Symbolism in Gaming: An Exercise in Overthinking

Started school this week, so I thought I’d stretch my academic muscles on something utterly useless.   

 

  

Video games are a visual medium. Obviously. But one unique aspect of that is the importance of transmitting important information visually so that the player has a strong grasp of what is going on. One of the things I’ve noticed lately is that certain images from certain games eventually garner a sort of universal recognition; there might not be any meaning in particular to the image, but there is a certain significance to the viewer, even if it is only nostalgia. 1 Up shrooms, the Triforce, Pac Man; we all know what these things are on sight, even if there usually isn’t much actual meaning to them.

    
 Dear God I hated reading this book. Ugh...     

So that got me thinking. In English class, the teachers would always go on and on about SYMBOLISM. Anyone who’s studied the Lord of the Flies or The Great Gatsby knows what I’m talking about. The ‘true’ meaning of the book you were reading was supposedly explained by these little things, these images that would keep popping up throughout the book, be it a conch shell or a creepy-assed billboard. 

But those were books. Wouldn’t video games, which rely much more on actual visual representations, also have symbols? Sure, game designers might not be as arrogant and pretentious as some writers, but they’re telling stories too, aren't they? And aren’t they almost required to create some sort of symbol for one reason or another, just to make playing the game more intuitive? If we're going to be staring at this stuff for hours on end, it might be a good idea to think about what we're looking at.  So, mostly out of sheer boredom one night, I started thinking about the images and objects that have special significances in games. This is what I came up with.

 

  

The Legend of Zelda’s Triforce

 Anyone know why Ganondorf is a were-pig? I always thought that was weird.

The Triforce in the Legend of Zelda series is perhaps one of the most easily recognizable and most obvious examples of symbolism in gaming. That the games themselves usually address the meaning of the symbol in the Zelda universe makes it pretty easy to grasp. Outside of any ‘in-game’ significance, though, is that this is example # 14,546 of the connotation between magic and the number 3.   Found in all cultures across the globe, hammered home every lecture by my Viking History professor, 3 pops up again and again in magical stories. I won’t bother going into any real depth with this, but it’s worth pointing out. And yes, the “Rule of 3” in boss fights is no coincidence.

 


The Myst Books

 I don't care what Jeff says, these games were the bomb-shiggidy.

I don’t expect that many of you have ever played the Myst games. Your loss, really. The central premise of the games is that a society called the D’ni have the ability to create actual worlds by writing crazy magic books. Contact with the pages of these books transports a person to that world. Which is kind of awesome. Now, the obvious interpretation is that “Reading Books is Like Going to Another World!”, as the posters in the local library like to say. But that’s too easy.

Actually writing a World Book requires a great deal of knowledge of how to balance all the necessary details to make it function properly; failure to do so makes a broken, unmanageable hellhole. Sound familiar? That’s right: the books aren’t books, they’re video games. A working physics engine and functional environmental AI are the signs of a well-designed world; the broken mess that is a botched job slowly falls apart under the players eyes. Throw in the fact that the D’ni love putting puzzles into their worlds and what we have is a society whose highest art form - and the basis for it's existence -  is fully interactive video games; their most treasured artisans are game designers. Myst isn’t just a bunch of hard-ass puzzles; it’s a video game about video games. 

Halo’s Halos

This is sort of a stretch (and kind of a dumb one) but whatever. Basically, the Halos in Halo are the inverse, both literally and metaphorically, of planets. The livable areas on a Halo are on the inside, rather than the outside; planets represent life, but as weapons, the Halos represent death. Sort of a Yin-Yang kinda deal. 

Half Life’s Crowbar


 Noted authorities on the subject claim this man smells like your grandfather.

I think this is the most interesting use of symbolism that I came up with.  In Half Life 2,  you play as Gordon "The One Free Man" Freeman, a lone scientist saving the world from the Combine. Throughout the game, you manage to consistently be right were you are needed most, turning the tide against the fascist aliens. Freeman’s initial weapon, the tool that best represents him, is the crowbar. Although it is used in the game mostly for whacking shit, crowbars in real life are useful for providing leverage with certain objects. All well and good, but what’s the significance? Well, the G-Man himself provides a very interesting hint with his infamous quote at the beginning of the game: "The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world." Dramatic, sure, look at the crowbar again. If we focus on its use for leverage, the G-Man’s comment recalls an even more famous quote by a man called Archimedes, which is usually translated as: Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.”  The crowbar isn’t just a stick for whacking Headcrabs; it’s a symbol for everything that Freeman is doing. It is the guiding principle for how ‘just one man’ can turn the tide against an occupying army – how he can ‘move’ a world taken over by aliens.

