Symbolism In Videogames: Finding The Balance Between Dark And Light

Symbolism is impor­tant. It’s a visu­al short­hand used to express com­plex ideas and emo­tions, used in every­thing from clas­si­cal paint­ings to the block­buster you recent­ly caught in the­aters. It can be a way to cre­ate fore­shad­ow­ing in a film as well as a way to push forth a moral in a writ­ten tale, a pow­er­ful method of get­ting across a lot with very lit­tle. It can also be a way to whit­tle down the com­plex­i­ty of a sub­ject to the bare­bones. Much like a knife, it can be used to help and hurt depend­ing on whose hands it’s in.

Anything can be turned into a sym­bol. A sym­bol can also rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent, even con­tra­dic­to­ry, ideas. However, what may seem obvi­ous to you might not imme­di­ate­ly click for some­one else. Dominant cul­ture, soci­etal priv­i­lege and per­son­al taste all play an ele­ment in how we read sym­bols and what effect they have on us. The color (or if we’re get­ting tech­ni­cal, ‘shade’) for funer­als, for exam­ple, is black in the West. Multiple Asian coun­tries, how­ev­er, use white to denote death and mourn­ing. A rose can sym­bol­ize any num­ber of things depend­ing on its hue — red is con­sid­ered syn­ony­mous with pas­sion, white with loss and yel­low with inno­cence. A still-common form of sym­bol­ism is that of light and dark, with the for­mer reg­u­lar­ly used to push con­cepts of puri­ty and jus­tice and the lat­ter asso­ci­at­ed with evil, mys­tery and death.

From the looks of it, ‘light is right’ isn’t going to fade away any time soon.

To say the Western videogame indus­try strug­gles with stag­na­tion would be an impres­sive under­state­ment. A lack of diverse lead pro­tag­o­nists have caused mul­ti­ple move­ments to crop up and attempt to change a crum­bling foun­da­tion, from Feminist Frequency to I Need Diverse Games, while the over­bear­ing redun­dan­cy of famil­iar sub­ject mat­ter has lead many a cus­tomer to turn to out­lets like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight in favor of inde­pen­dent­ly pro­duced titles. Despite all this, dark and light sym­bol­ism is still a com­mon ele­ment that has kept many games from reach­ing their true poten­tial. You could even say many devel­op­ers are in the dark about it.

The Legend Of Zelda is one of the most noto­ri­ous exam­ples per­pet­u­at­ing the ‘light is right’ men­tal­i­ty and, for those even remote­ly famil­iar with geeky media, I like­ly don’t have to repeat myself over­much. The icon­ic silent pro­tag­o­nist Link is pale, blonde and blue-eyed, con­stant­ly put in the posi­tion of res­cu­ing a pale, blond and blue-eyed woman from the clutch­es of a dark-skinned vil­lain. Being repeat­ed ad nau­se­um through­out its very long his­to­ry, only two titles have active­ly attempt­ed to step out­side this well-worn ring into mild­ly green­er pas­tures.

Wind Waker has the most sym­pa­thet­ic por­tray­al of Ganondorf seen so far in the series — he’s more of an anti-villain, (spoil­ers) orig­i­nal­ly seek­ing out the tri­force to pull his peo­ple out of pover­ty and pro­vide them a bet­ter future. Along the way he becomes cor­rupt­ed by its power, lead­ing him to try and take over the world in the process. Even in the final bat­tle he’s more noble than his other iter­a­tions, refus­ing to hurt Zelda in favor of sim­ply knock­ing her to the side and even show­ing some sym­pa­thy to Link’s posi­tion in the mat­ter. It was a wel­come change and one I hoped to see more of. Unfortunately, that was much like hop­ing a solar eclipse would hap­pen more than once every year and a half.

You can see the slid­ing scale of col­orism on full dis­play in Wind Waker — light-skinned char­ac­ters are given the full breadth of human­i­ty, allowed to be good and evil and every­thing in-between. While light brown char­ac­ters are given close to the same treat­ment (from the nice bird mail­man who helps you on your quest to the rather inept sales­man who keeps his wares on an inac­ces­si­ble boat in the mid­dle of the ocean), there’s a notable dearth of brown-skinned women and girls out­side of Tetra… who does­n’t even stay brown. Lastly, Ganondorf is the dark­est and, by virtue, the ulti­mate vil­lain. Even though the nar­ra­tive gives him a sym­pa­thet­ic nod, he’s still the pri­ma­ry antag­o­nist that needs to be taken down with no pos­i­tive coun­ter­parts. To put it plain? Cel-shaded lip ser­vice.

Twilight Princess is the stu­dio’s other more bla­tant attempt at sub­vert­ing the ‘dark is evil’ trope, but one that rings poten­tial­ly more hol­low due to just how alien the tit­u­lar Twili are. Midna, one of the most pop­u­lar Zelda char­ac­ters thus far, toys with play­er expec­ta­tions as she hops from poten­tial­ly vil­lain­ous to unques­tion­ably hero­ic through­out the course of the game. While I loved how she was writ­ten, I still find it trou­ble­some that this more nuanced exe­cu­tion is for a more vis­i­bly fan­tas­tic sub­ject. Sure, the Hylians have pointy ears… but that’s just about all that sep­a­rates them from your aver­age schmoe on the street. Twili, on the other hand, are fanged humanoids cov­ered in glow­ing tat­toos with sur­re­al hand-hair and the abil­i­ty to go incor­po­re­al. Subverting sym­bol­ism through abstract sub­jects is more than pos­si­ble, but it does­n’t escape my notice that the most sym­pa­thet­ic approach we get toward this trope in the Zelda fran­chise is also for its least human sub­jects.

