By Terry Randolph and Marshall Garvey
Just over a year ago, a little indie game that preyed on our childhood fears of animatronics coming to life to murder us was released – Five Nights at Freddy’s. Since its release, the franchise has spawned three sequels, countless fan games, forum boards theorizing the franchise lore, let’s plays and a movie in pre-production. To say this game is a cult phenomenon is an understatement – the game has become a worldwide sensation.
As part of a Let’s Play series with Terry Randolph, Last Token Gaming is going to examine why Five Nights at Freddy’s has become what it is today. All aspects of the game will be analyzed to determine what’s good, and what’s bad, about the series. So sit back, relax and join Last Token Gaming on a ride through the franchise.
The question is: are you ready for Freddy?
Five Night’s at Freddy’s
A local pizzeria by the name of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria is looking to hire a guard for its night shift. This place, home to the once-famous animatronics Freddy, Bonnie, Chica and Foxy has long seen its prime days come and go. However, the goal isn’t to keep people from coming outside – it’s to keep track of what’s happening inside. During the first night, players receive a call from the security supervisor and told several things; there are four animatronics that move around at night, if they catch you, they’ll kill you, and you have to survive until 6 AM. Doesn’t sound too daunting, does it?
Except the odds are stacked in favor of Freddy and friends – the security guard can’t leave his seat, and only has nine cameras, two doors, sputtering lights, and a limited supply of power as their only source of protection. The more items the player uses at once means more power is drained. There’s a consistent sense of dread, as not only are players trying to keep animatronics at bay, they’re trying to keep the power going as long as they can. How much power you use, how long you use things, determines how long your power will last. Though this could be easy for one night…there’s far more than that. In fact, even the title lies about how many nights there are; there’s actually seven nights. Eight if you include the customizable night.
While the saying is oft used, tired and cliché, Five Nights at Freddy’s is the scariest game in the series. There are so many things that just work in the game to create the most comprehensive experience of the series. From the minimalistic, simplistic gameplay approach, to the low-res static imagery based visuals, almost everything comes together to truly build upon the player’s anticipatory fears. There are some things that the game doesn’t get right, but the parts it does outweigh the mistakes.
Five Nights at Freddy’s greatest strength isn’t really based on gameplay, but rather a simple factor – the focus is on building a creepy atmosphere to let the player’s inference create the fear. In that regard, the game excels triumphantly at it. First, the game opts for a lack of music, instead, opting for static silence with the occasional random sounds of stuff clattering in the kitchen, children’s laughter, garbled voices or carousal music. These noises are only heard, not seen, and give room to the player’s mind to draw context or conclusions as to why they hear the sound. One example of this would be in the kitchen; the video feed is disabled so players will never see what’s in there. However, there are the occasional times when players will hear clattering in there; without a visual stimuli, the player tries to come up with context for the sounds. This allows the player to build the atmosphere, effectively making it far creepier than with sounds indicating what to expect.
This sound design also uses misdirection really well too – hearing these sounds doesn’t mean something is going to happen. Instead, anything can happen at any given moment, and the sounds are there for the sake of being there. Normally, this type of design might be a flaw or mistake in the game –for a game that’s focusing on building atmospheric tension, this is perfect. Having misdirection build up the players anticipation to where once their guard is down, the jumpscares are more effective.
If that’s not enough, the sounds of the animatronics getting the players are equally terrifying. Shrill, long, and distorted, the screams paired with the low-res “normal” look of the animatronics create the ultimate nightmare fuel. Even more terrifying is the fact that once you revert the screams back to their normal tone, players will find that these are children’s screams, indicating something sinister about the origins of Freddy and his pals.
Same goes for the visuals that complement the audios – the low-res, small, claustrophobic world is equally terrifying. The world itself looks like it’s on its last legs as most of the walls, lights, and areas look run down. The only thing that looks somewhat maintained and normal are the animatronics (except for Foxy), confirming the fact that Chuck E. Cheese is terrifying in real life. As Freddy and friends begin to move around the place to get to the players, they stand in place looking terrifying. This is especially true when they are looking directly into the camera. Seeing those eyes staring at me created a sense of dread I hadn’t felt in a long time – not since I stared Chuck E. Cheese in the eyes during my 5th birthday party. Sure, it sounds counterintuitive that a “normal” looking animatronic can be creepy, but a birthday at a place like Chuck E. Cheese’s hasn’t been experienced, than it’s hard to understand why this works.
The only sort of “high-octane” scare players will ever experience is from Foxy running towards the player through either hallway like a madman. In order to survive his fury, you have a split second to close the door leading into the hallway he coming for you through. One final thing: there are visual hallucinations such as “It’s Me!” or a Golden Freddy that can pop up at any time that only add fuel to the nightmare fire.
Put all of this together, and Five Nights at Freddy’s is a game that does an effective job building an atmosphere that is claustrophobic and creepy. However, it wouldn’t be the same without one other major aspect – the game tells players little to nothing about the story or how to play. Phone Guy (Security Supervisor) does tell you certain things to be wary of as players get through each successive night, or some stories about the “lore” of the characters, but it’s only piece mail and very little. The story itself can be pieced together through random items within the world – newspaper clippings, posters, etc. This allows the player to create inferences and ideas of what the story is, prompting more fear of being stuck in a world with four killer animatronics.
It also doesn’t help that the game might be loosely based off an incident in 1993 at a Chuck E. Cheese that involved the murder of 4 workers.
However, not everything the game worked well. One being how much disbelief players would have to suspend in order for the game to work. The game’s main gameplay mechanic – a security guard staying put in a seat for six hours knowing animatronics could come and kill you at any moment – is very hard to accept and embrace. If I was in the security guard’s shoes and was told of animatronics moving and potentially killing me, I would have left the first night without any regrets.
Another major problem, something that we’ve listed also as a strong point, is the animatronics’ aggression building up per each night. Sure, the lack of jump scares and opting for buildup is a smart move that’s refreshing for a horror game, but the game unfortunately falls into patterns that can become predictable. Ultimately, that means strategies can be developed to beat the nights effectively eradicating any scares of sorts. There are all sorts of strategies that can be seen in almost every let’s play – a great example can be seen in Markipler’s playthrough of night’s 6 and 7.
Lastly, the final issue is one simple fact: the game’s other source of scaring players are jump scares. Jump scares are only usually effective initially. Over time, players develop a numbness to them (or a tolerance) because they already know what to expect. Jumpscares are very predominant in the 6th and 7th nights in Five Night’s at Freddy’s, making the final nights more stressful than they are scary.
Overall, Five Nights at Freddy’s was a refreshing game that did many things well to generate a hit indie franchise. The game predicated upon the fears a lot of kids growing up in the 80s and 90s always feared – the animatronics were alive, and they wanted to kill you. That one time I stood alone, staring into the soulless eyes of Chuck E. Cheese while my friends went to go play at the ballpit, I swore Chuck E. had a menacing smile. I appreciate Five Nights at Freddy’s only confirmed my suspicion of that.