 Wise words, if technically non-canon.

And then we can take it a step further! At the end of the original Half Life (which I haven’t actually played, but that’s what wikis are for), we are left with the impression that Freeman agreed to work for the G-Man in some capacity. It is fairly clear that he is handling Freeman throughout the course of the sequel, making sure that he is exactly where he needs him to be and using him to further his agenda. In other words, for the G-Man, Gordon Freeman is the crowbar. Which is kinda weird if you ascribe to the theory that the G-Man is actually an alternate reality/ future version of Gordon, but that’s neither here nor there.

 

   


Well, that’s about it. l realize that, as with most interpretations, I'm giving this way too much thought, but whatever. I doubt anyone’s actually going to read all of this, but if you do, feel free to talk about how I just blew your minds. Or give your own crazy interpretations of things. Or tell me again how bad The Happening was. No, really, it’s fine! Like Steve Carell said, it never gets old.

25 Comments
26 Comments
Posted by MarkWahlberg

Started school this week, so I thought I’d stretch my academic muscles on something utterly useless.   

 

  

Video games are a visual medium. Obviously. But one unique aspect of that is the importance of transmitting important information visually so that the player has a strong grasp of what is going on. One of the things I’ve noticed lately is that certain images from certain games eventually garner a sort of universal recognition; there might not be any meaning in particular to the image, but there is a certain significance to the viewer, even if it is only nostalgia. 1 Up shrooms, the Triforce, Pac Man; we all know what these things are on sight, even if there usually isn’t much actual meaning to them.

    
 Dear God I hated reading this book. Ugh...     

So that got me thinking. In English class, the teachers would always go on and on about SYMBOLISM. Anyone who’s studied the Lord of the Flies or The Great Gatsby knows what I’m talking about. The ‘true’ meaning of the book you were reading was supposedly explained by these little things, these images that would keep popping up throughout the book, be it a conch shell or a creepy-assed billboard. 

But those were books. Wouldn’t video games, which rely much more on actual visual representations, also have symbols? Sure, game designers might not be as arrogant and pretentious as some writers, but they’re telling stories too, aren't they? And aren’t they almost required to create some sort of symbol for one reason or another, just to make playing the game more intuitive? If we're going to be staring at this stuff for hours on end, it might be a good idea to think about what we're looking at.  So, mostly out of sheer boredom one night, I started thinking about the images and objects that have special significances in games. This is what I came up with.

 

  

The Legend of Zelda’s Triforce

 Anyone know why Ganondorf is a were-pig? I always thought that was weird.

The Triforce in the Legend of Zelda series is perhaps one of the most easily recognizable and most obvious examples of symbolism in gaming. That the games themselves usually address the meaning of the symbol in the Zelda universe makes it pretty easy to grasp. Outside of any ‘in-game’ significance, though, is that this is example # 14,546 of the connotation between magic and the number 3.   Found in all cultures across the globe, hammered home every lecture by my Viking History professor, 3 pops up again and again in magical stories. I won’t bother going into any real depth with this, but it’s worth pointing out. And yes, the “Rule of 3” in boss fights is no coincidence.

 


The Myst Books

 I don't care what Jeff says, these games were the bomb-shiggidy.

I don’t expect that many of you have ever played the Myst games. Your loss, really. The central premise of the games is that a society called the D’ni have the ability to create actual worlds by writing crazy magic books. Contact with the pages of these books transports a person to that world. Which is kind of awesome. Now, the obvious interpretation is that “Reading Books is Like Going to Another World!”, as the posters in the local library like to say. But that’s too easy.

Actually writing a World Book requires a great deal of knowledge of how to balance all the necessary details to make it function properly; failure to do so makes a broken, unmanageable hellhole. Sound familiar? That’s right: the books aren’t books, they’re video games. A working physics engine and functional environmental AI are the signs of a well-designed world; the broken mess that is a botched job slowly falls apart under the players eyes. Throw in the fact that the D’ni love putting puzzles into their worlds and what we have is a society whose highest art form - and the basis for it's existence -  is fully interactive video games; their most treasured artisans are game designers. Myst isn’t just a bunch of hard-ass puzzles; it’s a video game about video games. 

