Not liking the game once the credits began to roll bothered me. I couldn’t really put my finger on it. I read forums about Wake and most people seemed to like it; some of them even loved it. I read the critical reviews and I saw the same type of responses. For the most part, they enjoyed the game.
I didn’t like it.
Then I played Limbo – and it all made sense.
In its opening sequence, Alan Wake uses a Stephen King quote: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” King mentions this in an article he wrote for Entertainment Weekly a year ago and it’s a great line – really it is. However, he said a lot of things in his article, “Why Big Studio Releases Are Rare to Scare.” In fact, the two-page article should serve as a blueprint on how to create a good horror game. Instead, Remedy paste’s on this quote to the beginning of the game almost as a warning to the player. “If the story of this game doesn’t make any sense – no worries – according to Mr. Master of Horror, Stephen King, it isn’t supposed to.”
Remedy’s inclusion of King’s quote reminded me of college papers I use to get C’s on. The professor would compliment me on my ability to regurgitate information I snatched from the text-books but criticize me on my inability to demonstrate that I understood any of it.
For starters, King insisted that most really good horror films are low budget affairs. However, your average Hollywood horror flick is a glossy event movie hiding behind special effects and big name actors that equal high production costs. In turn, the movies’ narrative has to provide an explanation of everything, wrapping the movie up in a nice pretty bow. This is what King called “antithetical to the poetry of fear.” Limbo is a low budget game. Alan Wake, by contrast is not.
What terrifies people is personal. We hide them away in the corners of ourselves and we don’t want them disturbed. But, when we do seek to have them disturbed it is an intimate and private affair and the bombastic nature of a big budget film is almost “intrusive.” Or, as King describes: “Those movies blast our emotions and imaginations, instead of caressing them with a knife.”
Of course, Stephen King is talking about movies. Both Alan Wake and Limbo are video games that use different methods to interact with its “audience”. So, how does King’s theory of good horror translate to these two games?
[Check out Alan Wake Lost in Limbo; Part 2: History & Design, here]