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:
- Color: Color Motif, Deliberately Monochrome
- Lighting: Dark World
- Space: Claustrophobia, Agoraphobia
- Time: Decade Dissonance, Zeerust, 20 Minutes into the Future
- Cleanliness: Sinister Subway, Crapsack World, Crystal Spires and Togas, and of course Creepy Cleanliness.
- Construction Era: Zeerust, Decade Dissonance, The Future Is Noir, Ascetic Aesthetic
- Inhabitants: The kind of plants, animals and people present, or their absence.
- Weather: Empathic Environment, Weather and Environment
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.
- 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 floodlights, 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.
- In Lupin III: Dead or Alive, the general decay that we see in establishing shots of Zufu hint to the suffering of the people under General Headhunter's rule.
- In the Puella Magi Madoka Magica, there is background symbolism in the movie we didn't see in the Anime. In the alley scene where Madoka and Kyouko are talking, you can see wind chimes of a unicorn and a mermaid. The unicorn has its horn pointed to the mermaid, which is symbolic of Sayaka as the mermaid and Kyouko as the unicorn - think of their witch forms. That the horn is pointed to the mermaid refers to Kyouko attacking Oktavia.
- 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.
- Background Pony's story arc is parallel to the seasonal progression from summer to winter. It opens just before the summer solstice on a note of optimism. As the seasons progress toward the winter solstice, the protagonist's prospects become more hopeless and she undergoes a downward spiral into darkness. (Both the environment and her life gradually grow colder and darker.) In the early winter, she makes a heroic sacrifice. The last chapter begins in mid-winter (when the land is covered in snow) and fast-forwards through the rest of her life.
- Princess Celestia's garden dream in Fanfic/Composure is so chock full of symbolism that it is harder to find a non-symbolic object than a symbolic one. Exemplified by the fact that there is not one, but three different interpretations for one fruit from one tree in one dream, all of which are different and could have drastic effects on the story's conclusion. In fact, the characters' different interpretations of what exactly the tree symbolizes is a plot point!
- Kalash93 is everywhere with this trope, having it appear in all of] his stories yet. And the symbolism gets deeper and meaningful as his work progresses.
- Last One Standing uses the day and height of the sun as metaphors for life. The final location being on a hill outside Ponyville is symbolic for the smallness of the individual and their life.
- Reflections does a similar thing in reverse. The tone of the story grows considerably more hopeful and upbeat as the sun rises. The story takes place on a lonely hilltop to symbolize the isolation and loneliness and elevation that comes with being an immortal goddess princess.
- Shell Shock Takes place in a ruined school which was once a monastery. This symbolizes the loss of innocence and fall from grace that has happened in the war. From this vantage point, fields and parts of a ruined town are visible. The weather is rainy as if to mourn the death and destruction wrought. The wether is initially overcast, but then gradually clears away as the young soldier's innocence and naivety are stripped away and gradually replaced with horrific awareness and then complicity in the crimes. The fields full of grain symbolize life and vitality in contrast to the death and emptiness of the soldiers.
- Racer and the Geek is just so chock full of symbolism that it would take paragraphs to explain all of it, especially in the more recent chapters.
- Welcome To The Brothel is another highly symbolic story about the loss of innocence. Consider the author's usage of light, darkness, and color.
- Relax is lighter in this regard than his usual fare. However, consider that the only two characters in the story are together in a room with a bed and only dim red mood lighting...
- In Crowns of the Kingdom, compare the location of each crown to the type and quality of the light when Mickey finds it.
- The titular rain and the weather in general seem to reflect Satsuki's overall mood and depression in the aftermath of her sister's death in the fanfic Raindrops. Naturally, the raindrops are also compared to falling tears at the end, at the same time, she notes how it never seems to be sunny. In the sequel, Sunshine, the sunny weather serves a juxtaposition between weather that seems cheerful and somber days, as Satsuki announces she is terminally ill and later on dies both on sunny days.
- 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.
- Requiem for a Dream depicts several characters' downward spiral into drug addiction and the associated destructive effects. It progresses from summer to autumn to winter — so clearly, in fact, that there is a title card before each act that states explicitly which season is to follow.
- 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.
- Star Wars:
- A blatant example is Revenge of the Sith with Anakin and Obi-Wan's duel on Mustafar, 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.
- The Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back comes with a heavy dose of Snow Means Death, as the Rebels narrowly effect a Tactical Withdrawal in the face of an Imperial assault on the frozen planet they have hidden out on.
- The battle in the Emperor's throne room in Return of the Jedi 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.