Halo’s Halos

This is sort of a stretch (and kind of a dumb one) but whatever. Basically, the Halos in Halo are the inverse, both literally and metaphorically, of planets. The livable areas on a Halo are on the inside, rather than the outside; planets represent life, but as weapons, the Halos represent death. Sort of a Yin-Yang kinda deal. 

Half Life’s Crowbar


 Noted authorities on the subject claim this man smells like your grandfather.

I think this is the most interesting use of symbolism that I came up with.  In Half Life 2,  you play as Gordon "The One Free Man" Freeman, a lone scientist saving the world from the Combine. Throughout the game, you manage to consistently be right were you are needed most, turning the tide against the fascist aliens. Freeman’s initial weapon, the tool that best represents him, is the crowbar. Although it is used in the game mostly for whacking shit, crowbars in real life are useful for providing leverage with certain objects. All well and good, but what’s the significance? Well, the G-Man himself provides a very interesting hint with his infamous quote at the beginning of the game: "The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world." Dramatic, sure, look at the crowbar again. If we focus on its use for leverage, the G-Man’s comment recalls an even more famous quote by a man called Archimedes, which is usually translated as: Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.”  The crowbar isn’t just a stick for whacking Headcrabs; it’s a symbol for everything that Freeman is doing. It is the guiding principle for how ‘just one man’ can turn the tide against an occupying army – how he can ‘move’ a world taken over by aliens.

 Wise words, if technically non-canon.

And then we can take it a step further! At the end of the original Half Life (which I haven’t actually played, but that’s what wikis are for), we are left with the impression that Freeman agreed to work for the G-Man in some capacity. It is fairly clear that he is handling Freeman throughout the course of the sequel, making sure that he is exactly where he needs him to be and using him to further his agenda. In other words, for the G-Man, Gordon Freeman is the crowbar. Which is kinda weird if you ascribe to the theory that the G-Man is actually an alternate reality/ future version of Gordon, but that’s neither here nor there.

 

   


Well, that’s about it. l realize that, as with most interpretations, I'm giving this way too much thought, but whatever. I doubt anyone’s actually going to read all of this, but if you do, feel free to talk about how I just blew your minds. Or give your own crazy interpretations of things. Or tell me again how bad The Happening was. No, really, it’s fine! Like Steve Carell said, it never gets old.

Posted by Video_Game_King

And this is where I bring up the Fetus as a Final Boss page. How do you even begin to replicate that in another medium?

Posted by Swick

Sometimes it's difficult to tell whether or not these details are intended or not. When playing a game like Final Fantasy, you usually run into religious paradigms whether it be something like a baptism or rebirth.

Edited by Yummylee

You opened my mind! With a crowbar, of course. 
 
A really good read. At first I thought you were being satirical, with the triforce, but it got pretty interesting as it went on. I'll now probably try to recall some famous gaming icons and ponder what they could reflect on. Well, actually, no I won't, but I'll definitely be thinking about thinking of recalling famous icons and pondering what they could reflect on.

Posted by nintendoeats

I don't think that it is entirely true to say that video games are a visual medium, I think that the interactive aspect is the thing that has most precedence. But that nitpick aside...
 
The problem with symbolism is that so very often it is accidental and every very quickly gets post-modern and silly.
 
That said, I'm glad to see you approaching games as things with actual meaning. Its just that, as with all things, I prefer to look at the explicit meaning, the value of which is not so strictly related to the intentions of the designer/writer.

Posted by MarkWahlberg
@nintendoeats said:

" I don't think that it is entirely true to say that video games are a visual medium, I think that the interactive aspect is the thing that has most precedence. But that nitpick aside...  The problem with symbolism is that so very often it is accidental and every very quickly gets post-modern and silly. "

Interactivity is definitely the most critical aspect in differentiating between games and other media. I just meant that most of the information is transmitted to the player by visuals.  Usually.
 
