I’ve been traveling a lot lately, so I’m playing through Portal much more slowly than I’d hoped, but as the levels have gotten harder and I’ve started negotiating around poison moats, I’ve figured out one of the things that kept me from playing games regularly for a long time: I find dying in-game incredibly stressful.
So far, nothing too terrible happens to Chell. If I screw up, I hit some brownish water, and I get a loading screen, and we start over again. But I’m invested enough in Chell, despite the fact that I am her and only rarely see her around corners and through portals, that I don’t have much sense of how she ended up at Aperture or why she — or me — has been left alive and alone. Thomas Bissell in his profile of video games voice actress Jennifer Hale in this week’s New Yorker (which I think is good, but feels somewhat truncated, and is behind the paywall) talks about how effective she makes Commander Shepard’s death seem in Mass Effect, and the incentive that is to keep playing—you don’t want to leave her there, or leave on that note. My anxiety is about getting there in the first place: I get frozen up by the possibility of harm coming to my character.
I don’t know if there’s anything to this, or just my own particular nervousness. But for all the overblown talk of what video games do or don’t make us comfortable doing, I’m surprised that there isn’t more conversation about what dying in game makes us feel about our own deaths.