The survival horror genre has always been a rather unique case when it comes to games. Typically, the most important part of any game to most people is the fun factor. While it is true that some more recent games have had a higher emphasis on cinematics and cutscenes, it can be argued that those are a different kind of fun to some people. While it is not necessarily true that games need to strive for being exclusively fun, they mostly need to try and evoke some type of emotion that makes the player want to continue.
The survival horror genre, however, is probably the only genre of game I am aware of that tries to intentionally make its gameplay stressful and chaotic for the purpose of an artistic statement. This can be either done to be “realistic” or, in the case of Five Nights at Freddy’s, it can be done in an attempt to give the player an adrenaline rush that makes them panic and lose control. In other words, it is trying to be scary; which it succeeds at doing. There are plenty that have argued that Five Nights At Freddy’s is not truly scary because it relies solely on jump scares and that it is rather simplistic in how it handles it. This is a statement that, to an extent, I both agree and disagree with.
I agree because Five Nights at Freddy’s is rather simplistic and manipulative in its approach to horror. Hell I knew this would be the case when the opening screen said there would be “lots of jump scares.” It tries to assault the player’s sense by getting under their skin and building up paranoia; and once they are startled, it blindsides them with a jump scare paired with an irritatingly loud scream. I do definitely agree that this could be considered a rather cheap and manipulative approach to horror.
However, where I disagree with is the statement that Five Nights at Freddy’s is not scary. According to Dictionary.com, the definition of fear is “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc.” By this definition, I can definitely assert that Five Nights at Freddy’s does inflict fear. As cheap and manipulative its tactics may be, it is hard to deny that these unpleasant jump scares are something that you want to avoid. As a result, trying to avoid these ends up building up a lot of tension and it makes getting a game over a lot more impactful than it would be in any other game.
However, that is what conflicts me when it comes to Five Nights at Freddy’s. It is effective at being frightening and nerve wracking, but it attains its sense of horror by intentionally being tedious. So while Five Nights at Freddy’s does accomplish its goal of being scary, it comes at the cost of the game’s fun factor, which is what most tend to look for in a game. However, with Five Nights at Freddy’s, It is clear that being scary is a higher priority than being fun, and to give credit where credit is due, it does succeed at being scary.
The main story of Five Nights at Freddy’s is about an unnamed character working the night shift at Freddy Fazbear’s, an obvious expy of Chuck e Cheeses. Things would be normal if it were not for the fact that the animatronic characters tend to roam the halls at night. According to your instructor, these machines will think you are a metal endoskeleton without a suit. Seeing as how that is against the rules, that means the machines will then forcibly stuff you inside a Freddy Fazbear suit. That would not be a problem if it were not for the fact that the suits are stuffed with wires and crossbeams. Naturally that would cause, as the instructor puts it, “a bit of discomfort… and death.” He also assures you that the only parts of your body that would ever see the light of day again are your eyes and teeth. So basically, you need to keep surveillance on the animatronics, and make sure they do not make it into your room.
Now there are some things that work well with Five Nights at Freddy’s plot, and some things that don’t. The negatives tend to relate more so to the base story itself. The first, and most obvious, issue is the large number of obvious plot holes based on the story we are given. A lot of them being the fact that your character still comes into work after the first day despite the obvious danger that he was not informed of beforehand (the fact that the danger he was in was not brought up prior is actually lamp-shaded by the phone instructor tutorial guy). In real life, not only would someone not return the next day, but they would also probably sue them for not mentioning it prior.
Also there is the fact that animatronics are even programmed to roam the halls and have an AI despite only existing to entertain kids. Why are the animatronics not contained somewhere where they cannot harm anyone? Wouldn’t that be a bit more cost effective then fixing whatever damage they cause? The whole idea of even having these animatronics in the first place seems to make little sense unless there is something a lot more suspicious going on; and there has been nothing that directly states this. Yes I am aware of the concept of willing suspension of disbelief, but when a game relies on atmosphere and realism, it is typically best to have things be as immersive as possible. I am also aware that there are a lot of fan theories out there that offer possible explanations for all of these things, but there is such a thing as being too subtle. The main problem is that there is very little narrative in this game despite the amount of lore and background information that could really use explaining. This is especially true seeing as just how much background info exists in the first place.
Truth be told, I probably was more engaged looking up some of the background information and lore on Five Nights at Freddy’s than I was playing it. There are a ton of tiny details included in Five Nights at Freddy’s that most people will not notice while playing through normally. Some of these include certain subtle changes in the scenery that add to the lore of the game. One example is a newspaper article that explains an incident of a murderer using one a Fazbear costume to lure children away and murder them. Another is the fact that there is an endoskeleton without a suit that is in plain view in one of the rooms; and the animatronics ignore it. This ends up hinting that the phone tutorial guy was wrong about the motivations of the animatronics. The main point is that there have been a lot of really small details and Easter eggs that have led to a lot speculation regarding the series. Considering just how much there is, it makes me disappointed in just how little story there is in the main game.