Symbolism is meant to com­mu­ni­cate deep­er mean­ing and what one of the most pop­u­lar videogame series has told mil­lions of play­ers is: dark has con­di­tions. Light can be what­ev­er it wants. Dragon gods and bird peo­ple and crea­tures made out of twi­light make sense, but hero­ic dark-skinned peo­ple don’t. If you don’t think this con­di­tion­ing influ­ences how peo­ple inter­act with the world you’re prob­a­bly star­ing direct­ly into the sun.

Nintendo is incred­i­bly influ­en­tial and has been for quite a few years, but never let it be said other stu­dios haven’t attempt­ed to con­test the top spot of ‘light is right’. Resident Evil 5 saw some crit­i­cism for its myopic depic­tion of ‘Africa’ (with that vague­ness alone being a whole ‘nother issue) and the fact its ene­mies were pri­mar­i­ly dark-skinned. The hero is a white man, and his African part­ner, Sheva Alomar, is notably lighter-skinned with straight hair and light eyes. She also sports a British accent. Because civ­i­lized, am I right? Popular fran­chis­es like Call Of Duty and Uncharted also fea­ture white pro­tag­o­nists mak­ing a mock­ery of other cul­tures, whether fight­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly brown and black ene­mies or ran­sack­ing for­eign lands for trea­sure.

This isn’t lim­it­ed to the AAA indus­try. The indie cir­cuit, for all its indi­rect claims to orig­i­nal­i­ty and step­ping off the beat­en path, have proven they’re not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in switch­ing it up. I bought Child Of Light a few years back and knew the under­ly­ing mes­sage would­n’t get any more com­pli­cat­ed than ‘light is good and you know the rest’ — while I enjoyed its tra­di­tion­al water­col­or design and tac­ti­cal game­play, I was still bored by its bland retread of dark and light sym­bol­ism. Ori And The Blind Forest, a game where you play a mys­te­ri­ous glow­ing crea­ture attempt­ing to bring light to a dark for­est, goes along the same lines. While it does attempt to pay a lit­tle lip ser­vice to com­plex­i­ty with the main char­ac­ter’s dark guardian and the omnipresent black owl vil­lain, it comes off less as ‘dark is also good’ and more as ‘here’s an excep­tion to the rule’.

You see this in lit­er­a­ture, from the orcs in Lord Of The Rings to the dark­ly robed Death Eaters in Harry Potter. You see this in film and, par­tic­u­lar­ly damn­ing­ly, ani­mat­ed films aimed at chil­dren. How To Train Your Dragon is one of many titles to come under fire for its rather dis­mal approach to light and dark sym­bol­ism — while Toothless is afford­ed plen­ty of sym­pa­thy (being a black drag­on known for attack­ing dur­ing the night), its rather eth­nic vil­lain Drago in the sec­ond film does­n’t get near­ly the same treat­ment. He’s also the only brown per­son to show up in the film series thus far.

At the risk of sound­ing redun­dant: cre­ators would soon­er sub­scribe human­i­ty to some­thing that isn’t human… than a human being.

This non-stop bar­rage of ‘light is right’ has real-life ram­i­fi­ca­tions for every­day peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly those with dark­er skin­tones. The already dis­pro­por­tion­ate incar­cer­a­tion of peo­ple of color shows seri­ous col­orist bias, with study after study reveal­ing harsh­er sen­tences for dark-skinned peo­ple even when com­mit­ting the same crimes as lighter-skinned offend­ers. Hiring prospects are still dis­mal for brown appli­cants and these num­bers dip even fur­ther the deep­er the shade. Even seem­ing­ly mun­dane occur­rences like being able to buy com­pli­men­ta­ry make-up at the store or see­ing pos­i­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion on the big screen is some­thing brown and black peo­ple strug­gle to obtain.

Thankfully, all is not bleak. There are games that go the extra mile not to just enter­tain the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive, but go all the way to cre­ate a whol­ly enrich­ing expe­ri­ence. One of the most notable exam­ples is One Upon Light, an inde­pen­dent game released for the Playstation 4 that fea­tures a pho­to­pho­bic pro­tag­o­nist attempt­ing to nav­i­gate an aban­doned sci­ence facil­i­ty filled with secrets. The dark­ness is a boon, not a detri­ment, and one you are encour­aged to active­ly seek out to beat the game. The dark is calm­ing and invit­ing, giv­ing you moments of peace as you fig­ure out your next plan of action. Light, on the other hand, is intru­sive and gar­ish, agi­tat­ing the pro­tag­o­nist and poten­tial­ly killing you if you linger.

