There are people out there who still think Five Nights at Freddy’s relies on jump scares. They can’t be blamed. The game was a hit among YouTubers, and their acting is so bad it would shame the Raspberry Awards. Things don’t just become popular. Sometimes, it’s the result of appealing to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes, it’s simple innovation.
The big game companies must be embarrassed, not because it topped the Steam charts* while being made on a much smaller budget. The companies should be embarrassed that their huge team couldn’t come up with such a unique game that’s both fun and artistic, challenging the notion of what a video game is. Then again, if the popularity of Call of Duty is anything to go by, the gaming community doesn’t want to be challenged either.
In popular horror games like Amnesia or Outlast, you are active. You may be in a position of weakness, but this position is not new. Even in Pac-Man, you are much weaker than your enemies. They can always kill you, but you can only kill them sometimes and for a limited time. It also disables them for a short period, not really killing them. Five Nights at Freddy’s makes you passive.
It’s not just that the game consists of looking at pictures. There is no physical way for you to stop the animatronics. The doors are the only thing that can truly prevent them from entering, and even they are not that helpful. They drain a lot of power, and once it’s gone so are you. Your behavior influences the animatronics’ behavior, true, but it’s not something that prevents them. Freddy stays in the same place if you watch him a lot, but you only need to neglect him for a few seconds and he’s in the next room (Personal anecdote: On the sixth night, I watched Freddy and Foxy so much they remained in their starting places).
You win not by doing anything, but by simply killing time. You do not escape the terrible place, or defeat the Big Bad using the single bullet that is conveniently found right before the battle. Even when you win, your character’s action actually don’t change anything. It’s almost like a Russian Roulette. There’s no real winning. There is just no losing.
That is why the jump scares are so effective. They are more than a grotesque robot screaming at you. You do your best to avoid them because a jump scare is game over. In fact, there are many ways to predict when the jump scares will arrive. Malfunctioning lights or moaning noises while looking at the monitor means your favorite furry friend is in the office. The jump scares are not that surprising. They are just a really unpleasant Game Over.
There is also the element of unpredictability. The antimatronics get more aggressive as the weeks goes on, and they do have some fixed movement patterns, but there are subtle changes in the way they act on them. It could be they will move off the stage very early, but approach the office only once or twice. They hang outside your door for minutes, or come and go constantly. Even when you know how they work and how aggressive they are, you still can’t predict their movements
The scariest element of the game is its art, a form of ‘innocence lost’. For some reason, things related to childhood and kids are always scarier. Stephen King seems to have something with that, too. The game relies heavily on this contrast. The poster in front of you shows the antimatronics singing on stage in bright colors. A child would most likely enjoy the hell out of it, but you don’t get to experience this bright side. Instead, these cute animals want to kill you. Looking at the cameras, places that are meant to be for celebration are looking derelict, dark and abandoned.
If you pay attention to the story behind it, it gets even worse. The place that is supposed to be a haven for children reveals itself as dangerous. Parents describe the animatronics as having blood and mucus leaking from them. An animatronic bit someone’s head. The second game gets into that more in the minigames, where children dying becomes an important thread. There’s something more frightening about a horrible place acting like it’s safe and child-friendly while it’s very dangerous ot kids, than a house that’s filled with body parts. It’s the same reason the pedophile scene in Running Scared is the most effective scene in that movie.
The animatronics are also bad beyond their homicidal tendencies. Their design puts them right in the middle between grotesque and cute. They don’t look like outright monsters, but action figures of them would only fit Sid’s room. Thus, they look cute in the poster but scary in the dark. Artists exploit these qualities, sometimes focusing on a single aspect and sometimes fusing them.
There’s also the hallucinations, which may be considered a form of jumps scare because they’re just pictures flashing rapidly on the screen. However, there are also hallucinations that are easy to miss. Your character is also hallucinating small changes in the rooms. One character is even speculated to be one giant hallucination. All of this hints at a haunted place, but it can also hint at the player character’s mental breakdown. Some asked why would anyone continue to work there, but the player character doesn’t have certain proof the animatronics are deadly. He might just think Phone Guy is bullshitting him, because there’s no way the cute bear can kill anyone. The idea is still there, and the animatronics do move, and their danger becomes harder to deny as the nights go one. The hallucinations are an expression of the player character’s paranoia, not the player himself. You are literally playing as a character who’s breaking mentally.
The only weakness is that the game is exhausting. It’s more stressful than scary, and being stressful is a surefire way to lose. It’s all about clicking at the buttons at the right time, which is much easier when you’re calm. However, the game is so effective in its presentation that it’s hard to play it for more than one or two nights (levels) in a row. The game gained a reputation for being an ‘I dare you’ thing, for good reason. It’s joyless. It’s not a game you play in order to have fun, but in order to immerse yourself in an emotional experience.
A game is an activity that consists of overcoming obstacles for amusement and pleasure. It doesn’t mean that games shouldn’t be hard, or challenge us, but in general they contain a certain element of joy. Even serious and artistic games like Planescape: Torment had the joy of exploring, reading and learning about different perspectives. Five Nights at Freddy’s has none of that. It’s about immersing yourself in an emotional experience. Some nicknamed it Stress Simulator 2014.
Five Nights at Freddy’s will probably not cause any change, other than perhaps give more power to indie developers. It has a unique structure, but it’s also a minimalist one that leaves very little to built upon. Nevertheless, it’s nothing short of brilliant. Once in a blue moon, the popular opinion is right, although I doubt how many thought beyond “man this game is scary”. That said, stay away from YouTube. One of the best games ever produced one of the worst internet phenomenons ever. Nothing is perfect.