A video game for the socially anxious

Italian developers Sebastiano Morando and Francesco Lanciai didn't set out to make a game about social anxiety disorder when they created Sym. That idea spawned from the drawing of a character, a black figure with one eye disintegrating into a stark white background. Morando was inspired by this image, picturing pieces of the character as separate personalities fighting for control; a grotesque analogy for a teenager coming of age. "I was never diagnosed with social anxiety disorder," Morando says. "But in high school, I was really shy and talking with other teens was so difficult for me. When I discovered the existence of social anxiety disorder, the intense fear of social interaction, I wanted to delve deeper into it."

Sym is a puzzle-platformer. Players control Joshua, an amorphous dark figure with long, spindly arms and legs. Joshua can sink into the ground and walk -- upside-down and bright white -- on the inverse of black platforms, lending the game an extra puzzle-solving layer. The music grows muted as players enter the upside-down world, further demonstrating the differences between Joshua's personalities. Lanciai says that Sym is about the division between reality and our unique perceptions of that physical world: black and white, terrifying and safe.

Sym is part of a recent trend: independent games designed to help players manage, recognize and discuss their personal demons.

As Josh traverses Sym's world, jumping high into the air and sinking into the soft ground, evocative words shadow his every step. These phrases are at times haunting and mundane, but they cut directly to the daily insecurities that Morando and Lanciai believe face the truly self-conscious. One level reads, "Wait! Wait! Patience is everything. Wait! Wait!" Another offers strings of mathematical equations. In one room, two lines read, "If I could stay here," and, "If I could leave this place," while a third, scribbled below the floor, says, "If I could simply die." The words don't serve an in-game function; you won't select from among the phrases you come across. Instead, they are meant as emotional prompts for players, and they add unease to the otherwise clean black-and-white world.

Sym is due out for PC and Mac via Steam in March, and there's a free demo available on its Steam Store page right now. In its final form, Sym will have a level editor. This is a core feature, Morando says, because it will allow players to tell their own stories and express their own fears and triumphs. Players will be able to build bridges to one another's levels, connecting disparate stories and puzzles. Together, the level editor and "Shared World" are features that Morando believes will allow the game to transcend its creators.

"Sym is not about high scores or speed records," he says. "There is no evil villain. Sym is for people who believe games can also make us think about the world and ourselves. We want people to think about the character's words, why a level is made this way and what it means to them."

Sym is (perhaps accidentally) part of a recent trend: independent games designed to help players manage, recognize and discuss their personal demons. Games in this category include Actual Sunlight, a dark game that explores suicidal thoughts and deep depression, and Neverending Nightmares, a psychological horror game that demonstrates the ever-present terror of obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. With its emphasis on social anxiety disorder, Sym joins the ranks of potentially therapeutic, emotionally educational games.

"I think introspective games are more 'real' and relevant because players need to look inside for meanings, and not have the game tell them what to think," Lanciai says. "This is true of art, which is open to interpretation by the viewer."

Both Morando and Lanciai are deep thinkers, able to mold vague ideas into a concrete product. They approach Sym, and the world itself, philosophically. "We thought about the division between the real world and how we see it in our minds," Lanciai says. "That gave us the idea for contrasting black-and-white worlds and what's going on between them."

Recently, the pair was asked to speak about Sym and the creative process in a high school philosophy class in Italy. After the developers finished a presentation about Kant and Plato, a shy, quiet girl approached them to say she recognized herself in Sym.

"I didn't think the game could really help anyone until that day," Morando tells me. "I do believe that everyone has the inner strength to overcome his fear; that is one of the messages of the game."