Every few years, almost like clockwork, I rediscover something extremely important about myself: I am a tiny little baby when it comes to horror video games. This is a troubling thing to learn about oneself, but even more so for me, someone who puffs out his chest whenever a new, supposedly terrifying horror movie hits cinemas. I adore scary movies much in the same way that I adore roller coasters: the adrenaline rush that comes from a loss of control in the face of something that should not be—steel monoliths that go bone-rattlingly fast, spending a night in the Skinamarink house—is among my favorite thrills in life. Why, then, can I not play something as simple as Alan Wake without wanting to wet my pants in fear?
Truly, it’s the opposite of the roller coaster rationale: Horror video games give me too much control. While in a movie, the story has been written and it’s just a matter of riding the 90-to-120 minutes to their conclusion with spiking blood pressure, playing a game like Alan Wake puts the story in my hands, and this terrifies me. In a horror movie, you can yell, “Don’t go in there!” when a character is about to make a foolish move, but in a game, you are the one who has to go in there. You are the foolish character, and despite knowing you are in a horror game, you trudge on towards the jump scare anyway.
Despite owning the original Alan Wake in some form or another since its release in 2010, I’ve had only intermittent desires to play it, mostly recently with the release of Alan Wake II last year. Even then, and after picking up the new game on sale during Black Friday, it took until last week to actually fire the sequel up. After a freaky intro where you play as an ambling naked man in the woods who gets his heart cut out by a cult, I decided to not start this story in media res, and went back to the original for the first time since … 2013? Something like that. I was told that I should do it in this order, and to also play Control, another game by Remedy Entertainment that is in the same universe as the Wake series, so that I can understand the full tragedy of Alan Wake.
I fired up the remastered version of the original game over the weekend. A quick plot summary, as I understand it: Alan Wake is a famous novelist who goes on a vacation to forested Washington state. (If this sounds a bit like the set-up of Twin Peaks, well, yes, that’s definitely an overt influence on the proceedings.) Once there, Wake’s wife disappears and he begins to experience supernatural occurrences surrounding a “dark presence” of some kind. Also, he appears to black out for a week and write a novel that he doesn’t remember, and the novel’s plot begins to resemble what is happening to him in real time.
That’s a cool premise! Unfortunately, I then had to actually play the game. After a jarringly intense intro-slash-tutorial, in which the game’s combat system is explained (you have a flashlight that you use to blow away a dark shield on enemies before you can shoot them), you are dropped into the story and become a sort of detective with supernatural powers. Once arriving in Bright Falls, Wake has to go into a diner and get keys for a cabin that he and his wife are staying in. You’re told that the guy with the keys is in the bathroom, which is down a very dark hallway. A frightened woman sits at the entrance to said hallway, telling you that the dark can hurt you. Great, I agree, I should not go down this hallway. Except that I have to, because I am not Luis, The Horror Game Player. I am Alan Wake, and he just needs these darn keys.
You will not be surprised to learn that this is a jump scare, and though it is not even a good one, I yelped:
Since starting Alan Wake, I have had to come to terms with how much I do not want to be playing a horror game at any point in time. This feels antithetical to the idea of video games: If I’m not having fun, why the heck am I playing it? I truly don’t know that the answer is anything more complicated than “to see if I can.” I’ve only played the game in 45-minute sessions so far. That is about as long as I can stomach before my anxiety and blood pressure both go through the roof. I can only take so much of dark shadowy figures leaping out to kill me, or of picking up an item only to get a memory-hole flashback of creepy faces and dead deer.
I encountered this same problem when I first played Control during quarantine, back in the summer of 2020. In Control, you play as Jesse Faden, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Control, a department that studies supernatural events. The entire game takes place in the department’s headquarters, a giant brutalist building that’s experiencing one of those supernatural events. I can’t tell you much more of the plot, because after a handful of 45-minute sessions, I was simply too freaked out by the darkness around every corner to continue on. I’m planning to try again if I actually get through Alan Wake, as the stories intertwine in some form or another, but I’m not particularly looking forward to it.
This has been a recurring story in my gaming life. I don’t remember the first horror game I ever played, but I do remember the first one to terrify me so badly that I didn’t finish it: Condemned: Criminal Origins. In Condemned, you play as a detective investigating a rise in serial killings and … yeah that’s about all I remember, beyond feeling a sense of despair over investigating murders. Perhaps if I had powered through that game, my habits would be different now, but I am what I am, and what I am is scared senseless over having to dive into gaming’s darkest corners.
It’s embarrassing, really. As I said before, I take pride in seeing movies that are meant to scare the daylights out of me. Though the image of Toni Colette sawing off her own head in a possessed frenzy still gives me nightmares, I’m glad I powered through Hereditary. One of the last movies I saw in theaters before the pandemic was The Invisible Man, which has one of the greatest jump scares I’ve ever seen. Annihilation is one of my favorite movies of the last decade, messed-up bear and all. I even love the schlock; I can’t get on a highway without thinking about the gnarly crash from Final Destination 2, which to this day makes me not drive near trucks hauling any kind of loose materials.
And yet, even with all of the horror movies I consume willingly and gleefully, I still can’t derive much enjoyment out of a game like Alan Wake. I’m intrigued by the story enough that I’ve considered just watching a YouTube compilation of all of the cutscenes—so many of those exist—but as someone who possesses the Gamer’s Heart, that’s always felt like an inadequate way to experience a video game. Instead, I will have to make a choice: Do I just give up and let these games collect dust in my various game app libraries, or do I power through in hopes that facing this specific and silly fear will unlock something in me? The answer, for almost my entire life, has been the former, but this time feels different. I’m going to play Alan Wake again tonight, and hope that having publicly acknowledged my fear will allow me to finally finish one of these darn games. Hopefully the sense of accomplishment will be worth all the embarrassing screaming.