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The mise en scène.

One way for authors to subtly (or overtly) convey and reinforce the mood of a scene, episode, or even the genre of the work is to make the environment symbolize it. Much like a character with an Astonishingly Appropriate Appearance, a setting can be made rife with Environmental Symbolism to play up the emotional theme at work.

Generally, the whole setting itself will reflect the overall mood of the show, while a special location for a given scene will display the current mood of the characters.

To do this, expect to see the following manipulated:

Note that the setting itself will not actively or supernaturally change unless the characters change it. Whether it's urban renewal to uplift or massive battle damage and craters depends on what the author wants. "Natural" changes such as the lights going dead or a fire breaking out do count towards this trope however.

See also Poster Gallery Bedroom, where the character's in-universe design choices for their living space reflect their personality.

Related tropes are: Fisher King, Genius Loci, and basically everything in Settings.

Examples of Environmental Symbolism include:

Anime & Manga

  • Pretty common for the theatrics in Death Note; a death always carries a grittier or grainier air, and some stuff glows more than it should (like open doors, police flood lights and windows).
  • Planet Gunsmoke in Trigun is a drought-stricken, Old West-ish place. Vash The Stampede is a depressive, Old West-ish guy. When he and Knives land on the planet and he cries over Rem's death, his tears are echoed by the falling debris of the SEEDS ship, and when he defeats his brother in the last episode, the nearby townsfolk who've been drilling a well finally strike water.
  • The Soul Rooms in both the Yu-Gi-Oh!! manga and anime reflect the psychological state of their owners.
  • The first of Kara no Kyoukai films has quite a few beautifully detailed buildings as the scenery... but most of them are in some form of decay and/or abandoned, reflecting the despair in the story and the crumbling of the human condition. It also represents Japan's economic crisis in the late 1990s, when the film takes place.
  • Mahou Sensei Negima likes to use this to emphasize some of the character's tragic Back Stories; series lead Negi's home village in the snow, immortal vampire Evangeline's war-torn battlefields in the 1400's, Asuna's colossal, rune covered tower at dusk in which she was the tower's Barrier Maiden. Akamatsu loves his characterization (expect Cherry Blossoms during happy scenes).
  • Exaggerated in the Other World segments in Black Rock Shooter. Let's just say that the symbolism is the environment especially if you subscribe to the Battle in the Center of the Mind theory. Some of the symbolism also spill into the real world.

Comic Books

  • Gotham City and Metropolis. Gotham, to reflect the nature of Batman and his more noir-ish adventures, is usually depicted as a dark, grimy, cramped and gothic urban nightmare of a city, usually seen at night; Metropolis is more often depicted as an almost-futuristic steel-and-glass environment, usually a bit more open and clean and is more often seen during the day to reflect Superman's more optimistic nature. Frank Miller said that Metropolis is New York in the day, while Gotham is New York at night.
    • This is actually taken to real issues when the superheroes switch haunts every now and then- not only are they both dealing with unfamiliar territory, but Batman complains that the smooth buildings of Metropolis have no catches for his grappling hooks or hiding places, while Superman's X-ray vision is impaired by lead in Gotham's older buildings. The crooks in both cities sure are caught by surprise though.
  • Every single realm of The Endless in The Sandman, naturally. When Orpheus visits Death, this leads to some confusion, and when Morpheus is imprisoned outside his realm it falls into chaos.


  • The Wizard of Oz. See Literature.
  • The Graveyard from the infamous showdown scene at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly emphasised the finality of the paths of the three principle characters. Sergio Leone had so brilliantly set up a situation where all three men couldn't possibly leave alive.
    • Not to mention it was designed to look like a Roman circus, as if the graves of the dead were watching the three men fight.
    • Most of the bits of architecture in the film resemble gallows, a running theme of the film.
  • A blatant example is Star Wars Episode III with Anakin and Obi-Wan's duel on a lava planet! The eruptions are about Anakin's state of mind and him bursting into flames was about his final transformation.
    • Tatooine in A New Hope is a barren wasteland to emphasize that Luke really has nothing to live for on this planet, relatives notwithstanding.
    • Another Star Wars example: the battle in the Emperor's throne room in episode VI featured severely muted colors, and twisted if angular structures. The only splashes of colors, the red Royal Guard, were pointedly sent away. The only colors in the fight are the lightsabers and Luke's face.
  • In The Incredibles, the Insuricare offices are soul-crushingly drab, to better convey how much Bob Parr hates that job. Contrast that with the gorgeous jungle and Raygun Gothic architecture of Syndrome's island to see how much Bob loves being a superhero. The Parr home, with its Googie architecture, falls somewhere in the middle, since Bob doesn't appreciate his family until it's almost too late. And Mirage points out the link between the brilliant-but-unstable Syndrome and his chosen home:

 Mr. Incredible: I've been meaning to ask you. Of all places to settle down, why...

Mirage: A volcano? My employer is attracted to power. As am I. It's a weakness we both share.

Mr. Incredible: Seems a little... unstable.

Mirage: I prefer to think of it as misunderstood.

Mr. Incredible: Aren't we all?

Mirage: Volcanic soil is among the most fertile in the world. Everything at this table was grown right here on this island.

