The aforementioned Dead Space, though otherwise enjoyable, failed to register as even a blip on my ACME Fright-o-Tron precisely because of its stark, unfamiliar setting; with interiors inspired by Gothic architecture upholding the utilitarian purpose of a mining ship, it takes place somewhere you'd expect horrible things to happen. By contrast, the game that provided the bulk of Dead Space's design DNA - System Shock 2 - succeeded in delivering chills largely because of its contextually mundane backdrop and its quiet, persistent threats. While prowling the halls of the Von Braun, you knew without a doubt that something horrible had happened, but you also knew that people had once been happy there, as remnants of the NPCs' personal lives were pervasive and sometimes quite touching. The fact that most of the game took place in a controlled, clean, and isolated environment only emphasized the carnage.
Similarly, the most convincingly creepy level in Monolith's Condemned: Criminal Origins was the department store; its use of broken, yet familiar archetypes such as cash registers, escalators, mannequins, and Christmas decorations (some of which, like the Noel candles, I remembered from childhood), coupled with some unsettling ambient sound effects, prompted inevitable internal comparisons between what the store had once been like, to what it had become in the game. The extent to which decay had taken root in a place so formerly prosaic provided an excellent playground for bringing horror into the workaday world, and the result was one of the most memorable and effective settings in any game I've played.
After racing home at a breakneck clip that night last September, intent on rendering any would-be intruders into a tasty Chevrolet bisque, I wheeled the car into the backyard towards the area where my wife said she'd heard "something large thumping against the side of the house." Luckily I found nothing but some lightly tread-upon weeds, because fear and anger had put me in a mood to kill first and ask for leniency later.
I have no doubt that she heard something, but the problem is that I can't define it, and that is, to me, the essence of horror; the unspeakable, or this case the unknown, come to touch the sacred in a place where we should not only be safe, but where we should know that we're safe.
While even the best horror games offer nothing more than survival and a return to the normal as their ultimate goal, I was reminded not too long ago that normal is often more than good enough, and sometimes survival is its own reward.
Matt Turano realizes that it's just a stupid movie, but he still checks the closet before going to sleep.