One thing I like about video games is to feel a little bit of tension and then to be rewarded with the comfort of a safe zone. Makers know this too and often include this dynamic in games. Back when I played Playstation One I would put up with enemy after enemy in the Tomb Raider Games to get a single cut scene.
The reward for enduring all of the tension is a little bit of safety and respite. Some games like Left 4 Dead take this one step further. In that game they make this dynamic very explicit. Each level ends with a safe room that advances the game’s narrative using graffiti.
Alan Wake is another game that uses safe zones and comfort to drive the game’s dynamic. One of the things about a safe zone in games though is that they are not always safe zones. The creators of a game can surprise gamers by putting them at ease and then springing danger on them. One example from Dino Crisis 1 for the Playstation One shows this. In that segment a seemingly safe room is actually the point at which the T-rex is thrust upon the gamer for the first time.
In Alan Wake the same thing is done. One example would be the Elderwood cabins safe zone. The cabins start of as bright and friendly. There is a man who rents you a room and he is healing a sick dog. Everything is good and then the darkness attacks and all of that is turned on its head.
There is more to comfort, however, than surprising the gamer. There is something that makes things even scarier when the familiar is presented to us in an unusual way. In his paper on ‘The Uncanny (1919) ’ Freud suggests that the uncanny is just a sub-species of the canny. He suggests that uncanny feelings are created where there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one.
The latter can be seen in Alan Wake in seemingly bringing wheelbarrows and combine harvesters to life as enemies.
The more standard enemies achieve the uncanny with the former. After one enemy disappears Alan Wake wonders whether he has in fact killed a real person or a real thing. The enemies’ dialogue is made up of perfectly ordinary things that small town folks might say. It is, however, passed through a demonic voice filter and delivered seemingly at random. This impulse towards the uncanny may be the same one that motivated the Resident Evil team to replace zombies with Spaniards randomly spouting out phrases.
Actually the paper on ‘The Uncanny’ could be read as a playbook on how the makers of Alan Wake made the game scary. One other example should serve to illustrate the point. Freud suggests that a writer creates an uncanny feeling when he creates uncertainty as to whether he is taking us into the real world or into a purely fantastic one of his creation. Alan Wake does this when it does not make it clear whether we are playing in the present, in some reminiscence or in some fabrication of the author protagonist. Events that occur throughout the game are discovered narrated in loose pages on a manuscript bearing the author’s title.
One of the major influences for Alan Wake was David Lynch’s television show Twin Peaks. What made Twin Peaks great was that the subject matter was always very dark and a piece of cherry pie or a damn fine cup of coffee usually masked a narrative concerning murder, domestic abuse or prostitution. Alan Wake continues the coffee fetish that runs throughout Twin Peaks with 100 coffee thermoses containing notes and the feeling of making the homely or unhomely. Unhomely or unheimlich being the German word for uncanny.