And you're right about silly interpretations; I don't know how many times I've heard people give these elaborate, usually sexual explanations for shit that has nothing to do with the actual story. Not that coming up with crazy stuff can't be fun, though....
Posted by Meteora

I feel that video games hasn't come far enough in a story or theme driven way that gamers can understand and analyse symbolism in games. The many majority of us (this includes the COD players) care more about graphics and gameplay wayyyy before story and symbolism, which is unfortunate. :3

Posted by Dtat

I think you're reaching a bit with the "Myst books represent video games" argument, but I agree with you about Half-Life. I wonder if they thought of that when they first had you pick up a crowbar, or if it was just a happy cooincidence.
Posted by nintendoeats
@MarkWahlberg: Fair enough. I guess I just don't think about games in that way, but you are probably right.
Posted by EquitasInvictus
@MarkWahlberg said:
" @nintendoeats said:

" I don't think that it is entirely true to say that video games are a visual medium, I think that the interactive aspect is the thing that has most precedence. But that nitpick aside...  The problem with symbolism is that so very often it is accidental and every very quickly gets post-modern and silly. "

Interactivity is definitely the most critical aspect in differentiating between games and other media. I just meant that most of the information is transmitted to the player by visuals.  Usually. And you're right about silly interpretations; I don't know how many times I've heard people give these elaborate, usually sexual explanations for shit that has nothing to do with the actual story. Not that coming up with crazy stuff can't be fun, though.... "
Under the school of psychoanalysis, almost every thought the human mind processes can trace its roots back to the subconscious ultimately yearning for sex. Basically, it has something to do with our motives to reproduce by instinct (technically the only way we survive as a species). That practically validates every argument that something visual created by man is phallic. (i.e. swords - they penetrate skin). 
 
I've had one too many English professors pose arguments about phallic symbols. 'xP 
 
Great post, btw! I thought a lot of the insight you provided was valid and supported nicely. It's interesting to see people looking into games like this.
Edited by xaLieNxGrEyx

1. Silent Hill 2  
2. Silent Hill 2 
3. Silent Hill 2 
4. Silent Hill 2  
5. Silent Hill 2 
6. Silent Hill 2 
7. Silent Hill 2 
8.  Silent Hill 2 
9. Silent Hill 2  
10. Silent Hill 2  
 
 
And oh yeah, you should prob check out Silent Hill 2.

Posted by EquitasInvictus
@xaLieNxGrEyx: That's a great example for why one can argue everything is phallic. They're not even subtle about it. 'xD
Posted by xaLieNxGrEyx
@EquitasInvictus said:
" @xaLieNxGrEyx: That's a great example for why one can argue everything is phallic. They're not even subtle about it. 'xD "

The entire game is Symbolism, right down to the personalitys of the other living characters and enemy design.  
 
If we're talking Symbolism, especially for story telling purposes, there is no better example.
Edited by ShaneDev

That was an interesting read I think most of this is probably accidental though and I think you strongest case would be for Myst. 
 
EDIT: Actually this was more interesting than any of those Video game over thinker videos I have seen. 

Posted by BaconGames
@Meteora said:
" I feel that video games hasn't come far enough in a story or theme driven way that gamers can understand and analyse symbolism in games. The many majority of us (this includes the COD players) care more about graphics and gameplay wayyyy before story and symbolism, which is unfortunate. :3 "
I disagree in only that plenty of films have symbolism but a vast majority do not for various reasons.  It would ignorant to assume all books written and published throughout history were the artsy ones with symbolism packed as the true subtext.  There were a lot of shitty penny novels back in the day as well as high literature and everything in between.  Games are no different.
 
I think certain franchises definitely lean toward the symbolism like Persona for instance.  BioShock is another that really puts forth a lot of symbols like the Great Chain and others.  Hell even innocuous items like bibles take on a new significance in Rapture.
 
Actually the Lambda in Half-Life is a very effective use of symbolism as that is the rally-call for rebels in Half-Life 2 future.
Posted by thedj93

This was a real fun read! Also, I liked the happening, because I went in thinking it was a black comedy, and to that capacity it isn't that bad 
:)

Posted by ComradeKritstov

Here's something I never thought I would say...Myst just blew my mind.

Posted by MarkWahlberg
@EquitasInvictus said:
Under the school of psychoanalysis, almost every thought the human mind processes can trace its roots back to the subconscious ultimately yearning for sex. Basically, it has something to do with our motives to reproduce by instinct (technically the only way we survive as a species). That practically validates every argument that something visual created by man is phallic. (i.e. swords - they penetrate skin).  "
I've heard that argument before; makes it kinda sound like psychoanalysts have the mentality of middle schoolers. Every other conversation back then ended up being about penises. 
 
