There’s a scene fairly early on in the 2011 animated film, Chico & Rita, in which the main characters embrace each other in the early morning after a night of making love. It is not a sexy scene, at least not in the traditional sense of Hollywood sex. There’s no conquering, no victory. When Rita embraces Chico from behind as he plays the piano, both are naked and vulnerable. It is a scene of true intimacy, made even more powerful by the fact that this is an animated movie: such things should not appear in “children’s media.” It is a shock because it is a moment that most human beings experience at some point in their lives reflected in an abstract way. Shocking, no?
It shouldn’t be. Intimacy should not be something of which one is afraid. People’s feelings towards sex are complicated, but if an individual is scared of being close to somebody else, it usually means that he or she is afraid of something within. Only extreme acts of connection can push these people out of their shells. As sex is (sadly) one of the few points that individuals let go of their inner inhibitions, it naturally makes it a more intimate act than others, even if people don’t necessarily view it as such.
Sex is a part of the human existence, yet too often it is treated as taboo or a symptom of winning. The man seduces the woman, or the woman seduces the man. One has defeated the other’s sense of inhibitions and is rewarded with a sexual favor. Sex is a reward, a treat, rather than a shared experience between two individuals (regardless of sex or gender). Is that really how intercourse is supposed to work?
Video games have yet to completely work this out (just look at the link above). For too long, the technology just wasn’t there to adequately describe human sexuality in a meaningful way. Even now that we’ve reached a level where that is possible, some creators would rather titillate than expand the medium’s borders. What is lacking is intimacy; a connection across the planes for which video games, more than any other platform, seem perfectly suited. A gamer could connect with a story physically, projecting themselves and their lvies into the avatars of the title, experiencing the highs and lows from a first-person perspective (even if it is a 3rd Person game).
It’s not that it hasn’t been done in the past. Despite its harsh exterior, Alan Wake did a remarkable job of creating an atmosphere of shared passions. The story—a frustrated writer in a small harbor town dealing with unspeakable horrors—sounds like something that Stephen King churned out while on the can, except where it comes to the issue of the titular character’s wife. Alice Wake is not just the damsel-in-distress. She is the symbol of Wake’s loss of intimacy within his marriage, in himself, and with the world.
Witness Wake’s literal descent into hell. Alice is kidnapped by forces unknown. The writer then loses his memory. He discovers pages of a manuscript that he may (or may not) have written. Townsfolk are turned into creatures of pure night, stalking the author through the woods with bad intentions on their mind. Wake must keep moving to find his wife, but to what end? Everybody thinks Wake is insane… and maybe he is. Just what is the connection with that other writer that just happens to look and sound exactly like Alan? It seems that the only rational answer is that these are all physical and symbolic manifestations of how Alan has cut himself off from the world.
It is only Alice that attempts to bring Wake back to the world of the sane. In flashbacks (and in the opening sequences), we see her pushing Alan to get over his writer’s block (to connect with himself, that is) and the beginnings of seduction. Alan is frustrated by this; he won’t be able to get out of his way until he accepts that the root of his problem is him. This is made tangible in his wife’s disappearance. It doesn’t matter who took her (spoiler: a creepy old witch lady that would make the girl from The Ring shirk away in terror). Alan’s last connection to the real world is taken away. It is no wonder that he seems to go mad.
Alan didn’t know how much he needed his wife, need this intimacy that came so easily in his earlier life, until she disappeared. Now he must wander through the woods and fight shadows armed with knives, axes, and horror in order to find his partner… and himself. He was scared of admitting the weakness in himself, so now he must literally combat it if he is to ever get back that which is most precious to him.
It’s a shame that AW required the trappings of the horror genre to make it marketable to more than niche audiences. More varied gameplay beyond the hack-n-slash, simple-puzzle solving variety perfected by the Resident Evil series nearly a decade before would have really pushed the game into the stratosphere. The horror of the unknown is somewhat diminished after the thousandth converted town-person/figment of Alan’s imagination.
Where the game really shines is when it spins these trappings in interesting ways. Just a few? A mystery at the insane asylum, a shootout at a rock show attended by no one except darklings, aspects of the story revealed through television and the random page of an unfinished novel. Each in some part utilizes the fun of gameplay (or rather, putting the emphasis on survival on survival-horror) to show the isolation of Alan and the various other denizens of this backwater town.
The horror extends out of this sense of seclusion. Alan is (almost) alone against this horror that threatens his life and the world. The innocence of the townsfolk is transmitted even when they are transformed into demons (of sorts); Alan must hack his way through them to find himself. Only a few human figures crop up along the way—a confused sheriff, a pair of aging rock stars, a charlatan of a doctor—and they are largely ineffective against this insurmountable fear that has descended like the daily fog.
Alan Wake is horrifying because we witness the loss of intimacy in every single character in the game. Nobody comes out of this ahead. Sure, people survive and the big bad is defeated, but at a great cost. Alan himself must sacrifice an aspect of himself (His life? His sanity? His marriage?) so that his wife will survive. We are put back out into the world, alone, with only uncertainty to guide us. At least we have the ability to connect in the real world. We aren’t pushing our loved ones away. We aren’t scared of the openness that intimacy will bring.