Since I was a teenager, I’ve been suffering from anxiety. Sometimes it’s perfectly manageable and other times it is debilitating. My life has been peppered with incidents caused by my anxiety – dropping out of a drawing course my Freshman year because I was getting so stressed out from it; breaking down crying in the airport the first time I had to fly by myself; being too anxious to eat in the dinning hall of my dorm while studying abroad; not being able to sleep through the night because I was so freaked out despite nothing being wrong with my life – the list goes on but I’ll spare you the details. So when I first read about Sym from Atrax Games – a game that aimed to illustrate what it’s like to have an anxiety disorder – my interest was definitely piqued.
In Sym, you play as a teenage boy named Josh. You must flip between and navigate two worlds – the black and the white. The white world is the ‘real world’ and is full of monsters and keenly watching eyes. The black world is Josh’s mind. The monsters can’t get him there however there are the spinning blades that must be avoided. In both worlds are arrows and circuits designed to guide your direction and also change the landscape around you, sometimes to help and sometimes to your detriment. You must figure out how to navigate all the dangers of both the real world and the mind as well as how to use the challenges of each to your advantage.
Gameplay wise, it is a fairly simple platformer. It uses the up/down mechanics like ibb & obb, though much less colorful. I’m famously bad at platformers so I shouldn’t even need to say that I didn’t complete the whole game. However even despite my platforming ineptitude, I wasn’t that enthralled with the gameplay. Besides the circuits feature, there wasn’t really a whole lot going on with the game besides the anxiety theme and aspect. I feel like if a game isn’t going to have some unique, groundbreaking gameplay it at least needs to have beautiful art or music, however I feel that even in this Sym fails.There are other platformers that provide more engaging mechanics and art style than Sym, so if you’re interested in the game purely from a gameplay perspective, you’ll be disappointed.
It wasn’t just the gameplay that I was disappointed by with Sym – I just don’t think the game lives up to the ‘anxiety theme’ as well as it could. The watching eyes are a great touch. When you suffer from anxiety and specifically social anxiety, it can feel like everyone is watching your every move and judging you, even though they probably aren’t even really looking at you. However there is no gameplay mechanic behind the eyes – they are just sort of there on the landscape. There’s nothing about any of the monsters you encounter either that reflect the reality of living with chronic anxiety. They are just run-of-the-mill game monsters. In the black world – the world of the mind – there are the spinning blades, which hit a littler closer to the mark. With anxiety you can get caught up in cyclical, toxic thoughts that can send you spiraling. It’s a terrible feeling and in some of the levels the spinning blades are incredibly hard to maneuver around, making them feel more accurate to the theme.
The art style comes close to the idea of anxiety as well. Everything is slightly animated and as you play you notice that everything moves slightly and does a small jump in the animation. Your mind moves fast with anxiety, zipping from one thought to another, just as the art jumps slightly with every passing second. Additionally, some levels barrage you with a flurry of arrows and circuits, causing your screen to be incredibly busy and hectic. It makes it hard to play and progress as you try to process all the different signals you’re getting, which really hits the nail on the head for anxiety. Sometimes even just having a few things to do in a day can feel like having a million things to do as you try to decide what needs doing first and which tasks take priority. Some of the text in the levels hits pretty close to thoughts I’ve had in the middle of anxiety attacks, though, so I do have to acknowledge those.
One big problem I also have with the game is the repeated description of the mind world being a ‘place to escape’ and in the trailer it’s described as ‘a place I control’. This is a very different experience than mine. In fact, it’s the total opposite. I often feel like I am at war with my own mind and thoughts. I know there is absolutely no need to worry about a given situation, I know. And yet my mind continues to cycle away, “What if you did this instead? But then what will those other people think? So then what if…” and on and on. Once your brain is on the anxiety rollercoaster you just have to wait for it to be done.
Overall though I was unfortunately pretty disappointed with Sym. I was hoping this game could provide some more awareness of what it’s like to live with anxiety every day, as I know many friends and family members who just can’t understand it. However I feel that the creators of Sym tried to make it a bit too abstract and high-concept to really achieve that goal and also in the process missed out on making an enjoyable platformer. For these reasons, I can’t really recommend this game to anyone, except maybe other game developers who might be interested in making a game with the same goals. Learn from the mistakes of Sym and make a game that really gives the player a feel for what it’s like to be so anxious you can’t sleep, besides just through the text in the level backgrounds.
Sym is available on Steam for Windows and Mac for $7.99 and is currently 20% off.
The code for this review was provided by the publisher, Mastertronic.