Where Five Nights at Freddy’s lost its way

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– Tom Heath

When it comes to horror games, I’m a complete wuss who somehow manages to occasionally step up to the plate and conquer them. I’m like the timid person in the movies who always manages to be the last one alive and defeats the monster/axe-murderer/alien/stalking-sex-demon. I usually find the games balls-shrivellingly terrifying, but I push through and make it out the other side.

What I’m saying is that I love to torture myself. But you know the horror game I have never been able to bring myself to finish out of sheer terror? Five Nights at Freddy’s.

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Don’t you give me that look Bonnie!

For the unaware, Five Nights at Freddy’s is an indie horror game developed by Scott Cawthon in which you play the overnight security guard at a children’s restaurant called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Why does a kid’s pizza place need overnight security? Well, the restaurant’s animatronic mascots have minds of their own and at night they roam around and someone needs to keep an eye on them.

So the original game is fairly simple: you sit in your office, watching the security monitors to look out for Freddy, Bonnie and Chica as they move around the restaurant when you’re not looking. And you can’t always look at them as you only have limited power in the generator to keep the monitors up or the doors locked. If they give you the slip, you’ll lower your security monitor and be confronted by this:

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Geeyaaahh! Still got me…

So yes, the whole thing is essentially an atmospheric build up to a jump-scare, and that is what bothers a lot of people. Jump-scares are considered cheap, relying on a sudden noise to illicit our primal human response of losing our shit. Now, I’m not here to say jump-scares are the best thing in horror because they aren’t, I much prefer a subtle, hairs on the back of your neck stick up, dread-filled kind of horror. But I don’t think we should completely write off jump-scares because if they’re done right it’s the context of the situation and the anticipation of getting hit with one that brings out the fear.

Using Five Nights at Freddy’s as an example, seeing the creepy animatronics staring at me on the monitors, only to then move when I’m not looking Doctor Who Weeping Angels style, all the while hearing them giggle and shuffle about in the dark, gives me the neck-hairs-dread kind of terror. The jump-scare just marks failure, the actual terror was before that. It’s why I still regard the original Five Nights at Freddy’s as a genius piece of horror gaming.

But then the sequels came long, and they completely lost what made the original good.

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Booooooooooooo

For further iterations in the series, Cawthon decided to innovate on the gameplay and add new elements that the player needed to keep track of in order to survive. On paper, that sounds great, as striving to improve upon the previous game’s mechanics is part of what we expect when a sequel comes around.

But what were those “innovations”? You had to keep remotely winding up a music-box so a new animatronic would stay asleep, you could put on an animal mask as a disguise should you be caught, as well as more entry points and animatronics to keep an eye on. The result is a much less terrifying experience of multitasking that might get abruptly ended by a loud sound. To survive, you just needed to get into the rhythm of what to check and when, rinse and repeat until you win.

You can watch YouTuber Markiplier illustrate this point as he attempts a later level in Five Nights at Freddy’s 2. He has the mechanics of the game down to an art, repeating the same order of winding the music-box, flicking the mask on, check entrances, back to music-box, flick mask on etc.

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The agonising failures are still hilarious though. (Source: YouTube)

It’s the same with Five Nights at Freddy’s 3, where keeping an eye on rebooting your computer systems and sealing air-vents became the rhythmic activity. The original game was about how long you were willing to do nothing in order to conserve power and last the night, the latter games became a matter of how good you were at repeating something.

The former is a test of nerve, the latter a test of skill; one is scary, the other is not.

The latest, and allegedly final, entry into the series, Five Nights at Freddy’s 4, almost captures the original’s magic. You’re no longer a guard in a creepy dive restaurant, but a child alone in his bedroom, hearing monster versions of the Freddy Fazbear gang wandering around his house. All he can do is listen into the dark corridors and get the courage to flick on a torch to look.

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Lest there be a pants-soiling in his future. (Source: YouTube)

But by later points in the game, the rhythm kicks in and swapping between doors constantly without any hesitation is what gets you through the night. No tension, just persistence and hope.

So while I find the criticisms of the series for becoming YouTuber bait is justified, I often find myself frustrated at how this has led to us forgetting the original game’s charm. It was a clever, simple concept that produced such pulse pounding fear, on par with the Alien Isolations and Outlasts of the world, and used minimalist mechanics, atmosphere and context to sell it.

I respect the original for what it is: the horror game I can’t bring myself to play out of fear. No amount of lacklustre sequels can take that away from it.

Follow Tom on Twitter, @tomdheath, and maybe he’ll send you the link to him playing Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 on YouTube. Or perhaps you can persuade LoadScreen to do it instead: @load_screen.

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