual connection between the plaque and the abandoned Federation values, then the writer hasn’t been artful enough in his or her creation of the symbol.

Example #2:Visual.

The 1957 war film Bridge on the River Kwai won many Academy Awards and still stands up as a masterpiece. Alec Guinness plays Colonel Nicholson, who commands a group of British soldiers captured by the Japanese and forced to work as slaves in a POW camp in Burma. I won’t reiterate the convoluted plot, but in short, due to his ego, Nicholson has his men help the Japanese build a strong and beautiful bridge. In effect, he has helped the enemy. But, near the end of the film, during a battle at the bridge, he has a powerful revelation, and says, “What have I done?”

At that exact moment, he reaches up and touches his commander’s cap. This is a symbol of the character’s condition or change of condition. His touching the cap is a symbol of his changing back to becoming what he once was — an honorable British soldier.

An explosion goes off nearby that knocks him to the ground, wounded by shrapnel. When he stands up, his cap lies on the ground, but he’s too dazed to notice immediately. He reaches for the top of his head and realizes that the cap is gone. He then bends down and picks it up off the ground. His reaching toward his head for the cap, and then his picking it up off the ground, again is the same kind of symbol, signifying that he’s become the honorable man he once was.

He puts his conversion into immediate action. As he dies from the shrapnel wound, he directs his fall onto a dynamite detonator, which in turn blows up the bridge he had so painstakingly built. As was the case with the Voyager example, most people in the audience wouldn’t consciously notice this element. And yet it would still contribute to the depth of the audience’s emotional experi-ence. It’s a strange moment for a writer when he or she realizes that a great deal of writing involves trying to create emotional effects that no one will consciously perceive, perhaps ever.

Example #3:Verbal.

Perhaps you saw the provocative film American Beauty, in which Wes Bentley plays Ricky Fitts, a teen without fear of social pressures, who has an honest appreciation for the beauty all around him. He seems, in some ways, to be enlightened.

Contradicting his supposed enlighten-ment is the fact that he sells drugs, is completely emotionally detached, and is fascinated by death. In fact, his veneer of serenity is what I call a “mask,” or a false front. (Masks, in all their various forms, are very sophisticated character-deepening techniques.)

At a certain point in the film, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) drops in on Ricky to buy some dope — in particular the really potent stuff that he’d smoked with Ricky a few nights earlier. Ricky pulls out a bag of dope and explains that it’s “. . . top of the line. It’s called G-13. Genetically engineered by the U.S. gov-ernment. Extremely potent. But a com-pletely mellow high, no paranoia.”

LESTER: “Is this what we smoked last night?”

RICKY: “This is all I ever smoke.”

Why is this a verbal symbol of a char-acter’s condition or change of condition?

Because Ricky, unknowingly, has just described himself. Ricky had been a passionate young man, until his father, as punishment, had him committed to a mental institution for two years, where he was heavily drugged. This experience broke his spirit. So Ricky himself has been government-engineered, and his fake serenity (his mask) is that of a “completely mellow high.” But like all chemical highs, the effects aren’t real.

Example #4:Verbal.

Sometimes, in the television business, you need to write a sample script just to show that you can adapt your writing style to different shows. I recently wrote a sample X-Files script. In the story, Mulder no longer fits in professionally with Scully and Doggett. He had always been driven in his paranormal quests by the search for the truth about his missing sister. But, with that case solved last season, he no longer has a dream or ambition to push him forward.

In the middle of a conversation with Scully, Doggett, and Skinner, Mulder notices Skinner’s office clock. Checking it against his own watch, he says, “Is that clock right?”

No one responds to the question — the conversation merely proceeds. (Quite frequently, in dialogue, not every statement or question gets a response.) Why the throwaway line about the clock? It’s a symbol of Mulder’s condition or change in condition. In this case, it symbolizes that he’s out of sync, or out of step, with all the others. In effect, his time has passed. Will anyone reading the script consciously note that line of dialogue?

Unlikely, any more than they would note Wes Bentley’s line in American Beauty about the government-engineered pot. As with the other examples, the symbol operates outside of the audience’s conscious awareness.

Game example.

In the game ICO, a boy in a faraway land helps lead a beautiful girl with mystical powers out of a towering castle where both are trapped. He bravely overcomes many terrifying obstacles in his journey, which is more focused on freeing the girl than himself.

