Symbolism and Storytelling

Symbols are a tool which has been used throughout the ages and through various cultural locales to portray deeper meaning in visual mediums, and are arguably the most ancient use of communication in a time when only the most rich and powerful were educated to the point of literacy. One of the earliest recorded uses of Symbols are Mesopotamian tablets, which were inscribed with pictographic writing, using pictures and symbols to represent animate and inanimate objects. (Diringer, 1982)

The word “Icon”, when defined by semiotics, is a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it. The word “Icon” comes from the Greek eikon which means “an image”: iconography, from the Greek eikonographia, meaning a sketch or drawing of an image. According to Sassoon, these representations have “long traditions going back to early prehistoric times, [and] they have played an important role in all civilization at all levels of development […] they are intimately connected with the storage and communication of information essential to the physical and spiritual wellbeing of a particular community”. (Rosemary Sassoon, 1997)

Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, noted the importance of symbolism in his work – “The history of symbolism shows that everything can assume symbolic significance: natural objects (like stones, plants, animals, men, mountains and valleys, sun and moon, wind water and fire), or man-made things (like houses, boats or cars), or even abstract forms (like numbers, or the triangle, the square and the circle). In fact, the whole cosmos is a potential symbol.” (Jung, 1964)

Stone Alignments at Carnac in Brittany

FIGURE 1 – STONE ALIGNMENTS AT CARNAC IN BRITTANY (C. 2000 B.C.) CRUDE STONES SET UPRIGHT IN ROWS, THOUGHT TO HAVE BEEN USED IN SACRED RITUALS AND RELIGIOUS PROCESSIONS. (JUNG, 1964)

These practices can be applied not just in the physical world but in virtual environments like those in which video games are set. Jung also noted illustrated the relationship between symbols or icons and human emotion. “Man, with his symbol-making propensity, unconsciously transforms objects or forms into symbols (thereby endowing them with great psychological importance) and expresses them in both his religion and visual art. The intertwined history of religion and art, reaching back to prehistoric times, is the record that our ancestors have left of the symbols that were meaningful and moving to them”. (Jung, 1964)

Symbolism is not confined to just Visual Media however, and studies have shown that it plays a big part in the formation of stories, ranging from Folktales to tales of great Heroes. Vladimir Propp, a Soviet formalist, explored the theme of narrative structure to show how common narrative structures were present in many Russian Folktales – suggesting that a tale can take a sequence of 31 functions, creating a typology of folktales. Again, although this work was published in 1928, this typology and his character archetypes have been used to analyse modern visual media including theatre, television and videogames. (Corcoran)

Furthermore, the work of Joseph Campbell and his examination of ancient hero myths show how eternal themes are presented in different ways throughout culture and time, but have an undercurrent of the same morals or premises. “It is not difficult for the modern intellectual to concede that the symbolism of mythology has a psychological significance. Particularly after the work of the Psychoanalysts, there can be little doubt, either that myths are of the nature of dream or that dreams are symptomatic of the dynamics of the psyche”. (Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1993)

This also draws light to the dream-interpretation research of Freud, who expressed the importance of symbolism in his research. “In the first place, since symbols are stable translations, they realize to some extent the ideal of the ancient as well as the popular interpretation of dreams…” (Petocz, 1999). This demonstrates the power of symbolism as a tool for analysing and evoking human emotion and behaviour.
A study into how Video Games address Contemporary Cultural Attitudes (Lizardi, 2009) examines symbolism in Post-Apocalyptic Alien Shooter videogames and how this relates to the cultural attitudes of modern day. This research is also relevant to the field of Symbolism as it shows how subtle symbolism in videogames and their environments can convey meaning to the player and evoke certain emotions depending on the target market and their society’s cultural expectations. Lizardi also draws from other studies into this theme:

Snakes on a Plane

FIGURE 2 – A CULTURAL REFERENCE TO THE FILM “SNAKES ON A PLANE” IN WORLD OF WARCRAFT. THIS WOULD HAVE MEANING TO CULTURES EXPOSED TO AMERICAN FILMS BUT NOT OTHERS, AND SO DEMONSTRATES INFERENCE.

“Ismail Xavier poses that in historically contingent situations, texts can speak to the concerns of a culture on an allegorical level and “can intervene in cultural and political debates” (Xavier, 2004). One such cultural preoccupation that allegorizes US contemporary culture is the set of videogames that depict a post-apocalyptic world over-run by ‘invaders’, who are most times shown as an alien force. Jesper Juul states that “players undoubtedly also want to be able to identify with the fictional protagonist and the goal of the game in the fictional world”. (Juul, 2005)” (Lizardi, 2009)
Evoking emotion and creating immersion in games is an important issue which is desirable for game designers, and can be defined, according to current research, as follows.
“Successful computer games all have one important element in common: they have an ability to draw people in. Providing an appealing distraction from everyday worries and concerns, computer games allow people to “lose” themselves in the world of the game. Sometimes people find the game so engaging that they do not notice things around them, such as the amount of time that has passed, or another person calling their name. At such moments, almost all of their attention is focused on the game, even to the extent that some people describe themselves as being “in the game”. This experience is referred to as “Immersion”…” (Jennet, 2008)

