Symbol of a Character's Condition or Change in Condition Visual or Verbal
This is a kind of symbol that you use in a specific game moment or situation, but that you might never use again in the game.
To use this type of symbol, show an image on screen or have one of the characters say something in the game that reflects what one of the characters on screen is going through emotionally.
To understand how you might use this type of symbol, consider some examples from television and film.
Visual Example from TV
In one episode of Star Trek Voyager, Captain Janeway finds herself in extended battle with the captain of a rogue Federation ship. The captain and crew of that ship are killing harmless aliens in order to use the chemicals in the aliens' bodies to propel their ship. Janeway is horrified that a trained Starfleet officer could so deeply violate the most basic Federation ethical principals. She takes the captain's murder of the aliens quite personally.
Janeway becomes so obsessed with stopping the other captain at whatever cost that she crosses the bounds of ethics and good judgment. In doing so, she imperils her crew by exposing them to extreme dangers. This generates a series of arguments between her and her first officer, Chakotay. In short, Janeway's obsession to stop the rogue captain, who has become a terrible leader, turns Janeway into a poor leader herself.
A metal plaque that reads "U.S.S. Voyager" falls off a Voyager bulkhead during a battle with the rogue ship. This plaque is a symbol that the spiritual core of Voyager the moral codes of the Federation, the Starfleet tradition of honor and humanity, and the moral compass of people who uphold these codes and traditions has been damaged. It's a Symbol of a Condition or Change in Condition of Janeway and Chakotay.
The plaque falling off the bulkhead affects us emotionally. If people make only an intellectual connection between the plaque and the abandoned Federation values, then the writer hasn't been artful enough in creating the symbol.
Visual Example from Film
In the 1957 Academy Award-winning masterpiece Bridge on the River Kwai, Alec Guinness plays Colonel Nicholson, who commands a group of British soldiers captured by the Japanese and forced to work like slaves in a POW camp in Burma.
I won't reiterate the convoluted plot, but suffice to say that, due to his ego, Nicholson has his men help the Japanese build a large, strong, and beautiful bridge. He tells his men it's to help keep their discipline intact and their morale high. In reality, it's because he thinks that this masterpiece of engineering and aesthetics will be a tribute to his own greatness.
The result is, in building the bridge, Colonel Nicholson has helped the enemy. But, near the very end of the film, during a battle at the bridge, he has a powerful realization, and says, "What have I done?"
At that exact moment, he reaches up and touches his commander's cap. This is the Symbol of a Character's Condition or Change of Condition. His touching the cap is a symbol of his changing back to becoming what he once was an honorable British soldier.
An explosion goes off nearby and he is knocked to the ground, wounded from the shrapnel. When he stands up, his cap lies on the ground, but he's too dazed to immediately see this. He reaches for the top of his head and realizes that the cap is gone. Nicholson then bends down and picks it up off the ground. His reaching toward his head for the cap, and then his picking it up off the ground, again is the same Symbol of a Character's Condition or Change of Condition, signifying that he has become the honorable man he once was.
He puts his conversion immediately into action, for, as he dies from the shrapnel hit, he directs his fall onto the dynamite detonator, which in turn blows up the bridge he had so painstakingly guided his men to build.
As was the case with the Voyager example, most people in the audience wouldn't consciously notice this use of a symbol. And yet it would still contribute to the depth of their emotional experience. It's a strange moment when, as a writer, you realize that a great deal of your art involves trying to create emotional effects that won't be consciously perceived, perhaps ever, by anyone.
Verbal Example from Film
In the provocative film American Beauty, the character Ricky Fitts (played by Wes Bentley) is a teen without fear of teen social pressures, and with a deep appreciation of the beauty all around him. He seems, in some ways, to be enlightened.
Contradicting his supposed enlightenment is the fact that he sells drugs, is completely emotionally detached, and is fascinated by death. In fact, his veneer of serenity is what I call a Mask, or false front (see Chapter 2.1, "NPC Interesting Techniques").
At a certain point in the film, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey's character) drops by Ricky's house to buy some dope from him. Lester is especially interested in some of the really potent marijuana he smoked with Ricky a few nights earlier. Ricky pulls out a bag of the dope and explains that it's:
RICKY: ...top of the line. It's called G-13. Genetically engineered by the U.S. Government. Extremely potent. But a completely mellow high, no paranoia. LESTER: Is this what we smoked last night? RICKY: This is all I ever smoke.
Why is this a verbal Symbol of a Character's Condition or Change of Condition? Because Ricky, unknowingly, has just described himself. Ricky used to be a passionate young man, until his control-freak military father, as punishment for Ricky's perceived disobedience, had Ricky committed to a mental institution for two years, where he was heavily drugged.
This experience broke his spirit. So Ricky himself, his spirit crushed both by his Marine father and the mental institution, has been government engineered. His fake serenity (his Mask) is that of a completely mellow high. This Mask of serenity allows him to, in his core, remain numb. Thus, he's got no paranoia. But like all chemical highs, Ricky's is not real.
Verbal Example from TV
Sometimes, in the television business, you need to write a sample script just to show you can adapt your writing style to different shows. I wrote a sample X-Files script that has gotten me no end of work in the game industry. In the story, Mulder no longer fits in professionally with Scully and Doggett. He was always driven in his paranormal quests by the search for the truth about his missing sister. But, with that case solved in the series prior to the point when I wrote my screenplay, Mulder no longer has a dream or ambition to push him forward.
In the middle of an awkward conversation with Scully, Doggett, and Skinner, in which Mulder is being forced out of the X-Files, Mulder notices Skinner's office clock. Checking it against his own watch, he says, "Is that clock right?"
No one responds to the question the conversation merely proceeds. (Quite frequently, in dialogue, not every statement or question gets a response.) Why the throw-away line about the clock? It's a Symbol of Mulder's Condition or Change in Condition. In this case, it symbolizes that he's out of sync, or out of step with all the others. In effect, his time has passed.
Will anyone reading the script (or seeing Mulder say the line) consciously understand what I was going for with the line, or even notice it at all? It's unlikely, any more than they would note the line by Ricky Fitts in American Beauty about the government-engineered marijuana. As with the other examples, the symbol operates outside the audience's conscious awareness.