This post is part of the Blogs of the Round Table at Critical Distance, on the topic of "Fear and Loathing in Game Spaces".
Just being in the world and around other people is scary and exhausting for me. I forget sometimes, because to me it's completely normal. I've learnt to distance myself from the stronger emotions, leaving behind a constant, dull anxiety. But still, no-one would mistake it for anything but fear. I'm not shy, but still perpetually skittish and closed off from the people around me.
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Sharp, artificial fear is another matter entirely. There's discomfort there, but also a thrill to chase. Sometimes, when I have the house to myself, I like to indulge in splatter films. This is fear I can cope with, or maybe even delight in. It's difficult to say why exactly. I think not letting things get to me makes me feel stronger. I think I like not feeling like the only person who is afraid.
Games have always frightened me and drawn me in at the same time. Not like a splatter movie, but in some ways as confronting. It doesn't matter what genre, themes, or graphical style. All too often I'd hang back while others played, or have my avatar cower by a wall, too nervous to see what's around the next corner. As a kid I assumed I'd never be able to play action or reflex-based games at all. Certainly not to completion.
I'm not particularly afraid of zombies, or blood, or even my own death. But I am afraid of finding a challenge I can't overcome; of being out of my depth. I tiptoed nervously towards the unknown. But, oh, how I wanted to take those steps.
So somehow, here I am now playing VVVVVV and trying to beat "Doing Things the Hard Way" (or Veni, Vidi, Vici!). It's an optional section for determined completionists and collectable-hunters. It's supposed to be challenging.
Although it's not easy, the strategy is straightforward enough. Simply use gravity to launch yourself upwards, zigzag on your way up to navigate the spiked shafts. Then hit a temporary platform at the top, quickly switch gravity, and follow the route in reverse.
Here's someone (with more skill than I possess) completing the same section:
The aim is obvious enough; the route clearly mapped out in my head. But can I do this? Something catches in my throat a little as I flip gravity and begin to fall upwards.
As expected, many early attempts end quickly. Lives begin to run through my fingers like so many grains of sand. I have an unlimited supply, and it costs me very little to keep trying. I respawn almost instantly to throw myself onto the spikes all over again. I'm not supposed to value these tiny lives but each death is a pinprick, and at some point they start to burn. My heart beats a little faster.
After the first hundred deaths, I begin to doubt myself. I've certainly improved — the first few sections are starting to feel more natural — but I'm nowhere near my goal. If this were my beloved Dark Souls or Monster Hunter I could always look at the problem in a new way and adjust my strategy, but here all I have are my own reflexes and memory. It's intimate and intense.
The background music urges me on. It's cheerful but a little bit hasty, encouraging me to keep throwing myself into the problem without pausing to think. I usually dislike repetitive game music, but here it keeps me in the cycle.
I've never had a good understanding of "flow" in games, or getting into "the zone". I play a lot of adventure and puzzle games, and too much flow makes for unsatisfying mental puzzles. But here my lack of flow is hurting me. I'm always a little on edge. Will it go well this time? No, it will not.
After about 500 attempts, the path upwards starts to feel almost natural. But I'm messing up my turn at the top, and struggling to adjust to moving in the opposite direction. Of course, coming down was always going to be the tricky part. The fear of giving up is starting to become worse than my fear of the spikes. I fall into a side-path on the right-hand side, and certain death greets me below.
It's a terrible tease, to have to execute such a complicated pathway and move only a couple of centimetres. I imagine myself kicking the tiny block preventing me from just walking those few paces, and stubbing my toe painfully. The block does not care. My stomach churns slightly.
Another few hundred deaths, and I start making stupid mistakes. I pause to stretch and find my arms have gone weak and shaky. I remind myself I don't have to do this and decide to take a break. I spend a brief moment of reflection in Vesper.5 and watch a YouTube video, but my pulse is still elevated. I have to leave things alone for a while.
I try again that evening, with some lubrication and a less-caring attitude. But I also have less patience now, and I'm caught up in the story I'd like to be writing about my success instead of putting in the work to achieve it. Only 50 deaths or so before I give up and pour myself another glass of wine.
I dither over the problem for the next few days, deciding whether to give up or continue hurling myself against a wall. It's a tiny ball of stress and fear lurking at the back of my mind. In the end I decide to give it another try.
The break doesn't seem to have hurt my progress at all. I'm enjoying myself, surprisingly, but the tension certainly hasn't disappeared. I'm conscious of a building tightness in my chest and make a conscious effort to control my breathing.
My run is cut short by hand issues this time. It's down to my earlier button mashing in The Secret World. Tension gives me bad habits, like punching keys too hard. A short run, but I'm a little closer to success. My sticking point is now firmly at what is probably the key challenge of this whole sequence. That is, zigzagging in just the right place to fall neatly into the long drop (from "Easy Mode Unlocked" to "Vici!"). If I can get this part to work the rest will be worth persisting with. Otherwise it will be time to give up.
Fans of difficult games (myself included) love to talk about the satisfaction of overcoming a challenge. But few want to tell stories about committing themselves to something and not being up to scratch. That is fear: the small humiliation of someone already unlikely to be taken seriously.
"Your Bitter Tears… Delicious", indeed.
There is no reason to be embarrassed or afraid about being unable to complete something a minority of people in the world are capable of. But I approach all games with this same fear of living up to whatever they set in front of me.
When people do tell failure stories, they often shift blame away from themselves and onto the game design. I won't do that.
Is this a failure story?
For a long time I thought it would be, ending in sweaty hands and one too many quickened heartbeats. But after more than a thousand attempts I finally touch down neatly on the other side of the block, snagging my shiny reward.
Maybe I can move on with the rest of the game without so much fear now… but I doubt it.