When I was a kid, scary movies left me trembling in fear. After I saw Friday the 13th Part VI, I refused to go into any forests. After I saw Jaws, I refused to step foot in the ocean, and would also avoid the deep end of any pools. After I saw the TV miniseries It, I tried refusing to take any showers, but my horrible parents wouldn’t listen to my cries of terror, so instead I just lived in perpetual fear of seeing Tim Curry’s terrifying clown-face emerging out of our shower drain. (I’m really lucky I didn’t watch Nightmare on Elm Street until I was a teenager, or I would have probably feared sleeping.)
Nowadays, scary movies don’t really scare me anymore. Only one film in the last decade has really stayed with me after I left the theater, and that film was Paranormal Activity, and that’s just because house sounds really are incredibly frightening, people, don’t act like they’re not! In my hubris, I began to think that I was beyond being scared by silly things like zombies or monsters or things that go bump in the night. I’m an adult; Hence, I have more adult things to be scared of, like the approach of tax day or the possibility that we are all alone in the universe or the fact that Mad Men isn’t returning until 2012. But that was all before my roommate brought home a copy of Dead Space 2, a videogame that could easily be described as Zombies vs. Space. I started playing, thinking that the game’s sci-fi/horror mash-up could be fun. I had no idea that what was awaiting me in Dead Space 2 was a month of pure terror.
In my personal experience, horror videogames have become much more action-packed in the last few years — Resident Evil 5, for instance, was an ammo-happy shooting game that felt much more like a Gears of War spin-off than the horrifically quiet Resident Evils 1 and 2, which were notoriously stingy on ammunition. Dead Space 2 initially seemed to follow that trend. You’re equipped with a whole host of weapons — flamethrowers, machine guns, sniper rifles, a mining saw — and it’s fairly simple to keep them well-stocked with ammo. You’re also telekinetic, capable of picking things up with just a wave of your hand. But if the game over-equips you offensively, it also cripples you in a more fundamental way: You can’t see a fricking thing. This game is just plain dark, as in poorly-lit. As in, besides your handy little flashlight, there typically aren’t very many light sources in the rooms and corridors you’re walking through.
This wouldn’t be a problem, except that the game’s monsters — called “necromorphs,” which translates in normalspeak to “zombies that grow weird tentacles and sharp claws and are generally a grab bag of exterior viscera” — can suddenly appear anywhere. They come around corners; they crash through windows; they crawl across the ceiling. Typically, you’re only made aware of them when they roar-shriek a couple seconds before attacking you.
The Dead Space series has earned a lot of press for its central gimmick: Instead of just killing the space-zombies, you steadily blow them apart limb by limb. What this means functionally is that, by the later levels, you will be trapped in a corner spraying bullets all around you at attacking creatures, hoping that you’re hitting something, and if you actually survive you’ll step forward through a pile of gore-splattered zombie limbs, plus the occasional decapitated baby-zombie body.
So that’s the moment-by-moment experience: Nonstop tension. But I think what makes Dead Space 2 so scary is, weirdly, the fact that the story is incredibly confusing. Your character, who barely survived a zombie outbreak on a spaceship in the first Dead Space, wakes up in a loony bin — you spend the first level in a straitjacket — and as you wander through the ruins of a destroyed space-city, you are haunted by visions of your dead girlfriend. The game throws quite a bit of exposition at you — evil scientists, evil government, vaguely spiritual stuff about conquering your own mind — but none of it ever quite makes sense. And that’s okay — some of the best horror movies have the same quality of terrifyingly chaotic abstraction. (Think of the bear scene in The Shining, or the fact that, in the first Poltergeist, you never really understand what’s going on, despite all the talk of Indian burial grounds and a different dimension.)
That confusion made finishing Dead Space 2 feel like an absolute necessity: I felt like beating the game would help me to understand it better, and if I didn’t finish it, then it would haunt my dreams forever. (MINOR SPOILER ALERT: The ending of Dead Space 2 is actually kind of funny, just because it’s so quietly terrifying.) I can remember feeling that way a few times before: with the earlier Resident Evil games, with the GameCube curio Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, and even with the later bizarro levels of BioShock.
But I’m interested to hear from you, fellow gamers: What other videogames have kept you in a state of perpetual terror, and yet also compelled you to keep right on playing them? And are there any other Dead Space 2 players suddenly rediscovering the need to fall asleep with a night light on? Tell me about it in the comment boards, and also hit me up on Twitter if you want to talk about that horrifying “stick a needle into your own eyeball” level.