To best understand how metaphors work in gaming, I think it will be illuminating to start by examining literary metaphors. But first, we need to be clear about the terms. From wikipedia:
In linguistics, meaning is what the source or sender expresses, communicates, or conveys in their message to the observer or receiver, and what the receiver infers from the current context.
A figure of speech is the use of a word or words diverging from its usual meaning. It can also be a special repetition, arrangement or omission of words with literal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words in it, as in idiom, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, or personification.
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object. Metaphor is a type of analogy and is closely related to other rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance...
What's the Point?
The point of art , in this case literature, is to convey specific meaning (ideas, experiences, emotions) through words from the creator to the audience. Words are the primary tools here. It only takes a bit of experience using words to understand just how effective and ineffective they are. Even after learning tens of thousands of words (the average for an American adult), we still don't have a word for every thing, every idea, every action, every object, or every emotion. We're not even close. Even with multiple definitions to words, there are simply too many variations and complexities to real life for words to cover everything specifically. Besides, new things get created all the time that need new names and new words to describe them.
So how do we overcome this limitation of language? How do we get a more finely tuned, nuanced utility out of words that are defined so exactly? We use more words, of course. We combine words into phrases to build larger ideas, and then we combine those parts in interesting and uneven ways. I don't need to say much to convince you of the power of word phrases and sentences. If you're reading this sentence, you get it. Combining sentences and the ideas they convey in different ways yields even more interesting, unique, and complex combinations that give us access to a whole new level of expression.
Figures of speech are the bending and twisting of the usual, literal meanings of words. For such examples, there's something about the construction of the phrases or the repetition involved with the words that tells us to look beyond the obvious, past the expected, and through the straight forward to find some additional nugget of meaning. Metaphors work particularly well as figures of speech because they practically fuse the meaning we derive from two unlike things. It is through the "association, comparison, or resemblance" between the two unlike things that new connections are made. The key here is that metaphors (and other comparisons) work best when comparing unlike things. It does us no good to say that our subject "X" is an "X'." For example, "I met a tall man like a basketball player." Rather, "there's a tall man like shadows from my headlights" is much more interesting.
In some ways we understand figures of speech like metaphors as special tools we use to enhance our descriptions. But when you think about it making comparisons, exaggerations, or finding the ways to convey more than just the literal is a simple result of our desire to express more than individual words can express. In other words, we use figures of speech all the time when expressing complex ideas and our feelings.
Explaining what things are like by comparing them to other ideas and experiences is one of our best communicative tools. Humans simply can't experience everything first hand. Therefore, we have to relate to most experiences by relating to them from our small set of personal experiences. And for fictional experiences all we can do is relate to them. This limitation of how we find meaning from conveyed ideas is the driving force behind the design and craft of art. When you realize that your audience can't see what you see in your head, hear your inner voice, or feel what you feel, you have to go through he messy business of conveying ideas through a medium. And all mediums have limitations on what kinds of ideas they can convey and how.
The Limitations and Drawbacks of Metaphor
Figures of speech often provide emphasis, freshness of expression, or clarity. However, clarity may also suffer from their use, as any figure of speech introduces an ambiguity between literal and figurative interpretation. ~wiki
In all the ways that metaphors expand our ability to convey ideas, they have some serious drawbacks. Metaphors quickly introduce many complexities into consideration. The more unlike the subjects in the comparison, the more powerful the metaphor and the more potential there is for ambiguity. Take this example, she is a rose. Without any more information there's a lot of ambiguity that we can interpret from this statement. "She" can be a plant, but since most metaphors compare very unlike things, this is unlikely. She could be wearing red on top and green on bottom. She could be a beauty for the eyes and inflict harm when touched. And you can take it further depending on your experience. She could be a typical kind of beautiful that so many recognize as being beautiful in the back of their minds, like the default rose given on Valentines day and anniversaries; the kind of beautiful that everyone thinks they know already; the kind of common, forgettable that no one spares words for even among less flattering conversations. That's a very different kind of interpretation of the metaphor. And some of these interpretations present contrasting ideas.
Metaphors, like all figurative language, have to be carefully used. For when you start playing around with the literal, straight forward messages, you can easily do more harm than good. Keep in mind that simple, literal statements give us a clear and consistent foundation with which we ground ourselves. This foundation helps us frame ideas and narrative events in addition to giving us the context to best understand the meaning conveyed through figurative language.
Writers are taught to control their metaphors (and other types of figurative language). It's easy to draw a comparison between two things in such a way that it distracts from the intended meaning or creates more confusion. Metaphors can fail if one of the subjects is too niche, nuanced, specific, or unfamiliar to the audience. Like when we discussed emergent gameplay in context to Chekhov's gun, it's important for a designer to reduce the distractions in a work as well as support the core meaning.
In part 2, we're looking how how metaphors are used in game design.