I never liked carnivals — too many flashing lights, excited voices, unpredictable people, and cheap thrills. I prefer to find wonder and excitement in music, friends, dreams, and the seemingly mundane. But I used to be afraid of them. I used to be afraid of crowds and parties, too — really, I was terrified of any gathering of more than half a dozen people.
I always assumed — as did others — that the issue was a simple mix of shyness and anxiety. But when I revisited one of my earliest memories — a game called At The Carnival — I realized there was more to it.
My youth was marked by poor vision and a small stature. I tended to rely on my hearing to orient myself. In a crowded room, or street corner, or marketplace, or whatever else may be tightly packed with people, it can be difficult to distinguish or isolate a sound made only a few inches away. The shrill of voices, all raised in a vain attempt to be heard above the rest, throws me into a state of mental imbalance. There are too many inputs for my brain to process. I get lost — both in a literal and metaphorical sense — in the muffled shout of so many people.
At The Carnival only sporadically featured carnival sounds — or any sounds at all. All was quiet in The Fun Way until you guided your avatar onto a group of people. The silence let me gain my bearings and get brave, but it also increased the tension. The sound of rejection then became all the more brutal. It pierced through my protective shell. That high-pitched, brief bloop sent shivers down my spine — its resonance akin to a child squealing in protest at being manhandled by hostile strangers. But I pushed on through my discomfort. It's only a game; those people weren't real, and they couldn't hurt me.
I had power.
I could get up and walk away at any time. My experience of carnivals and festivals is that there is no way to fully escape the noise, the crowds, the music, or the flashing lights without leaving — and even then you have to travel some way before you are in the clear. In At The Carnival, I could switch off my monitor, quit the game, or take a break and do something else for a while. Then I could return, picking up from where I left off. I could face my fears one metaphorical step at a time.
You start The Fun Way — just one of many puzzles in At The Carnival — as a solitary, small figure on the left of the screen. Clumps of larger figures — adults, strangers — are scattered around the grey gulf between you and the "rides." The only way to reach the rides is to brush past these unfeeling silhouettes, who push you every which way. The puzzle involves figuring out which groups to push your avatar onto, and in what order, such that he'll be propelled — inch by inch — closer to the rides.
The use of silhouettes may well have been down to technical limitations and the broader artistic style of the game, but it perfectly captured the way I feel — or felt — when navigating crowds. People become a faceless blur, a hostile threat. I was a timid child (in public settings and around strangers, at least). I would turn down an opportunity or hold back if it meant avoiding the need to push my way through or face my fear of crowds.
It became much more than a game to me; The Fun Way mirrored my fears right back at me, where I could deconstruct and fight them over and over again. I gained strength and confidence. I could only guess at the mental scars he suffered, but my little avatar made it through the crowd unscathed and ready to face the world. Maybe I could do the same.