This Terrifying Video Game That Gives Me Literal Nightmares Is Now My Self-Care

When I’m anxious, one of my favorite strategies to get to sleep is to walk through a pleasant fantasy scenario. For a while, my favorite fantasy was designing and decorating my dream home. There were a few months when I was imagining my life as a professional wrestler. But more recently, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, my fantasies have taken on a different vibe: I now like to imagine running through all my hiding places and escape strategies just in case the alien (from Alien) shows up in my studio apartment. And unlike those other fantasies, this one has bled into my actual dreams—and the alien has shown up a few times to turn them into full-on nightmares.

This is almost certainly because I’ve spent upwards of 30 hours playing the survival horror video game Alien: Isolation over the past few weeks. In the game, you play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley, who was the protagonist of the original Alien movie. You’re investigating the explosion of your mother’s ship (which happened at the end of the first movie), and you’ve tracked the flight recorder to a space station called Sevastopol. When you get to the station, it’s a complete dystopian nightmare, already in disarray thanks to the arrival of that goopy nightmare creature all of us goths know and love: the xenomorph.

You spend the game trying to get out of the station and back to your ship all the while escaping androids gone rogue and, yes, the alien, which hunts you constantly. But you’ll really spend the majority of your time crouching so as to make less noise, hiding under tables, holding your breath in lockers, and with your eyes glued to your motion tracker as you complete task after task on this godforsaken station that is quite literally falling apart.

Amanda Ripley is an extraordinarily resourceful engineer, who can hack her way through the station, cobble together an explosive to clear her way, or whip up a noisemaking device for a distraction. (Which is really helpful because actual ammunition is in very short supply.) All Ripley wants is to find out what happened to her mom and get off this hunk of junk floating in space. Relatable!

For me, I think, the game is so captivating because it functions just like my anxiety fantasies, but it’s one I can actually solve. Where Animal Crossing helped me unwind with a pleasant, absorbing distraction, Alien: Isolation pushes me to confront and process all the pandemic- and politics-fueled anxiety I have nowhere else to put right now.

For instance, the type of hypervigilant anxiety behaviors that are maladaptive in the real world are actually helpful in the game. Checking around every single corner. Relentlessly collecting items to build tools just in case. Memorizing escape paths. Mapping out places for cover the second I enter a new room. Waiting for juuuust a little bit longer before coming out of my hiding place. These in-game habits come from a very familiar part of my brain. But if I indulged all of these nagging worries in my normal life, I’d never get anything done. As Amanda Ripley, I’m friggin alive, baby!

One of the game’s greatest strengths, which definitely contributes to the anxiety fantasy, is that it makes you believe the stakes are as high as they could be. If the alien catches you a single time, it’s an instant kill and you have to start all over again—you can’t outrun it, you can’t kill it, and you can barely hold it back. But at the same time, you have infinite lives. So although every moment of the game feels vital, it’s still just a fantasy that you’re in control of, allowing you to safely explore the feeling of being constantly on the verge of death and the adrenaline that comes from actually surviving to the next level.

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