- The Original Trilogy employs an environmental contrast between the Good Guy and Bad Guy areas. Imperial ships and facilities are clean to the point of sterility, with everything being neatly polished and regimented, while Rebel ships and bases tend to be grungy examples of Used Future. One exception to this is Princess Leia's ship, the Tantine IV with it's clean white corridors, which only featured in the very start of the first film, and was overrun by Darth Vader's troops, symbolizing the Emperor's decision to dissolve the Imperial Senate, the last vestige of the Galactic Republic.
- Pet is about a woman held captive by her Stalker with a Crush in the basement of the animal shelter where he works.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. While King Théoden 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.
- Black Swan has a case of the protagonist interacting with the symbolism. When we first see it, Nina's bedroom is decorated like a five-year-old's: stuffed animals, satiny comforter, pink everywhere. When the strain of trying to be darker and more sensual for Tomas while remaining pure and naive for her mother starts getting to her, she stuffs the teddy bears in a bag and throws them into the incinerator. Her last line in the climactic Grew a Spine scene is "I'M MOVING OUT".
- The whole Terminator franchise. Rarely is there a setting that doesn't seem artificial and futuristic and coldly systematic or wasteland=y or fascist-y 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 offscreen 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.
- This is Tim Burton's Signature Style; take a look at The Nightmare Before Christmas and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
- 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.
- The Hunger Games: The sun sets almost instantly in the forest as the Muttations attack, and immediately rises after Cato dies, reinforcing the fact that it's the endgame. The Gamemakers control literally everything inside the Arena.
- X-Men: Apocalypse: Nina's bedroom lamp is on to reflect the joy and warmth of her interaction with her father Erik. In contrast, Jean Grey's room is bathed in darkness because she's frightened by her apocalyptic "nightmare," and her emotional ties to her surrogate father Charles are based on their mutual struggles with telepathy.
- House of Leaves
- In China Miéville's The Scar, the city of Armada is a congealed mass of ships, which is perfectly appropriate given that its inhabitants steal almost everything they need. Additionally, the vampire who rules one section lives in a freakish-looking ship that sails on moonlight.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Kansas is described as "grey". This is reflected in the 1939 film, too.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- Angels statue of Kwan Yin in Season 1 like a true Bodhisattva, Angel will delay his own enlightenment to ease the suffering of others.
- A sign saying BEWARE OF DOG is shown behind Spike on several occasions.
- At the end of "The Harvest" Angel is shown next to a sign that appears to say "WATCH YOU", symbolizing his role as Mysterious Watcher. When he walks away we see the sign actually reads 'WATCH YOUR STEP' providing inadvertent foreshadowing for Angel's HeelFace Turn in Season 2.
- In Smallville, the titular town is always in brighter, warmer colours while Metropolis is colder and has a blue tone to it.
- The coral-based design of the TARDIS desktop used by the Ninth and Tenth Doctors 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.
- 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.
- 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 Zee Rust appearance and submarine feel.
- Norman Jayden's ARI screen in Heavy Rain changes from a peaceful, sunny meadow to a sunset to withering trees in a storm as his brain deteriorates from ARI abuse
- 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. It's obvious since the sun isn't rising any time soon and the rain isn't stopping either, Dante won't 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 & 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 laboratory. 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 bathhouse 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.
- Depending on what actions you take in Bioshock 2, the lighthouse at the end will either have a sunset (good ending), a darkening sky (not-so-good, but not-really-bad ending), to a raging hurricane (bad ending).
- In The Saboteur, Nazi-occupied areas are gloomy and Deliberately Monochrome except for small splashes of primary colours (yellow lights, red blood and swastikas, and the occasional blue French Resistance emblem), but as you liberate an area the colour saturation gradually rises until the area is full coloured and cheerful looking, indicating that its entirely free of Nazis (except those that wander in from neighboring occupied areas, most likely because they're chasing after you)
- In Injustice: Gods Among Us, the heroes are transported to another dimension from a lush green park with a golden statue of Superman lifting up a globe, set to a blue sky. When Batman and Joker appear in the Regime world, it is within a grey urban district near a silver statue of Superman standing atop the globe, all under a dusk-toned sky.
- 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.
- Fast-food restaurants use bright colors like yellow and bright green so that patrons will eat and leave quickly, while sit-down 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.
- Bill Simmons said that with few exceptions, only cold-weather cities applied for officially tortured sports teams:
- In business facilities where the architectural design makes everything look pretty much the same, written color-coded labels are used so employees can easily tell where everything is.