Near the very end, he gets a magical sword that crackles with a kind of spiritual electricity. This is a symbol of the boy’s condition or change in condition. It symbolizes that he’s attained a level of power; the demonic creatures that once attacked him now flee him and the sword. And it symbolizes that he now belongs with the girl, for the electricity that the sword exudes looks exactly like the mystical energy that the girl can wield when she needs to, and which has the same magical abilities.

Since the boy uses the sword to accomplish his final tasks, this is what I call a usable symbol. It serves double duty by both working to deepen the emotional experience and also playing a role in gameplay.

Hypothetical game example #1

Let’s say we have a sword-and-sorcery game in which, during a fight to save some villagers, the wisest and most beloved village elder is killed. The villagers are stunned. A cloud could pass in front of the sun at that point, throwing a shad-ow over the village (during either a cinematic sequence or gameplay). The shadow would symbolize the villagers’ sadness — and perhaps yours as well, if you had found the old man endearing (and you would have, if the character was rich enough and the dialogue was compelling).

Hypothetical game example #2

After great effort and many struggles and bat-tles, you have attained the highest rank a warrior can attain. At that moment, an eagle flies diagonally overhead in the sky. It’s a symbol of your lofty achievement. It’s important to reiterate here that it doesn’t matter if no one consciously notices the impact of these symbols. They deepen the experience nonetheless.

Symbol Type #2: Symbolic Subplot

Usually at least one of the characters (although sometimes more) in a story has what I call an emotional fear, limitation, block, or wound. Quite often, this person is the lead character, although not necessarily. In the first Star Wars movie, Luke Skywalker had to learn who he was (a Jedi knight), Han Solo had to learn responsibility and how to act as a member of a group (instead of operating solo), Princess Leia had to learn to be vulnerable in love, Obi-Wan had to learn he could still make a difference, and C-3PO had to learn courage. Each of these characters was forced to confront their respective fears, limitations, blocks, and wounds (FLBWs, for short).

Usually, the character doesn’t know he or she has an FLBW. If you pointed it out, the character would probably disagree; in fact, they’re usually quite oblivious. It’s unlikely, for instance, that Han would have agreed with you if, at the start of the film, you accused him of being unable to function as part of a team. It’s unlikely Luke would have agreed if, at the start of the film, you accused him of having no idea who he was.

A character’s path of growth through his or her FLBW is a rocky one; quite often the character resists growing. A character’s path of growth through the FLBW is called a character arc. In many stories, some of the most com-pelling emotional moments are wrapped around a character’s process of wrestling with and eventually growing through his or her emotional fear, limitation, block, or wound.

Some writers insert a symbol into the story that represents the character’s arc. That is, as the character changes and grows, the symbol changes right along with the character. Therefore, a symbolic subplot is a plot-deepening technique because it continues throughout all or most of the plot (unlike the symbol of the character’s condition or change in condition, which occurs in a single scene or a small part of the plot).

Example #1

In the new Star Trek series, Enterprise, one of the crew, Ensign Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) is a woman with extraordinary linguistic abilities. In one of the early episodes, she’s having a hard time adapting to life on a starship. She wants to go home, back to Earth.

She has brought a pet along with her — a yellow slug. The slug isn’t doing well aboard the ship. Environmental conditions threaten its health.

By the end of the episode, after discovering how much the crew needs her, she has made her peace with being in space. She drops the slug off on an Earth-like planet, where it will survive just fine. Thus the slug is a symbolic subplot.

The slug not doing well in space equates with Sato not doing well in space. The slug being put on a new planet and doing well there thus equates with Sato surviving and thriving away from Earth.

With a symbolic subplot, the audience can stay abreast of a character’s progress in his or her character arc just by checking up on what’s happening with the symbol. Just as in the case with the symbol of a character’s condition or change in condition, a symbolic subplot may or may not be consciously noticed by the audience or game player.

Let’s revisit the example from the Enterprise episode. In this case, unlike most, we are quite aware that the slug is a symbolic subplot, for the doctor on board the ship even points this out to Ensign Sato. While speaking to her, he compares her difficulties to those experienced by the slug.

This bit of dialogue violates the guideline of having the symbolic subplot operate just outside of most people’s conscious awareness. In my opinion, this was a mistake. The slug symbol would have generated more emotion if it hadn’t been pointed out to the audience. “Look, here’s a symbol” is usually not the best way to go. However, as every writer knows, to every guideline there are always successful exceptions.