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. While King Theoden is under Saruman's control, his hall is dark and colorless. After he regains his right mind, the lanterns and fires in his hall are lit.
  • The whole Terminator franchise. Rarely is there a setting that doesn't seem artificial and futuristic and coldly systematic or wastelandy or fascisty in some way in order to show how easily we could slip into the robo endtimes, or scenes that are similar to how humans will fight robots in the future. There are quite a few settings to choose from: Corporate megaliths, computer stores, cement and steel everywhere, hospitals, police stations, deserts, ghettos, construction equipment, factories, warehouses, video game arcades, robot shows, etcetera. Even Sarah's death by cancer, most likely due to environmental reasons shows what living in a toxic, artificial world can do.
  • The town in Edward Scissorhands is a bright and cheerful, if slightly off '50s suburbia, and thus has lots of bright pastels. The Professor's/Edward's castle, by contrast, is dark, empty and mechanical, in black and white. Since the whole thing is (possibly) about mental illness, the emptiness of it may symbolize Edward's loneliness, as well.
  • As tempers rise over the course of 12 Angry Men, the room seems to get more and more claustrophobic; that's not an effect: the actual walls were gradually moved closer in as the film goes on, making the room smaller and smaller.
  • Inception - Limbo is a barren wasteland, representing Cobb's lifelessness and apathy due to his obsession with his wife's death. Level one of the Fischer job is wet and rainy, literally because the dreamer went to sleep needing to piss.


Live Action TV

  • The coral-based design of the current TARDIS interior in Doctor Who is supposed to show that TARDISes are organically grown. It also reflects the age of the ship and the MacGyvering repairs.
  • More properly, Firefly used this in both the design of each character's room (in Kaylee's case the engine room as well, since we saw her there more often) and the kitchen/dining room, which had wooden chairs and crafty decorations to give it a homey feel.
    • Also, the Alliance ships and buildings are sterile grey and blue, to fully emphasise the difference between them and the warm and friendly Serenity and the dry, earthy planets on the Outer Rim.
  • The Star Trek ships.
    • Star Trek the Next Generation had a solid wood arch bending around the command seats. It was put there because Gene Roddenberry wanted the ship to have a homely, organic feel as an exploratory ship, not a war ship.
    • Star Trek Deep Space Nine put them on an uninviting alien space station to demonstrate the difficulty and frustrations with working with another culture. As a note, the Defiant was given a very utilitarian and minimalistic set-up to look like a Federation style war ship.
    • Star Trek Voyager scaled down all of the sets to show a small crew that were really out on their own.
    • Star Trek Enterprise openly exposed the bolts and screws used to hold the sets together, giving it a Zeerust appearance and submarine feel.
  • Pushing Daisies is set in a Retro World full of bright and cheery colors. The fish-eye perspective and high color saturation convey the Magical Realism of the setting.

Video Games

  • In Devil May Cry 4, Nero's battle with Dante (all of them) take place in some classy room to show it isn't a completely serious fight, and Dante isn't serious about killing you (more like toying). The final battle in the Savior's heart is much darker and more climactic
    • In 3, Dante's first battle with Vergil is on the top of the tower in the moonlight and rain. Its obvious since the sun isn't rising any time soon and the rain isn't stopping either, Dante wont be winning. Their 2nd fight is in a much grimmer and dingier area, because neither is going to win. Their final battle is completely climactic (Orchestra and latin playing in the background too).
  • This is a huge part of the Silent Hill series.
  • No More Heroes has each battlefield and the city itself reflect the characters... maybe.
  • The Need for Speed games are a reflection of this. Hot Pursuit 2, for example, has shiny glass-and-steel cities, lush forests and heavenly sunsets in a tropical island to match its laidback arcade racing with supercars. Underground has a shiny metropolis with glowing streetlights and Underground 2 also has a graphic filter that highlights neon, paint and street lights to highlight the Fast and Furious-style glamour of the street racing scene. Most Wanted, meanwhile, went for a glass-and-steel metropolis under the glowing daylight with a brown filter to give it a gritty city feel, while Carbon replaced the gritty brown with modern, cutting-edge blue to emphasize how much of a Serious Business is street racing in Palmont.
  • This is why the first stages in the laidback, fun-loving Outrun 2006 are Miami and San Diego.
  • The Dark World from the Zelda series is the embodiment of this trope.
  • Resident Evil: You start off in a creepy mansion, then move into an underground laboratoy. As soon as this happens, the creatures start getting weirder and more freakish.
  • In The Lost Crown, most scenes are black-and-white, with highlights of color used to set the mood of times or locations (e.g. colorful flowers near Nanny Noah's house; deep blue skies on May Day). Lots of subtler symbolism is also worked into the scenery; light passing through the train depot's ornamental fretwork creates a row of tombstone-shaped shadows, in a particularly elegant example.
  • All of the dungeons in Persona 4 are reflections on how the characters see their reality like Naoto's secret base representing her childish side, Yukiko's castle reflecting how she feels like a princess waiting to be rescued from her prison, Rise's strip club representing how she feels like she's being turned into a piece of meat, Kanji's bath house connected with his hidden sexual desires that have gone to a huge extreme, Kubo's game dungeon representing his growing madness and disconnect from reality in favor of illusion, Adachi's twisted realm, the liquor store being run down, Nanako's childish vision of heaven, Izanami's foggy world and even the hub area representing how all of the town's interest in the murders. The shadows even count, representing various things in media.

Web Comics

  • Gunnerkrigg Court: The eponymous Court is massive and maze-like, with a muted color scheme and many dark corners. It fits well with the story's focus on the mysterious and the (slightly) macabre.

Truth In Television

  • Fast-food restaurants use bright colors like yellow and bright green so that patrons will eat and leave quickly, while real restaurants use warm colors like red and brown to make people feel comfortable.
  • It might be accidental or deliberate, but this slideshow shows an eerie match between Pyongyang's drab, mass-manufactured looks and the stark, oppressive dictatorship of North Korea.