Fear is subjective. What scares ones person might not scare another. For instance, in the last week I watched both Dead Snow and The Host, but the most terrifying thing I saw was an episode of Dirty Jobs in which Mike Rowe crawls through a tunnel swarming with cockroaches. The movies have faded from memory, but those damn roaches haunt my dreams.
Some classic horror movies aren’t even scary. Dawn of the Dead, for instance, is not scary. The original version of The Haunting, on the other hand, is terrifying. Horror, as a genre, encompasses a wide palette of emotions, from disgust to fear to unease, and two recent games show just how many chords it can strike.
Let’s start with Dead Space 2. Yes, it’s frightening and horrifying, but it’s funhouse fear and gross-out horror. Like much action/horror, it’s patterned after theme-park rides. Tension is built gradually and then released in sudden bursts. It maintains a giddy intensity by providing a steady stream violence and gore. The ride is wild, but it doesn’t resonate.
Working the other side of the street is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It begins like H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider,” with a mentally disturbed man waking in a creepy castle crawling with all manner of threats, most of them unseen. You have no weapons and no ability to fight the threats you’ll encounter. Thus, you spend much of the time alternating between the hunt for precious pools of light to stave off insanity (your character is afraid of the dark) and hiding in the shadows from monstrous threats. Gameplay is a matter of manipulating the environment and not dying.
Yet its sustained atmosphere of absolute dread is unparalleled in my gaming experience. When it comes to true fear, rather than funhouse fear, Amnesia beats Dead Space 2 cold. You may scream and laugh at the grotesque horrors of Dead Space, but when you turn out the lights at night and inky shadows crowd the corners of your room, it’s Amnesia that will return to haunt you.