Example #2

In the film Wonder Boys, Michael Douglas plays a character who wrote a great novel decades ago and is now a washed-up creative writing professor at a prestigious liberal arts college. His life’s a mess. He’s depressed, and he’s been working forever on a sprawling novel that he hasn’t shown to anybody. The symbolic subplot is the novel he’s writing. The novel is analogous to his life. We learn that the he’s been working on the book for decades. Then we learn that it’s a sprawling jumble, with plotlines going off in all directions but no focus, just like his life. It comprises tons of details without a unifying thread, just like his life.

Further along in the film, the pages of his manuscript — the only copy he has — are blown to the wind (symbolic of his life falling apart). Later still, when someone asks him what the novel was about, he can’t answer — meaning he has no idea what his life is about. By the end, once he feels his life has again assumed meaning and direction, he starts a new novel, a novel that has power and focus.

Using this Technique in Games

Trying to build in a character arc for your player opens up a can of worms, because in a symbolic subplot, the changes in the symbol reflect the changes that your character undergoes as he or she progresses through the rocky path of his or her character arc. And how do you manage how a character goes through a character arc when that character is controlled by the game player?

This question takes us right to the cut-ting edge of story-based games. To explore all the ways in which game designers are tackling or could tackle this problem would be an article in itself, if not several.

Furthermore, it opens up another problem. On one hand, how do you tempt players into seeing themselves in a role and making decisions appropri-ate to that role? On the other hand, how do you allow players to play the game the way they want to play?

Still, this is one direction in which story-based games are moving. For instance, let’s take Raven Software’s action-adventure game Star Treck Voyager: Elite Force. The game tries to create a character arc for Alex, the main player character (what I call a “first-person character arc,” since the person who’s supposed to undergo emotional change is the player). The attempt to cast the player as the Alex character, thereby helping the player to experience character growth during the story, is done through a variety of methods: observation of a character’s behavior and speech during cinematics; watching how other characters respond to the player character; hearing the words coming out of the player character’s mouth (what I call “self auto-talk”), spoken in Alex’s voice and with his personality; and the player’s changing responsibilities as the game progresses.

While these first-person character arcs are a fascinating and critical area of discussion, I’ll bring the subject back to where we began. How can a designer use a symbolic subplot to deepen a plot by echoing a player’s first-person character arc?

Let’s imagine a game in which the player is a samurai swordsman. He’s a master of many weapons. Armed with a full range of finely honed steel instruments of death, he leaves his samurai master’s training to rescue his master’s niece from an evil warlord. This mission will set a much bigger plot in motion.

The obvious character arc follows the player character from his origin as a novice swordsman to becoming a master himself. Because this is the most typical character arc, let’s toss it out. As I often tell my writing students, when it comes to characters, lines of dialogue, scenes, or plots, a good general guideline is, “Find the cliché, then throw it away.” (This guideline also dictates that the master not be a clichéd wise Asian character either.) So let’s make our character’s arc to “attain a spiritual connection to the uni-verse.” As the samurai character attains spiritual wisdom or abilities, perhaps the world will start looking different in some way. Perhaps he’ll be able to perform extraordinary moves akin to those demon-strated by the fighters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Could you give this character arc a symbolic subplot?

Hypothetical game example #1

Perhaps the samurai’s master has given him a sword. It makes a harsh, ringing noise when swung. But as the player character progresses along the character arc, the noise becomes beautiful and harmonic.

Hypothetical game example #2

Suppose the player character recharges his life force by returning to a beautiful little bamboo meditation hut suspended over a small stream. In the beginning of the game, the stream is muddy. But as the player progresses along the character arc, the stream gets clearer and clearer.

In either of these two examples, the player may or may not notice the change in the symbol. This situation is just what a game designer generally wants: a symbolic subplot that works just at the edge of the player’s conscious awareness or just outside of it.

Making usable symbols in gameplay.In the first example, perhaps when the sword makes its most beautiful, harmonic sound, something extraordinary happens.

A frail old man in the village is, in fact, much more than the peasant he appears to be. When he hears that beautiful sound, he knows the samurai is spiritually ready and gives the player character some special weapon, amulet, potion, or secret that is essential to the accomplishment of the game’s final and most dangerous task. Or, taking a cue from ICO, perhaps it’s only when the sword makes this beautiful sound that it’s fully charged and thus useful against the final and most formidable enemy.

You could also find a way to turn the river (in the second example) into a usable symbol. Maybe the master built the meditation hut over the river and imbued it with magic of which the player character is unaware. Let’s say the master dies during the course of the game. But, when the character arc is complete and the stream becomes clear, the master’s face can be seen in the river, from which he dispenses advice that is crucial to accomplishing the game’s final tasks.