Contrast is a puzzle-platformer cen­tered around a woman attempt­ing to take care of a neglect­ed child — in an inter­est­ing twist they’re the only 3D char­ac­ters in a world of 2D shad­ows. Manipulating light sources, such as film pro­jec­tors and spot­lights, con­sti­tutes a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the game­play. Lastly, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, Mafia III and Remember Me are all AAA titles that go beyond the sym­bol­ism of phys­i­cal light and shad­ow to embrace sym­pa­thet­ic black lead char­ac­ters with light-skinned char­ac­ters firm­ly in sup­port­ing or vil­lain­ous roles. Unfortunately, these are all rare excep­tions in an ocean of the con­trary.

Language is a pow­er­ful tool. What you say, what you don’t say and how you say it all play into our ongo­ing rela­tion­ship with the world around us. Prominent fig­ures such as Malcolm X, Eartha Kitt and Muhammad Ali active­ly chal­lenged the sub­tle, every­day lan­guage and visu­al sym­bol­ism used in the Western world and how it per­pet­u­ates racist and xeno­pho­bic notions of good and evil.

Malcolm X empha­sized the ongo­ing process that is teach­ing harm­ful men­tal­i­ties in one of his speech­es.

Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? To such extent you bleach to get like the white man.

Eartha Kitt, famous for her act­ing roles and mod­el­ing career, was an out­spo­ken activist for human rights.

When I walk into church, I only see paint­ings of white angels. …Why?

Muhammad Ali dis­cussed the sub­tle effect of lan­guage back dur­ing a 1971 inter­view, using his expe­ri­ences ask­ing his moth­er ques­tions as a child.

They got stuff like White House cig­ars, White Swan soap, Kane White soap, White Cloud tis­sue paper…everything was white. The angel food cake was the white cake and the devil food cake was the choco­late cake. Mary had a lit­tle lamb and his fleece was white as snow. Snow White. Santa Claus was white. Everything was white. The lit­tle ugly duck­ling was the black duck. The black cat was bad luck. If I threat­en you I ‘black­mail’ you. I said, “Mama, why don’t we call it ‘whitemail’? They lie, too!

Videogames are a visu­al lan­guage with the added com­po­nent of being inter­ac­tive. You don’t just see or hear the mes­sage being put forth, you expe­ri­ence it through game­play. Gathering light orbs to illu­mi­nate your path or run­ning from light to remain out of dan­ger. Obtaining a coded item of ulti­mate power or agree­ing with a state­ment one of your favorite char­ac­ters says dur­ing a cutscene. It all adds up to a whole new per­spec­tive in a bite-sized amount of time. The back-and-forth from game to play­er can be an incred­i­bly invig­o­rat­ing expe­ri­ence, one that uses a hybrid of pro­gram­ming, audio and visu­al design to bring out pow­er­ful reac­tions. It can also back­fire, rein­forc­ing harm­ful men­tal­i­ties through con­stant inter­ac­tion and pos­i­tive feed­back.

Change starts small. Entire per­spec­tives can be influ­enced with a minor design choice or a line in a script. To cling to the idea that light, abstract and phys­i­cal, is unan­i­mous­ly good is not just harm­ful — it’s straight-up wrong. Besides the (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly) obvi­ous fact that light can­not even exist with­out the dark, it actu­al­ly sounds absurd to say aloud that the lat­ter is always a neg­a­tive ele­ment in every­day life. You’ve never had a hot sum­mer day where all you want­ed was a bit of shade to stave off the heat? How about wear­ing a sleep mask to get a bet­ter night’s rest or seek­ing out a dark out­fit to accen­tu­ate your fig­ure? You like­ly would­n’t catch some­one say­ing fire is always good and water is most­ly bad… yet here we are. It’s star­tling how eas­i­ly we can accept twist­ed logic if they’re sim­ply repeat­ed enough times. That some­thing as objec­tive as dark and light’s nat­ur­al bal­ance can be warped in our heads and affect our abil­i­ty to treat peo­ple more humane­ly.

Dark and light sym­bol­ism is an explo­sion of nar­row ideals and eth­no­cen­tric, col­orist ide­ol­o­gy that’s start­ing to soak up cen­turies of usage. Its blow­back hits peo­ple of color every day and leaves deep­er scars on those with dark­er skin. Videogames are a rel­a­tive­ly new art form that has made no bones about regur­gi­tat­ing old and dam­ag­ing con­cepts through mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy. With dom­i­nant gamer cul­ture only con­tin­u­ing to sink deep­er and deep­er into a mias­ma of harass­ment, exclu­sion and overt vio­lence, this nev­erend­ing and unques­tion­ing retread will only con­tin­ue to make things worse. Imagine all the games we could be play­ing right now if this archa­ic view­point was­n’t treat­ed like the begin­ning and end of sym­bol­ism.

Like a dis­tant galaxy filled with unknown stars, there’s an entire depth of poten­tial just wait­ing to be revealed.

Ashe Samuels

About Ashe Samuels

Illustrator and writer happily resigned to be forever obsessed with all things fantasy and science-fiction. Trying to make my mark on this world, however small, while I'm still here.