Symmetry – Fearful And Otherwise


A lot of people will try and convince you it was the best game on the XBox. They’d be telling a lie – trust me, I played it, argued with a die-hard fan, and convinced him it was actually not that good. And the word of the week is ‘symmetry’ – Level 2 of this game that I played last year shot straight to my mind. Why? Because it features a mad doctor in it who hates symmetry, and cuts people’s faces up to make them look more ‘attractive’.

Yeah, he was crazy. Yet funny that, although this game tried really hard to be a master of all trades (and became Jack of all, and master of none), out of the sacred few levels that played the ‘horror genre’ card, this one cropped up. Doctors can be creepy, yes. But they really went to town with this level – flickering lights, those ‘Big Daddy’ boss monster things, the works. Always in the background – the doctor and his hatred of the symmetrical. Put simply – symmetry was used for the purpose of horror in this level. ‘Fearful Symmetry’?

The term ‘fearful symmetry’ was actually coined by William Blake in his poem The Tyger. What it actually means though is largely open to debate. Perhaps a symmetry that signifies danger. With relation to Bioshock, I don’t think that is the case so much – more a case of lack of symmetry that causes fear, and this idea of the familiar and the unfamiliar. It relates to binary oppositions in some ways – cause and effect templates, and the two sides of every narrative. They all feature symmetry to a degree, and by meddling with the ‘balance’, you can start to make weird things happen in your artefacts. Think ‘good vs evil’ – a symmetry of sorts in narrative design. Take away evil, and make it ‘good vs good’. Add another, make it ‘good vs good vs good’. The film The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly did this to some extent. What about a story that has ‘evil’, and nothing to counterbalance the argument?

When you think of the world around us, a lot of it is based around symmetry. That’s probably because we as living creatures are symmetrical – heck, even microscopic organisms are to some degree. Lack of symmetry is an unfamiliar thing to us really, especially if it’s something that we would usually consider symmetrical. When we think about is comfortable, what is attractive, and what is genuinely accepted, via codes and conventions of sorts, symmetry is always there. It allows us to identify with the object, as their design is similar to ourselves. So thus can we assume that lack of symmetry is altogether something more sinister?

Perhaps it provokes a feeling of the grotesque. Things that aren’t symmetrical tend to be rejected, as our eyes don’t seem to recognise them as familiar objects. This means that we are uncomfortable with the sight. This notion could be very useful in creating horror effects, which is what Bioshock seemed to be doing. I will likely be exploring and advancing my editing skills for this word artefact, but all the same, this idea of ‘unfamiliar symmetry’ is one that I wish to explore in further detail a little later down the line.

Here are two videos of the game and level in question:

(skip to five minutes in for the relevant part)

Also, here is a link to the thirty second ad for the X-Files episode ‘Fearful Symmetry’ (the first time I came across the term). The episode, if I recall correctly, had little to do with symmetry at all – it did, however, feature various animals being abducted from a zoo and being turned invisible – one of which happened to be a ‘Tyger’, if you get my drift.


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