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.