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.