A symbol doesn’t need to be used in gameplay to justify its being there, for its main purpose is to enhance the depth of the emotional experience. However, a symbol that can also function as an ele-ment of gameplay obviously represents an opportune situation.

Game example.In the game Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage, one of the player character’s close friends is an NPC who’s a reluctant knight. Though the knight has sworn off the violence of battle, he’s continually forced to fight for his king, for honor, and to support an honorable cause. He carries a pole bearing the banner of the kingdom he serves. As a tool of gameplay, the banner has certain protective functions.

Because of this, the banner is often ripped in battle, symbolizing that the knight’s heart is torn every time he violates his decision to abstain from fighting. Furthermore, the banner, when torn, prompts discussions by the knight and those around him as to the ethics of his fighting in battle versus being a man of peace. The banner is a symbolic subplot, indicating, at any given moment, the knight’s state of mind as he wrestles with the decision to be, or not to be, a warrior.

This is one of those examples in which a symbol serves a double duty. Not only does it deepen the emotional experience, but it also is a usable symbol with a function in gameplay.

Symbol Type #3: Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is another plot-deepening technique. Although it only appears in one specific scene, it prepares us for a later plot development. In fore-shadowing, once again you’re creating a symbol that usually operates outside the conscious awareness of the player or audience. The symbol, or what occurs to the symbol, suggests something that will occur later in the story to one of the main characters — usually something bad.


In the film The Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins plays a man who has been unjustly sent to prison. There he runs afoul of the warden, and the two become enemies. Later in the film, another man who has information that could clear Robbins is sent to the prison. The warden finds out about this and asks the man to step out with him into the prison yard at night. The warden grills the new prisoner, who confirms his knowledge of information that could help Robbins.

The warden, finished with his inquiry, tosses his cigarette on the ground and steps on it to put it out. He walks away, and the prisoner is shot from an unseen source in a guard tower. The extinguishing of the cigarette was the foreshadowing that the prisoner, or at least the information he had, was going to be snuffed out. As such, it evokes an ominous feeling when we see it happen.

Hypothetical game example. Let’s go back to our samurai swordsman. His master has a bonsai tree that is 150 years old, cultivated and handed down to him by his own master, who is long since deceased. The samurai’s master has used the careful cultivation of the small tree to perfect his patience.

Then, either during a cinematic or during gameplay, the villain destroys the tree. This would foreshadow the master’s impending demise.

The bonsai tree could also be turned into a usable symbol with a function in gameplay if its magic heals the samurai when he’s injured or restores his life force when it’s been depleted. Thus, the tree’s destruction would not only foreshadow the master’s death, it would also affect gameplay by depriving the samurai of a source of healing and thus increasing his jeopardy.

Symbol Type #4: ASymbol That Takes on More and More Emotional Associations

This is another plot-deepening technique, as it too tends to extend throughout an entire plot. It can be either a visual object or a verbal phrase. One symbol of this type is a very familiar one: the American flag. What does the flag mean? It means a lot of things: democracy; courage; the right to live the life you choose; freedom of speech and religion; a nation ruled by law; Yankee ingenuity; and more. Yet when we look at the flag, we don’t consciously think of all these things, we just experience the emotions that these associations evoke in us.

When a symbol reappears over and over again during emotionally charged moments, some of the emotion rubs off on the symbol, and the symbol thus takes on more and more emotional associations as the plot advances.

Visual Example

In the film Braveheart, Mel Gibson plays William Wallace, a historical revolutionary leader in Scotland. There’s an interesting symbol used throughout the film — a thistle, and a handkerchief with a picture of a thistle sewn into it. This symbol takes on more and more emotional associations as the film goes along.

When Wallace is young, a little girl, Murron, gives him a thistle at the funeral of his father and brother, who have been killed by the English. So the thistle is associated with love. When they’re older, the two begin dating, and he gives her back this same, dried thistle. Once again it is associated with love. When Murron marries him, she gives him a handkerchief with a picture of a thistle embroidered on it. It is still associated with love.

Later, Murron is murdered. Had this been the only way the handkerchief had been used, whenever Wallace looks at it with sadness, we would understand and feel his personal anguish. It would evoke in him (and in us) emotional memories and feelings about her uniqueness, the beauty of their love, and the sadness of her passing.

At this point, we could call this a highly personal symbol, as it would be highly personal to him for reasons we can understand and which move us too.

A highly personal symbol, and a character’s reaction to it, can be an effective way to evoke a lot of emotion. It’s a character-deepening technique. However, in Braveheart, the handkerchief goes on to take on more and more emotional associations throughout the plot, and so it becomes a plot-deepening technique.

