This game, for instance. Doom 3. The label should read: Please use the bathroom each time before playing this game, and if you have a heart condition, please don't even pick up this box.
I got it the day it came out two years ago, but didn't play it too much. However, in this recent period of career inertia, I took it up again looking to get away from MMOs (massively multiplayer online [games]).
So I jumped back into Doom 3. ... and just about soiled myself, but only after numerous close-call heart-failures. I kid thee not, this game can kill people of weak constitution. For a time, I could only play for 2-5 minute spurts. I'd simply get too freaked out. To combat this, I stopped playing at night, with all the lights out. Now I can play for a good 20-30 minutes before I feel like my chest is going to explode - which would be poetically just given that I inflict such inconvenience on pudgy, no-jaw'd, Hell-infused walking corpses in the game.
Plot Summary: 2045 (or something), humans have colonized Mars, and have an advanced research facility there. They've also uncovered the remains of a martian civilization, and likewise uncovered some of the technology. There's some faster-than-light transportation technology that is being messed around with. You play some Everyman marine just posted there as security. Not surprisingly, the instant you arrive, there's a job for you: find a missing scientist. As you move around, you hear rumours of people going AWOL, psychiatric reviews becoming more frequent, and there's a sense of general unease. Well, you find the scientist, who is trying to send a message back to Earth. Then... all Hell literally breaks loose. You've got a flashlight (weee) and a pistol. ... and those nice scientists, marines, admins, and technicians you spoke to on the way down? They're either lying in three pieces, being coughed from ventilation shafts, are grease smears on the walls/floors/ceilings, or have been possessed by demonic forces and are hunting you. In other words: it gets real freaky, real fast.
And visceral, as the image above can attest to (in-game shot, not doctored up or from a cinematic). Zombies on fire, zombies who stand up when you walk past, zombies eating other zombies, 28 Days Later style zombies in commando uniforms with weapons... and the worst part: the legions of Hell in all their mangled and grisly splendor. Zombies? No problemo. Mutated spiders that are two feet tall and look like face-huggers (ref. Aliens); two-headed, blood-drooling quadropeds that look like skinned, decaying muscle-men; skeletal juggernauts with rocket-launchers on their shoulders and smoldering eye-sockets; and huge pink fleshed rhinos with robotic hind-quarters... Those get to me.
Mostly the freak-out factor comes from the stunning graphics, and use of dynamic lighting (and frequent uses of zero lighting). As per usual, id Software broke the envelope when they developed the Doom 3 graphics engine. I still haven't seen anything that compares to it.
So why did I choose to ramble on about a silly FPS (first-person shooter) game? Partly because it's a game that deserves acknowledgement, but primarily because I can't help but remember Super Mario Bros on NES in '86, and thinking how cool that was. Or the original Doom, or Wolfenstein (first FPS). Those games were amazing back in the day, but weren't scary. They simply couldn't stimulate those sorts of intense emotions due to the state of the medium. What amazes me is that we're already to the point of evoking cathartic or intense reactions through simulated means. More and more control is relinquished to the player, allowing deeper immersion and thus also a stronger emotional response to content. Detail is also critically important. It's not enough that I, as a player, find myself in a bathroom with a flickering overhead light. Tiles are loose, a sink broken and running, the mirror actually reflects everything in the room (character included), a stall door is slightly ajar and squeaking back and forth, 5-point surround sound delivers peripheral hisses and groans from areas out of line of sight.
There's just something addictive about fear. We crave it, when it can be controlled and we can walk away unscathed. Look at all the movies, books, games and amusement park rides dedicated to fear. I think it's because fear is the most fundamental of all human emotions, the one that is most closely linked to all our actions.
Wow... this was a long entry.