By now, we pretty much expect the characters in a horror film to make terrible decisions. When they trip while being chased by some crazed murderer, they crawl backwards when we all know we'd get right the hell up and keep running. They open the door when it's plain to everyone that the killer is right on the other side. They split up to cover more ground, and when they enter a pitch-black room, they never, ever turn the light on.
If you were confronted with the kind of obvious danger you see in horror movies, you'd run in the opposite direction and seek out safety in numbers. But in horror videogames, you pretty much have to mimic those characters' idiotic choices. You may know a monster is waiting for you on the other side of that door, but you have to open it anyways. If you decide not to willingly expose yourself to whatever terrible threat awaits, the game is over. Progression halts, life stands still and you're left un-entertained.
We get a brief and intense emotional ride from horror films and a lasting psychological impact from horror literature, but in those media we're merely along for the ride. The pleasure we get out of a horror game has to be more than the base narcotic of intentional fear. How do developers continue to entice us to make the wrong decision every time our digital lives are imperiled? The staples of Japanese horror gaming from the past 15 years hold convincing answers to that question.
That the first Resident Evil was ever considered frightening is a testament to its meticulous pacing and atmosphere. The game is aggressively silly, from its dialogue to its attempts at cinematically blocked drama, but it does manage to get you with a handful of excellent shock scares. More effective than the iconic dogs jumping through those windows is the game's ability to sustain a consistent feeling of oppression balanced by periods of empowered security. There is always something hunting you - monsters that not only want you dead but want you for food - and you're poorly equipped to deal with the threat. The game also goes out of its way to make entering a room harrowing: Instead of just showing you the next room, you have to watch as the door slowly creaks open while you listen to your heart pound. It makes you tense, but also impatient. When coupled with the game's quiet moments, the effect is very unsettling.