After killing the English magistrate who had murdered Murron, Wallace stares at the handkerchief. By now it’s begun to be associated with revenge. The handkerchief will be with him as he becomes a leader of the Scots in their fight for independence, so it eventually comes to be associated with freedom.

And finally, after Wallace is killed, wishy-washy landowner Robert the Bruce takes up the fight. Robert leads his men into battle holding the handkerchief, which is now associated with courage.

Throughout the film, the handkerchief with the thistle keeps reappearing, always during emotionally charged moments and always associated with love, revenge, freedom, or courage. By the end, the handkerchief is simply saturated with emotional associations, sort of like the American flag. An important point to make here is that when we see the handkerchief in Braveheart, we don’t consciously think about all of these meanings and associations. Instead, the handkerchief evokes feelings in us from the many emotional experiences with which it has come to be associated.

Hypothetical Game Example: Visual

Let’s say you’re designing a game with a Tolkien-like story. (Yes, it’s overdone, but we’re just talking hypothetically.) So you’ve got your meek, Hobbit-type player character going up against a fearsome enemy with supernatural powers. Maybe the player character’s motivation is that the villain wiped out his family. His father had given him a pendant with his family crest, handed down through the generations.

The first time we see the pendant is in a cinematic, when the father, as he lies dying, gives it to the son. So the pendant is associated with love. As the player character goes on his quest to bring down the villain, he can recharge his life force (if he doesn’t do it too much) by clenching the pendant. So the pendant comes also to be associated with life. At some point the player character needs to give the pendant to a fallen, dying friend, to save her by recharging her life force. Now the pendant is associated with the act of self-sacrifice for a friend. And if the pendant eventually comes back to the player character and gives him a decisive superboost of life force for the final battle, it would then be associated with victory.

Although it would operate outside the player’s conscious awareness, the pendant would be a symbol that takes on more and more emotional associations, thereby adding emotional depth to the story. However, because the pendant also plays a role in gameplay, it’s doing double duty as a usable symbol.

Game Wxample: Visual and Verbal

In Max Payne, above the rough-and-tumble squalor of the city float billboards for the mysterious Aesir Corporation, with its logo (the R in Aesir has a little wing on it) and its slogan, “A bit closer to heaven.” At first, the billboards have the emotional quality of taunting the residents of the city by reminding them of class distinctions. After Max (the main character) discovers that the Aesir Corporation is responsible both for the city’s decrepit condition and the murder of his wife and child, the logo and slogan become associated with the enemy. And when Max triumphs in the end and finally attains some inner peace, he adopts the slogan “A bit closer to heaven” as his own. The phrase is now associated with transcendence.

If this symbol only made Max Payne players think about these different associations, then despite the fact that it was a wonderfully bold and inventive attempt, it was, to a great degree, unsuccessful. But if it evoked in players a variety of emotions that accompanied these different associations, then it was successful.

Going Deep

This article has covered four distinct techniques for evoking emotional depth with symbols. Each use is quite different from the other, and they can be used in combination. If no one notices your work after it’s done, that’s just fine — in general, they’re not supposed to notice.

When using symbols, you’re not creating intellectual exercises for your audience, forcing players to try to figure out what a symbol means. Using a symbol for that kind of mind game would detract from any emotional impact. Instead, when you use one or more of the techniques presented here, you deepen the player’s emotional experience in the game by letting the symbol evoke the player’s emotions.

While many of the examples of these techniques come from film, their use in games presents a unique tool to designers in the form of usable symbols functioning in gameplay. Games with stories have come far, but still have a distance to go. When game designers and writers master techniques to create complex characters and artfully evoke emotions during cinematics and play, this new entertaining art form will truly have come into its own.


Thanks to Wagner James Au, David Perry, Chris Klug, Jason Bell, Henry Jenkins, Mike Morhaime, and David Taylor for their very helpful feedback in preparing this article.

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About the Author(s)

David Freeman


David is currently working as a designer/writer for games currently in production at Activision and Midway, and for a third game in its early stages at Microsoft. He also contributed to the script for The Matrix sequel game (in production at Shiny Entertainment). As a writer and producer, David has had scripts and ideas bought or optioned by MGM, Paramount, Columbia Pictures, Castle Rock, and many other film and television companies. David teaches ³Beyond Structure² (www.beyondstructure.com), a popular Los Angeles­based screenwriting class, which has been taken by writers from many top films and television shows, as well as by many well-known game designers. He welcomes your thoughts on this article at [email protected].

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