|That better be a shadow puppet...|
I think most of it comes down to familiarity. A huge part of fear is not knowing how things work or what is going to happen in a given situation. Games purposely acquaint you with systems and teach you the rules that govern a world. It’s also much easier to take it upon yourself to peek behind the curtain in a video game. Whereas a novelist or film director can forcibly obscure or highlight details, it’s very hard for a designer to prevent a player from poking around the inner workings of things. Taking note of spawn points, observing scripted enemy behavior, and seeing the seams that hold the game together.
I find this familiarity is mostly thanks to the length and repetition most games exhibit. A little unscientific searching reveals that The Shining was 146 minutes long. Silence of the Lambs was 118 minutes. Alien was 117. The movie-to-video game comparison is perilous, but I think its telling that the time it takes to get to a movie’s credits is roughly the same time it takes get out of the tutorial and get access to all the mechanics of many mainstream games.
I’m sure part of this is my growing predilection for games that get to the point. Maybe its just a function of not having much free time or perhaps its because I’ve grown used to genre conventions, but one of the best things a game can do is know when to quit. I see this in The Walking Dead, in P.T. and in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, all games that maintain tension, inspire fear, and build a cohesive world in the span of a few hours.
Of course this leaves developers open to the perennial time/content/replay vs. money criticisms that come from both players and investors. Honestly it surprises me that we get the number of horror games we do. Trying to make things scary contradicts some of the medium’s most entrenched tropes and expectations.