So many things that I enjoy cause me anxiety. I want to read more of Simon Ings’ Wolves, but I’m anxious about what’s going to happen. I want to play more of Alien: Isolation, but I’m terrified about playing a game where all my expected game agency is stripped away and I’m left mostly helpless inside an industrial hell. Last year, I was anxious about reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, with it’s harrowing final act. But for these things, that’s the point. They are meant to provoke discomfort, as without that feeling they’d toothless. The question that I face as I look at the closed paperback or hover the cursor over Steam’s ‘play game’ icon is, why should I feel like shit when reading a novel or playing a game?
With Wolves, as with Perdido Street Station, it’s the writing that makes me want to feel that way. With Alien: Isolation, it’s not the game play, or even a very strong attachment to the source material, but the quality of visual design that triumphs over ill-feeling. Do you know what I want in Alien: Isolation? A tourist mode. A way of turning off the demonic xenomorph and the pesky humanoids. I want to walk and crawl around the Sevastopol and soak in the atmosphere without distraction.
This can’t be done with prose or films. You can’t just remove arbitrary elements from a book and expect to still have something that’s mostly the same. Everything there is too tightly coupled. It’s not something that I can easily do with a game that I’ve bought off the internet and don’t have access to the source code for it. But more than just not being able to do it for technical reasons. The anxiety effect is cumulative in every sentence, paragraph, texture and sound effect that the thing has. If, somehow, the distressing elements were removed then the thing itself would be pointless. The writing wouldn’t be as interesting and the visual design would become sterile.
It’s a problem because I’m terrible at overcoming the initial starting discomfort and that stops me from getting into the things that I enjoy. I need to be braver.