Which is not to say that they aren’t scary. Insane asylums and spooky mansions are great settings for horror games, but there’s something missing from these titles. First let’s talk about the core of a horror game. What makes a horror game different from a horror movie?
In the movie you’re supposed to identify or sympathize with the characters before bad things happen to them. But games are different. In video games you are the character. It’s usually your choice whether to split up or search the creaking dresser or open that rusting door. There are monsters about, to be sure, and dealing with said nasties is where Amnesia and its buddies diverge from games like System Shock 2, Bioshock, and Dark Souls.
When playing Amnesia I’m not scared of the monsters. I can’t fight them. All I can do is run and hide in a cupboard or blockade the door. And yeah, it’s a fun experience and pretty terrifying to my 10 year-old self, but the monsters don’t feel like a threat. When you face a monster in Amnesia you either escape from it or the thing kills you. They can’t take anything from me except my time from the last checkpoint. The lack of incremental damage and - crucially - choice kills the horror for me.
Encountering a monster in System Shock 2 can go any number of ways. I can run. I can whack it with a wrench if I’m out of ammo. I can spent precious bullets killing it. Maybe I’ll use a hypo to increase my speed and circle strafe while I’m wrenching the thing to death. Furthermore, the monster can do any amount of damage to my character, requiring me to use a med hypo or find a healing bed.
The point is, when I face a monster in System Shock 2 there’s an uncertainty to the fight. The game should be balanced so I’m pretty weak and combat is risky, but at least there’s some risk. I can do well in combat or I can do poorly, but each monster is going to take something from me that I’ll have to deal with before the next monster. Sometimes I’m so low on equipment that I don’t want to face the monster, requiring a stealthy approach.
I don’t feel that dread in Amnesia. The developers know when each monster appears and where the player will have to run to escape it. There’s a little skill as you need to run and hide properly, but if you fail, well, no big deal! Just try again! It’s not going to affect your experience against the next monster. I’d like to see a mod for Amnesia where the “monster is chasing you” music is replaced with the Benny Hill theme.
That would be way more horrifying.