Production value wise, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a very impressive feat. In terms of actual assets, it is a very primitive game. First of all, there are no actual animations in the game. The game was made using around eight hundred still images yet makes excellent use of every single one of them. I never even noticed this until I found this pointed out elsewhere on the internet. Not even the original Myst was as low budget as Five Nights at Freddy’s. Despite this, Scott Cawthon managed to create this entire game on his own and made it work very well.
Artistically, Five Nights at Freddy’s also handles its horror in a very unique fashion. Tthere is no blood or gore in the game at all despite the violent way your character is implied to be killed. Instead, the game relies heavily on the uncanny valley effect. Looking at the official concept art, it is hard to see why someone may be afraid of anthropomorphic cartoon animals (unless you are familiar with DeviantArt of course). However, in Five Nights at Freddy’s, the horror provided by these animatronics comes in the way they are designed. Part of it has to do with disturbingly human like teeth and eyes (which is even more fitting considering the line given about how your teeth and eyes). Also there is just the way that they twitch and jerk while occasionally staring into the camera while you watch them. As a result of these horrifically creepy designs, it ends up being far more frightening when you see one of them up close.
In terms of sound design, Five Nights at Freddy’s is also handled brilliantly. Depending on the movement of the animatronics, there will be different sounds to signify this. These sounds could be footsteps, shuffling noises, or even deep low demonic sounding laughter. However the noises that are most effective, for better or worse, have got to be the screaming sound that comes from the animatronics. This scream sound effect coupled with the creepy appearance of the animatronics ends up catching you off guard every time they catch you. The downside to this is that the scream is obnoxiously loud and gets rather annoying. In reality, the main reason that the player does not want to get caught is because the loud noises are incredibly unpleasant and can probably cause headaches after enough of them. When it comes to the music, there is really only one song; that being Freddy’s theme. This song is a music box tune that represents the same style of subverted innocence that represents the Fazbears themselves. Needless to say, it is quite effective in setting the mood whenever you hear it.
The gameplay of Five Nights at Freddy’s is where things start to get a bit fuzzy. From a design standpoint, it is easy to see that there is a lot of intricacy. The main goal of the game is to survive from midnight to 6:00 AM. In order to protect yourself, you need to keep close surveillance on the animatronics and make sure they do not reach you. You also need to keep a close eye on your power supply and make sure you do not run out of power, otherwise it is game over. It is because of your limited power supply that you cannot keep the doors closed at all times and need to only close them when one of the animatronics are in the room next to you.
This puts you in a rather unique predicament for survival horror games. In most horror games, you can escape enemies by either running or by finding a safe spot. In Five Nights at Freddy’s, you cannot do either of these. You are always vulnerable and you need to always have your eyes open. Hell the game does not even have a pause feature. Due to this design choice, the gameplay of Five Nights at Freddy’s becomes rather nerve-wracking; but it also makes it tedious.
The make or break factor of Five Nights at Freddy’s is that its sense of tension is derived from how un-fun it is. Having such a huge emphasis on reflex and always being on edge makes for a rather stressful experience. This technically is the case with most difficult games, but most games do not blast you with high pitched screams whenever you die. However, that still would not be a bad thing had it not been for the random and luck based nature of the game.
There are several aspects of Five Nights at Freddy’s that feel as though they are actively designed to make things frustrating. First of all, there is no proper tutorial explaining how things work. This would not be a problem if the enemy patterns were not so unpredictable. One example is that there is an animatronic that, if not kept surveillance on enough, will rush over to your room in an instant and kill you if you don’t have really fast reflexes. It just so happens that the first night this can occur, that animatronic can end up killing you while the tutorial guy is still speaking; part of which may even be telling you about that same robot. There is also the fact that some of the robots can decide to camp outside your room and cause you to waste power.
The game will even adapt to your previous strategies by completely changing the robot’s patterns on the fifth night. The game takes it even further on the bonus sixth and seventh nights by making them all far more aggressive and active. This is especially egregious when one tries to survive setting every animatronic to the maximum AI level. I could go into how absurdly difficult and luck based this is, but I will just say that the game’s own creator could not beat it. When it comes down to it, it ends up being rather tedious to deal with design that is completely unpredictable, and gameplay that constantly has you on edge. It just makes you wonder if it is really worth it, and after a while, it just gets frustrating rather than scary.
I personally do not think it is surprising in the least that this game got its popularity through the Youtube Lets Play community. The reason I say this is because it is more enjoyable to watch someone else play than it is to play it yourself. While the game’s incessant jump scares due make the game more nerve wracking, it also makes it a lot more tedious. As a result, one feels more relieved not needing to play it themselves. That is not a good sign considering that the gameplay is what is supposed to draw someone to a game, not drive them away from it.
I am going to end this by saying that I can recommend Five Nights at Freddy’s to hardcore horror fans that value the adrenaline rush provided more than others, while other who do not really care about horror can get everything they need out of looking up the game. Regardless of which choice you make, the game is only five dollars on Steam, and may be even less during sales. So even if you don’t like it, you probably won’t lose much other than a bit of sleep (and that isn’t even guaranteed).
This review was originally posted on GameFAQs on November 14th of 2014 and has been updated with edited text and enhanced presentation.
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