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Alan Wake Defied Horror to Be the First Great 'Terror Game'

That thing in the woods is going to hurt you.

They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky… It’s another FangByte article! Welcome to our autumnal crop of Halloween themed Fanbyte fun (that we like to call FangByte). Each day on the week of Halloween, we’ll have more pieces dealing with creepy, crawly topics across games and other pop culture. Make sure to check back for more! For now, though, enjoy the following.

In a Stephen King story, something is always out to get someone. Whether it is your own rumbling belly on a deserted island, a walking dude with a compelling smile, or a big dome, we know that we’re in for a ride when King tells us what’s out there and starts describing how it is going to begin doing terrible things to the characters arrayed in front of us. That’s how his scares work: you get to know someone, you learn about the thing that’s going to kill them, and then you dread the moment that these two entities smash into one another.

Warped and twisted through homage and parody, this is also the same basic formula that animates Alan Wake, Remedy Entertainment’s 2010 horror game masterpiece. Alan Wake is a writer in the pulp tradition — throwing out hardboiled novels like The Sudden Stop — keeping the lights on as a professional writer. When the game opens, though, he’s not been writing. So he heads out to the town of Bright Falls to clear his head.

His wife Alice thinks he might be able to knock some words on a classic typewriter. They butt heads over it, Alice goes missing due to some dark force, and Alan gets forced out into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest to fight creatures of the Dark Presence with a trusty flashlight and a gun.

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Alan Wake Terror

Nearly 10 years on, the legacy of Alan Wake still feels unsecured. It is not treated as a horror classic. We don’t hear it revered in the same ways as Silent Hill 2 or Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Dead Space. It doesn’t serve as a pillar of the conversation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an indie game developer talk about trying to create something in the “Alan Wake mode.”

This could be because it sticks away from the cinema-style horror of these other games — which rely on jump scares or the unending dread of what you cannot see, but know is right in front of you. Similarly, Alan Wake sticks away from the well-worn world of psychological explanations. What happens to Wake is not in his head, and doesn’t seem to be the emanation of his psyche or his neuroses.

No, instead Alan Wake is just about a guy (who is kind of an asshole) running through the woods and doing various weird things while lumberjacks, clothed in darkness, try to hack him up. Sometimes massive tornadoes of evil come for him, and yet other times he’s assaulted by possessed farm equipment or flocks of birds. It is bizarre, and it doesn’t follow the vast majority of horror games or cinema since the year 2000.

But what it does evoke is that Stephen King formula. Though the game has a Twin Peaks vibe and a Pacific Northwest flavoring, it’s King to the core. The lumberjacks are out there, and they’re going to do awful things to anyone they meet. Alan Wake is here with a light and a gun. Both of these forces will crash into each other, eventually, and when they meet it is going to be tense and violent. It won’t be gory. There won’t be the tense horror thrill of a stalking scene from a slasher flick. There will just be a battle constructed out of blunt force trauma and dodging mechanics peppered with flashlight beams.

Horror Games Alan Wake

To celebrate the King-ish Alan Wake, our best option might be to reject the “horror” game label altogether. Instead, we might resuscitate the word “terror.” As Adriana Cavarero writes in her Horrorism, the distinction between horror and terror can be traced back to their Latin roots. She links horror up to the Latin verb horreo, which denotes something like gooseflesh — a stiffness of the body or an arresting of the skin. Similarly, the core of terror, she claims, can be found in its root of ter. It means to tremble or to shake. She uses these etymologies to make an elegant claim: horror is about being kept back, held in place, or prevented from progress. Terror is about being compelling to move too quickly and against your own will.

And in Cavarero’s system, the word “horror” does apply to the vast majority of games we call by that name. But it seems more appropriate to call Alan Wake a “terror game.” It compels us to run and dodge and smash and push forward with our lights and ammo, always attempting to either flee from the Dark Presence or come at it with all the force we can muster. Alan Wake isn’t the kind of writer to hide out in a room and wait for morning. He’s roaming the woods with a shotgun, trying to make his way in this lonely, awful world. He’s mobile, terrified, and communicates that very well.

Alan Wake doesn’t slot neatly into our contemporary ways of thinking about horror games, and on lists or in countdowns it is always remarked upon as something apart from the rest of the genre. Except I think that might just be because it is in a genre of its own, with very few compatriots. In borrowing its DNA from the Stephen King tale of terror, and putting Alan in the thick of the action in the deep, dark woods, Alan Wake does something different from the vast majority of scary games rolling around out there.

About the Author

Cameron Kunzelman