Sometimes, a game doesn't need to be complicated or big to be interesting
Sometimes, a game can just be odd black and white scratch art and the way to bring its concept to fruition is by forcing everything in it's world to try and kill you. Sometimes being as simple or as basic as a flash game forces you to look at the game, try to see what it says, and apply those things outward.
Sometimes, a game's just beautifully dark.
All these things are Sym.
Sym casts you as a teenager with social anxiety disorder. Not actually, since as someone with social anxiety disorder I can tell you that there is absolutely zero chance that you will be ripped apart by saws, eaten by carnivorous plants*, or any of the numerous other fatalities that the game will throw at you. Sym casts you as a kind of metaphorical representation, a long-armed, long-legged creature with the power to enter a "dark world." You must navigate through this hostile world, avoiding the numerous dangers and things that would like nothing more than to kill you, to the exit of the level, solving numerous puzzles along the way.
The scratchy black and white art gives it an eerie feeling, as if something's always slightly off or something is about to leap out from around the corners. Combined with the creepy ambient music, the atmosphere reminded me a little of Limbo (another black and white game filled with traps and things trying to kill you) which isn't bad company to have. Sym is, however, its own game.
For those familiar with puzzle-platformers, there isn't much new here. You run through the level flipping switches and pressing buttons and evading enemies to find the exit to the level and escape. The light world/dark world mechanic comes with different dangers: Plants won't eat you if you're in the Dark World, you can walk right over saws in the light world, and so on and so forth.
But what got to me as I was playing it was that this was more or less a metaphorical story. The main character (named in press materials as "Joshua" but nameless in the actual game itself) goes through his life trying to find a safe space, finds himself beset on all sides by things that want to kill him, gets treatment and is rehabilitated, and finally either decides he's better off alone or finds a way to rejoin the world. At this point, the level editor unlocks, leaving the game with the statement "Now you are free to create your own worlds". I wasn't directly dragged through the story by the nose a la Gone Home, nor was it dizzyingly abstract the same way, say, some Twine games are. It left me with just enough to figure out the plot.
I feel bad about dinging the game for being incredibly frustrating at points (especially the "compactor" level in the "Rehabilitation" section and the entire ending sequence, which involves man-shaped figures running to and fro and who kill on contact regardless of dark or light world), but there were definitely points when I felt the game was a little too unforgiving for its own good, and thought about putting it down. However, this appears to be part of the point, more or less. I mean, it's portraying an unforgiving world, so maybe the sheer difficulty spikes in the middle of the levels are actually part of that? But a game should never be so frustrating that the player actually stops playing it. That is not, and should not be, a thing that happens. If a player stops playing, then the message gets lost. People don't usually come back, and you've failed at conveying whatever point or story you're trying to get across.
But in the end, I fully recommend Sym. It's an interesting game with some very deep levels, and well worth the challenge. I especially enjoyed the exploration aspect to the level-select menu and the bizarre twists of the "Rehabilitation" section. I suggest you give it a try.
Score: 4 out of 5
Full Disclosure: The reviewer received a copy of Sym for this review
*I'm still afraid of this, though.