 
@xaLieNxGrEyx said:

The entire game is Symbolism, right down to the personalitys of the other living characters and enemy design.   If we're talking Symbolism, especially for story telling purposes, there is no better example. "
Guess I should probably play it at some point!
Posted by I_smell

I got really excited about all the messages in Bioshock about game design and how people think- but then I saw an interview with Ken Levine where he said he didn't intend any of it :/
 
I don't feel like typing a load right now, but y'know... Would you kindly rip little girls apart to trigger the next scene, or the game's not gonna progress kinda stuff.

Posted by xaLieNxGrEyx
@MarkWahlberg:
Please do, you can thank me later.
Posted by EquitasInvictus
@MarkWahlberg: Hey, it was a school of thought that emerged between 1900-1940 and despite how rudimentary it might look from today's standards it is what helped bring attention to the study of psychology. Without us getting there, we probably would be unable to draw such associations today due to the lack of some movements that spun off of psychoanalysis. German Expressionism in film, for example, was definitely influenced by psychoanalysis' peak and without it there'd be a lot about film and visuals in general today that we'd be unable to enjoy. 
 
I appreciate it enough for it makes things such as this entire thread possible. 'xD
Posted by Meteora
@Tuffgong said:
" @Meteora said:
" I feel that video games hasn't come far enough in a story or theme driven way that gamers can understand and analyse symbolism in games. The many majority of us (this includes the COD players) care more about graphics and gameplay wayyyy before story and symbolism, which is unfortunate. :3 "
I disagree in only that plenty of films have symbolism but a vast majority do not for various reasons.  It would ignorant to assume all books written and published throughout history were the artsy ones with symbolism packed as the true subtext.  There were a lot of shitty penny novels back in the day as well as high literature and everything in between.  Games are no different.  I think certain franchises definitely lean toward the symbolism like Persona for instance.  BioShock is another that really puts forth a lot of symbols like the Great Chain and others.  Hell even innocuous items like bibles take on a new significance in Rapture.  Actually the Lambda in Half-Life is a very effective use of symbolism as that is the rally-call for rebels in Half-Life 2 future. "
Yeah well symbolism goes the hell when more than 80% of films are trash made by Hollywood, so yeah you do have a point. Though very rarely do I ever encounter symbolism in games, or I actively think of the meaning and symbolic nature of certain elements and themes in a game.
Posted by nintendoeats
@EquitasInvictus said:
" @MarkWahlberg said:
" @nintendoeats said:

" I don't think that it is entirely true to say that video games are a visual medium, I think that the interactive aspect is the thing that has most precedence. But that nitpick aside...  The problem with symbolism is that so very often it is accidental and every very quickly gets post-modern and silly. "

Interactivity is definitely the most critical aspect in differentiating between games and other media. I just meant that most of the information is transmitted to the player by visuals.  Usually. And you're right about silly interpretations; I don't know how many times I've heard people give these elaborate, usually sexual explanations for shit that has nothing to do with the actual story. Not that coming up with crazy stuff can't be fun, though.... "
Under the school of psychoanalysis, almost every thought the human mind processes can trace its roots back to the subconscious ultimately yearning for sex. Basically, it has something to do with our motives to reproduce by instinct (technically the only way we survive as a species). That practically validates every argument that something visual created by man is phallic. (i.e. swords - they penetrate skin).  I've had one too many English professors pose arguments about phallic symbols. 'xP  Great post, btw! I thought a lot of the insight you provided was valid and supported nicely. It's interesting to see people looking into games like this. "
...You do know that most modern psychologists believe that Freud was completely wrong, right?
Posted by l4wd0g

I have this debate with myself all the time. The problem is that symbols change over time, and if you don't know what a symbol represents it's just an artistic flourish.

Posted by MooseyMcMan

YOU ARE THE CROWBAR!

Moderator
Posted by EquitasInvictus
@nintendoeats: Yes, yes. Even bearing that in mind, psychoanalysis still left a huge impression beyond the field of psychology - that was the point I was trying to make.
 
I mentioned it because it indirectly influenced why visuals can be interpreted to be so symbolic today. In a post after the one you quoted, I referenced German Expressionism in film, which is responsible for pioneering a lot of the visual symbolism that's almost universal in visual mediums nowadays. Acceptance for that genre of film wouldn't have been so widespread without the near-simultaneous spread of the theories of Freud back then, otherwise German Expressionism, expressionism in general and a lot about how we interpret them as symbolic would've been lost.