Emotion Evoking techniques are also explored in a study conducted by Ning Wang and Stacy Marsella – “Introducing EVG: An Emotion Evoking Game” – an open-source game which studies the effects on the player based on stimuli, and tests their reactions based on self-report from players and their facial expressions when exposed to the stimuli.
“We successfully evoked boredom and anger according to the self-report and display of facial expression. We created a sequence of game events to evoke a sequence of emotions.”
“We also observed the influence of individual differences on appraisal of emotion evoking events. For example, gaming experience could shift appraisal of supposedly fearsome events from aversive to appetitive. Individual, cultural and gender differences could also have been affecting display of facial expressions.” (Ning Wang, 2006)

 

FIGURE 3 1 - A SCREENCAP FROM "FINAL FANTASY VII" - A GAME WHICH IS FAMED FOR ITS EMOTION EVOKING NARRATIVE, DESPITE ITS LACK OF GRAPHICAL REALISM.

FIGURE 3 1 – A SCREENCAP FROM “FINAL FANTASY VII” – A GAME WHICH IS FAMED FOR ITS EMOTION EVOKING NARRATIVE, DESPITE ITS LACK OF GRAPHICAL REALISM.

Janet Murray also discusses the importance of engaging storytelling in videogames, or rather “the enactment of the story in the particular fictional space of the computer.” (Murray, 1997)The concept of “Cyberdrama”, coined by Murray, suggests that recipients of the story must experience agency – or rather that their actions have an impact on the world in which it is set, creating an interactive narrative experience. The use of these techniques, when combined with immersion theory and symbolism, may result in an engaging game world with a deep narrative structure.
Storytelling techniques have been adapted many times throughout history, from word of mouth to the written word, and now to film and video games. Nahum Gershon et al argue that “a well told story [can convey] great quantities of information in relatively few words in a format that is easily assimilated by the listener or viewer. People usually find it easier to understand information integrated into stories than information spelled out in serial lists…stories are also just more compelling.” (Nahum Gershon, 2001)This theory can be applied to game narrative, in the sense that information conveyed to the player in a subtle, yet engaging format – allowing the player to infer information from symbolism in the narrative and the environment around them.

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4 thoughts on “Symbolism and Storytelling

  1. Could you give some examples of how and where you think symbolism has been used successfully in game storytelling then? I may have been confused when reading the article but aside from explaining what symbolism is and how it is relevant to stories you didn’t really touch on it again.

  2. What do you think are some of the better examples of symbolism used successfully in game storytelling then? Aside from explaining the importance of symbolism (along with agency and immersion) there is little in this article to relate this to videogames as a medium.
    Also, would you say that cultural references (like ‘snakes on a plane’) are a form of symbolism if, in that example, they don’t actually symbolise anything?

    • Yes, I would say that something like the Snakes on a Plane example is still a form of symbolism, if only in the sense that they engage the player in a way that references the world outside of the game. I think it’s interesting how something like that can exist in the game and have no meaning at all for some players but significant meaning for others (even if that meaning is just “Ha! Look at that!”.)

      Some of the better examples of symbolism in games I’ve found are usually in ones with fantasy themes, i.e shrines, stone formations and temples (spiritualism, religious connotations) in games like Elder Scrolls, Diablo, Warcraft, etc. These tend to be the most obvious and most easily recognisable by players too. Animal symbolism is also quite interesting whether it be as companions (Fable II) or animal transformations (Twilight Princess?). Some of it you can put down to coincidence, like symbolism of circles – this is often seen in design of churches etc, and also game architecture, but obviously this is probably just down to using realistic reference.

      In terms of level design I would say Bioshock has excellent use of symbolism to communicate to the player, even just really simple things like lighting certain routes different colours than others, to evoke emotion or create association. In my view this is clever use of symbolism too. Symbolism doesn’t just have to be Illuminati symbols and the Da Vinci Code 🙂

      I’m hoping to post more with lots of examples, this was part of the intro to my masters’ thesis. I wrote 80 pages of this stuff! 😉

      Thanks for your comments 😀

      • It’s interesting that the symbols that you see as better are adapting ones we know from the real world. So how you’ve mentioned shrines and temples work well in game, having established they are also classics from the real world.

        Using shrines as an example; do you think they are intentionally designed with symbols for the same reason as they were in ancient times (because reading/education was reserved for the wealthy/powerful) and to provide players with a better understanding of what the shrine is used for or that they were copied from real-world shrines and *those* artifacts usually had symbols on them so the symbols were copied too to make them seem more “real” or “believable”?

        I guess the ultimate test is to see if you can play the game without text on-screen whatsoever. Could you play Fable/Diablo/Elder Scrolls/Warcraft without on-screen text and instead solely rely on object symbols and iconography to convey all the meaning/purpose.

        I know what you mean about good level design though. Using colours and lighting as well as other subconscious signage to point out the route to take or the hazards to look out for is worth a thesis on its own. We tried similar with MotorStorm, reserving colours solely for signs to make sure they stood out. Even trying more subtler clues to the severity of corners (1 chevron is a light corner, 2 is a right-hander and 3 is almost a hairpin)

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