In Chapter 2.9, "NPC Character Arc Techniques," and Chapter 2.20, "First-Person Character Arc Techniques," I spoke at length about giving NPCs and even the player a Character Arc, in which a fear, limitation, block, or wound (FLBW) is overcome with difficulty. The discussion on Symbolic Subplots is founded on information and techniques in those chapters.
In many stories, some of the most compelling emotional moments are wrapped around a character wrestling with, and eventually growing through, his or her emotional FLBW.
Some writers insert a symbol into the story that represents the character's Arc. That is, as the character changes and grows, the symbol changes right along with them.
A Symbolic Subplot is a Plot Deepening Technique, because it continues throughout all or most of the plot (unlike the Symbol of the Character's Condition or Change in Condition, which occurs in one moment or situation within the game).
In the Star Trek series, Enterprise, one of the crew, Ensign Hoshi Sato, is a woman with extraordinary linguistic abilities. In one of the early episodes, she's having a hard time adapting to life on a starship. She wants to go home, back to Earth.
She has brought a pet along with her a yellow slug. And the slug isn't doing well aboard the ship. Environmental conditions threaten its health.
By the end of the episode, after discovering how much the crew needs her, she has made her peace with working in space. She drops the slug off on an Earth-like planet, where it will survive just fine.
Thus, the slug is a Symbolic Subplot. The slug not doing well in space equates with her not doing well in space. The slug being put on a new planet and doing well there equates with her surviving and thriving away from Earth.
With a Symbolic Subplot, you can know how the character is doing in their Character Arc, just by checking up on what's happening with the symbol.
Operating Outside of Conscious Awareness
Just as was the case with a Symbol of a Character's Condition or Change in Condition, a Symbolic Subplot may or may not be noticed by the audience or player.
Let's go back to the example from the Enterprise episode. In this case, unlike most, we are quite aware that the slug is a Symbolic Subplot, for the doctor on board the ship even points this out to Hoshi. That is, while speaking to her, he compares her difficulties to that of the slug.
This violates the guideline of having the Symbolic Subplot operate just outside most people's conscious awareness. In my opinion, this was a mistake. I think Hoshi's slithering slimy sick slug symbol would have generated more emotion if it hadn't been pointed out to the audience. "Look, here's a symbol" is usually not the best way to go. However, as every writer knows, to every guideline there are always successful exceptions.
The film Wonder Boys effectively uses an interesting Symbolic Subplot. In that film, Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a character who wrote a great novel decades ago, and who is now a washed-up creative writing teacher at a prestigious liberal arts college. His life is a mess. He's depressed, and has been working seemingly forever on a sprawling, unfinished novel that he hasn't shown anyone.
The Symbolic Subplot is the novel he's working on. The novel equates to his life. We learn that he's been working on the book for decades. Then we learn it's a sprawling jumble, with plot-lines going off in all direction but without a focus (just like his life). It's comprised of tons of details without a unifying thread (just like his life).
Further along in the film, the pages of his manuscript the only copy he has are blown to the wind (symbolic of his life falling apart). Later still, when someone asks him what the novel was about, he can't answer meaning he has no idea what his life is about. By the end, once he feels his life assumes meaning and direction again, he starts a new novel. This one has power and focus.
Using This Technique in Games
As we saw in Chapter 2.20, "First-Person Character Arc Techniques," trying to build in a Character Arc for a player opens up a can of worms. This upcoming section presupposes that you are completely familiar with that chapter.
A Symbolic Subplot can reflect the emotional growth not only of an NPC, but can also be applied to a First-Person Character Arc. In such cases, the changes in the symbol reflect the changes your character undergoes as he or she progresses through the rocky path of his or her Character Arc.
Remember that a First-Person Character Arc isn't just about the character you're playing growing; you, the player, should actually experience some change as well.
Let's say that in a game, the player's character is a samurai swordsman. He's a master of many weapons. Armed with a full range of finely honed steel instruments of death and sushi cutlery, he leaves his samurai Master's training to rescue his Master's niece from an evil warlord. This mission will start a much bigger plot in motion.
The obvious Character Arc is to have the character (the player) go from being a novice swordsman to being a master himself or herself. Because this is the obvious one, let's toss it out.
So let's change your character's Arc to: attaining a spiritual connection to the universe. This was the Arc undergone by the boy in The Karate Kid. He wins his final fight in the first movie not because he's stronger, not because he's better at karate, and not because he's more courageous. By the end of the film, he achieves an understated spiritual connection to the universe. This is symbolized and demonstrated by his ability to easily maintain the "crane pose," standing on one foot with his other foot tucked under him and his arms extended.
In your game, as your character attains spiritual wisdom or abilities, perhaps the world will start looking different in some way. Perhaps he'll be able to do extraordinary moves similar to those by the fighters in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Can we give this Character Arc a Symbolic Subplot?
Here's one possibility: Your Master has given you a sword. It makes a harsh, ringing noise when you swing it. But, as you progress along your Character Arc, the noise becomes more and more beautiful and harmonic.
Or, you recharge your life force by returning to a little, beautiful bamboo meditation hut suspended over a small stream. In the beginning of the game, the stream is muddy. But, as you progress along your Character Arc, the stream becomes increasingly clear.
In either of these two examples, the player might or might not notice the change in the symbol. This is just what we generally want: for your Symbolic Subplot to work just at the edge of the player's conscious awareness, or just outside of it.
Turning These into Usable Symbols in Gameplay
With the first example, perhaps it's when your sword makes its most beautiful, harmonic sound that something extraordinary happens. There's an old, frail man in the village who, in fact, is much more than the peasant he seems to be. When he hears that beautiful sound, he knows you're spiritually ready and gives you some special weapon, amulet, potion, or secret that aids you as you struggle to accomplish your final and most dangerous task.
Or, taking a cue from Ico, perhaps it's only when the sword makes this beautiful sound that it's fully charged and able to be useful against your final and most formidable enemy.
You could also find a way to turn the river beneath the meditation hut into a Usable Symbol. Maybe it was your Master who built the meditation hut over the river, and he imbued it with magic of which you're unaware. Let's say your Master dies along the course of the game. But, when you attain your Character Arc and the stream becomes clear, your Master's face can be seen in the river and he gives you advice crucial to accomplishing your final task.
In the previous examples, the suggested Symbolic Subplots would help the game's artfulness and aesthetics but not particularly deepen the game's emotion unless the First-Person Character Arc they symbolized truly had emotional power in it's own right. Means to achieve an emotionally powerful First-Person Character Arc can be found in the Chapter 2.20.
The same goes if the Symbolic Subplot echoes the Character Arc of an NPC. That is, the subplot might add some artistry to the story, but won't deepen the emotion unless we're emotionally caught up in that NPC's growth through his or her FLBW. How to achieve this can be found by combining techniques from Chapter 2.10 (to give an NPC Rooting Interest) and Chapter 2.9, "NPC Character Arc Techniques."
I don't think a symbol needs to be used in gameplay to justify its being there, for it's main purpose is to enhance the depth of the emotional experience. It's obviously an ideal situation, however, when it can also function as an element of gameplay.