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Sym explores social anxiety disorder through puzzles and platforms

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Sym is a platform puzzle adventure that takes shyness and social anxiety as its theme.

Due out on Steam at the end of this month, it's been written by Verona, Italy-based developers Sebastiano Morando and Francesco Lanciai, aka Atrax Games.

Sym centers on a 2D character called Josh, who exists in two worlds. There is an above ground that is colored white. It is the real world. There is also an upside-down below ground, a negative, that represents Josh's internal landscape.

It's designed to help players understand how someone with social anxiety feels

Puzzles are solved by making use of both worlds, though the levels are not always single-laned, and there is often a progression choice between both plains. The world is full of eyeballs watching Josh's actions. Words appear that draw obvious as well as cryptic allusions to the game's theme.

"It represents the division between the world of the mind where only I can exist, where I can hide myself from the real world which in the game is the white world," explains Morando. "Staying in the white world means that I'm facing my fears, staying in the dark world means I'm hiding from them.

"In the white side there are the real, living things: monsters and [hostile] flowers. They represent our fears, something we have to face. In the dark side there are blades: they represent the tricks of our mind, something we need to avoid. And there are the circuits: we need to understand how our mind works and use this mechanism to our advantage." The circuits are maps and platforms that appear as the player moves through the levels.

But while social anxiety is a part of the game's aesthetic, atmosphere and even mechanics, Sym is not designed as a therapeutic tool or even as a publicity message, so much as a piece of art with something to say about a widespread condition.

"I haven't designed this game to help people who have social anxiety disorder," explains Morando. "In my opinion games aren't something that can be used as therapy. It's a subject I feel close so and I wanted to talk about it. I don't think a game could explain such a difficult topic, but a game can talk about it like any other form of art.

"Actually I think the game does the contrary. It's designed to help players understand how someone with social anxiety feels. The main way this could help people suffering from the disorder is by acknowledging that someone else has the same problem as you and identifying that you're not alone."

Sym

Games have often been a refuge for people who suffer from shyness and social anxiety. But Sym seeks to address the problem as part of its story.

"I was never diagnosed with social anxiety disorder but I can relate to it," says Morando. "In my teen years I was very shy and talking to someone was a big issue. There wasn't a label put to my feelings, but that was how I felt. When the artwork representing the future protagonist of the game was first created, I thought that social anxiety could be a good topic for the game."

A free demo for Sym is currently available on Steam. When the game ships, it will feature a level editor, "so people can share their own stories and contribute their own experiences," says Morando.

"I don't want to sound too pretentious here, I just wanted to make a game," he adds. "There are a lot of other things I'm passionate about: art, psychology, philosophy, poetry. So I tried to put my passions together. I believe games have a lot of potential as an art form and there is a lot to explore with that. We have only just started."