Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Games Discussed: Final Fantasy X (Square-Enix), The Last of Us (Naughty Dog), Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (KONAMI), Persona 5 (Altus)
“Themes are for eighth-grade book reports” – David Benioff, showrunner of Game of Thrones
Dismissed by professionals and maligned by students, theme has developed a reputation as a purely academic exercise, something that exists to be dissected in essays while adding nothing to the story as a whole. This viewpoint, while common, misses the point of what theme is and what purpose it serves. A story’s theme is not essay fodder to torture students, but rather the central question that the characters wrestle with throughout the narrative. By touching on the central question from multiple perspectives, narratives can explore how different answers can lead to different outcomes in the characters’ lives.
Themes can cover a seemingly infinite set of topics, but the strongest themes are the ones that have universal appeal. Famous examples include: “Is it better to have loved and lost, or never to have loved at all?”, “Does an eye for an eye make the whole world blind?”, or “Should the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?” These questions, drawn from broader themes of love, vengeance, and equality, are relatable across cultures, ages, and races, as they speak to the fundamental human experience. These questions are also valuable because they can be broached in any story-telling medium, including video games. By infusing games with relatable themes, developers ensure that their narratives endure not just for the strength of their characters, worlds, and plots, but also for the fundamental truths they reveal about humanity.
Early video games did not have much room for theme, as the technology of the time and the expectations of consumers limited the potential for the medium. As time changed both tech and tastes, stories became an integral part of the gaming experience, and theme came along for the ride. As early as the 1980s, video games began exploring basic themes, the most popular of which being the omnipresent ‘Good vs. Evil’, and each successive generations of games introduced more complexity and nuance to their stories. Decades later, game narratives are asking their characters to broach a variety of difficult questions that would be at home in any novel, script, or play.
The themes explored in games have the same broad range as the themes explored in novels and films. Some of the more famous examples of themes broached in video games include: “How much should one be willing to sacrifice for the good of humanity?” (Final Fantasy X, Square Enix; The Last of Us, Naughty Dog), “Should one’s loyalty to their country supercede their loyalty to their comrades?” (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, KONAMI), and “How do our desires distort our perceptions of the world?” (Persona 5, ATLUS). In each of these games, the protagonists and the antagonists alike are confronted by these questions, and the way their answers differ shapes the conflict at the core of their stories. To strip these games of their themes would be to strip them of the stories themselves, leaving them bereft of the qualities that made them resonate with players long past their release.
Games Discussed: Final Fantasy X (Square-Enix), Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (KONAMI), Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (KONAMI)
In narrative analysis, a motif is a reoccurring image or concept used to reinforce a story’s theme. Motifs can be as subtle as a background image or a musical cue, or they can be as overt as a character name or a story-shaping event. Examples of common motifs include broken things (representing loss, tragedy), flowers (passion, growth), the sea (the unknown, the eternal), and rain (sadness, depression). These motifs are seen frequently because they are immediately accessible to the audience, and the audience is not left wondering about their meaning. Using immediately accessible motifs has a downside, however, as they run the risk of becoming cliché when overused in a narrative.
To keep common motifs interesting to audiences, writers may use a variety of images and concepts within a single motif. If the writer wishes to use the rain motif, for example, they may choose to show objects and sounds associated with the rain, rather than the rain itself. A wet umbrella in the doorway suggests rain without showing it, while invoking deep grays and muted hues takes a more subtle approach to inclement weather. Neither the umbrella nor the colors are a motif on their own, but they form the motif when combined with other images and concepts that invoke the same feeling.
As themes have become more prevalent in video game narratives, so too have the motifs that reinforce them. Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy X, with its theme of self-sacrifice, invokes the image of a character jumping off a cliff or ledge at multiple pivotal points in the narrative. At each point, the character is willing to jump because they trust that things will be better for the fall: the figurative ‘leap of faith’ made literal. Hideo Kojima frequently employs motifs in his character names, such as the animal motif in Metal Gear Solid, the emotion motif in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, or the combination thereof in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. While Final Fantasy X’s ‘leap of faith’ motif is more visually striking, Metal Gear Solid’s naming motif leaves less room for ambiguity. Many different motif styles have their place in video games, and the styles developers choose give them the freedom to express themes in the manner best fitting the narrative as a whole.
Games Discussed: The Legend of Zelda Series (Nintendo), Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo), Persona 5 (ATLUS)
Like motifs, symbols are ideas and objects used to represent specific concepts, but unlike motifs, symbols do not necessarily have to represent a narrative’s theme. Symbols are instead meant to act as a sort of narrative short-hand, conveying a broad concept with a simple cue. The overlap between symbols and motifs occurs when a series of symbols is used to convey a single motif. For example, consider the motif of rain as a way to convey the themes of depression and despair. Within that motif, wet boots and puddles can act as symbols, suggesting rain without showing the rain itself. Using symbols to suggest a larger motif helps engage the audience, and also leaves room for varying degrees of subtlety. In a movie that uses the rain motif, a viewer may immediately understand that wet boots are symbolic of rain, but they may not realize that a desaturated color scheme symbolizes the same thing.
In video games, symbols differ from motifs because they can serve both a narrative purpose and a mechanical purpose. While the narrative purpose of symbols remains the same—conveying an idea or a motif—the mechanical purpose can be instructing or guiding the player through the game. Purely mechanical symbols, such as symbols that corresponds to a button on the player’s controller, can be used to show players how to perform an action without having any meaning in the story. Conversely, purely narrative symbols, such as regional or racial sigils, add flavor to the world without serving a mechanical purpose. Some symbols serve a dual purpose, providing both mechanical instruction and narrative insight. For example, The Legend of Zelda series prominently features the Triforce, a group of golden triangles that acts as both a narrative and mechanical symbols. For narrative purposes, the Triforce suggests a connection with the kingdom’s deities and sovereigns; for mechanical purposes, the Triforce indicates that an object or place is important and should be further explored.
While the meaning of mechanical symbols is always made clear to the player, the meaning of a narrative symbol may not be explicitly stated. Sometimes the meaning can be derived from cultural context, as is commonly the case with symbolic colors. In Square-Enix’s Chrono Trigger, there is no explicit meaning given to the purple robes worn by the magical residents of Zeal, but the color purple has been commonly associated with royalty for centuries due to the high cost of early purple dyes. When cultural context does not explain a symbol’s meaning by itself, the meaning can typically be found by observing when and where the symbol appears. In Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the rare wildflower known as the Silent Princess comes to symbolize hope because it grows in magical places and flourishes after the games’ climax. This interpretation is reinforced by cultural context, as thriving plants are frequently used as symbols of change.
Whenever the meaning of a symbol is unclear, both cultural and narrative context are the keys to unlocking its meaning. By observing where the symbol occurs in a scene and when it occurs in the narrative, and then combining that information with common cultural signifiers, it’s possible to divine the meaning of even the most opaque symbols in stories.