Fear in Five Nights at Freddy’s

I’ve always felt that less is more when it comes to horror. In films or in fiction, a monster is always scariest when it’s not around: or you think it’s not around. The moment it pops out at you, you know where it is, and in many ways that makes it a lot less frightening.

This is even more true in games. It’s always seemed to me that the strongest section of any game in the Resident Evil franchise is the opening, even though the most hideous monsters tend to pop up towards the end. The reason for this is simple: it’s far scarier to inch your way through a dark room knowing there might be something inside than it is to rush through a place that’s already swarming with zombies. Typically there’s a trade-off in terms of gameplay because more zombies mean more action, but for pure scare-power nothing quite matches up to that tense first hour or so.

Screenshot from 2016-03-14 14:30:21

This is not the case with Five Nights at Freddy’s which, if anything, gets scarier as it goes on. Personally, I loaded it up the first time around just because I was curious. At this point, I’m not sure I’ll ever finish the thing.

In Five Nights at Freddy’s, there are no creepy rooms to walk through. Your character–a night watchman at a children’s pizza restaurant–never has to leave his office. Really, you’ve got a pretty cushy job: all you’ve got to do is keep an eye on the restaurant’s roaming animatronic mascots.

Because if you don’t, they’ll mistake you for an out-of-costume robot and attempt to remedy the situation themselves. By stuffing you into a spare Freddy Fazbear suit. With fatal results.

The game doesn’t really give you a whole lot of options when it comes to avoiding this. You can keep an eye on the animatronics through the security cameras, but these have blind spots in the hallways immediately outside your office. You can turn the hallway lights on and look out through the doors, but your field of view only allows you to see through one at a time. Finally, you can hit a button to slam a door shut–the only surefire way to prevent Fazbear and Friends from wandering into your office–but this consumes power. All these things consume power. And your employer only allows you to use so much. After that, the lights go out…but the game doesn’t end.

This is where Five Nights at Freddy’s becomes truly terrifying, because everything you can do to check on the roaming creatures–everything that would make the game just a little less scary–will ultimately take you that little bit closer to being left sitting in the dark, alone and defenceless. The longer you can bear to sit in the office, not looking through the cameras, not turning on the lights, the more likely you are to survive the night.

In a way, Five Nights at Freddy’s flips the horror genre on its head. In Resident Evil, approaching a door to a new room always makes for a tense moment: if anything’s going to pop out at you, that’s when it’ll happen. That’s your opportunity to slow down, ready your weapon, prepare yourself for what might be inside. Five Nights at Freddy’s doesn’t give you that opportunity.

It’s not the monster who has to wait inside the door: it’s you.

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2 comments

  1. ameliamackenzie

    The FNAF franchise really did show that the best way to make a horror game is to combine Uncanny Valley with near-total powerlessness. Zombie shooting games are great and all, but they’re not really *terrifying* like FNAF. With games like Bioshock (which is excellent) the terror is extreme at the beginning, but eases off as the game continues and you get more weapons and ways to fend off the baddies. I love that FNAF shrugged and said, “Nope, it’s just going to get harder from here.”

    I also love that, within the pretty limited gameplay style it uses, it’s managed to experiment so well across the sequels. FNAF2 introduced way more animatronics, and the fact you have to use different techniques to fend them off. Freddy’s right in front of you, but the Puppet’s about to attack, too, and you have to decide which is the most important … while trying not to weep with terror. Freaking genius! Then FNAF3 went totally out there with the jump scares, but used them as a game mechanic rather than a Game Over. The number of people I’ve seen get the first jump scare and then go “WAIT, I HAVE TO KEEP PLAYING? NOOO I NEED TO GET MY BREATH BACK OH MY GOD HELP!” And FNAF4 … holy crap, FNAF4 forced you to be quiet, right when you want to chatter away to stay calm. And it also introduced huge pauses between as you ran between each doorway, effectively making you wait nervously the whole time, knowing something might get you when you reach the door.

    Blaaah, I could natter about FNAF all day. They’re my favourite games to have come out in years (and the book was surprisingly decent, too).

    • Damon L. Wakes

      There are very few games that even come close to what FNAF manages. Alien: Isolation is the closest I’ve had a proper go at–it has a habit of handing you weapons, then having them turn out to be utterly useless in most situations–and even that’s still way off. Outlast or Amnesia might be closer, but I haven’t played through far enough to know for sure. Bioshock I actually didn’t find scary at all, largely because the scenery tended to steal the show. Also that playing through a level usually involved amassing a small army of hacked turrets and cameras: it’s hard to worry about jumpscares when you’ve got your own private security system.

      I really want to play through the FNAF series (and didn’t know there was a book!), but it’s spectacularly easy to find excuses not to finish the first one. I’ve only got a demo at the moment, but since I’ve never got past Night 3 anyway it doesn’t seem to matter. If it wasn’t such a masterpiece I’d be quite happy to just have a go at the sequels without necessarily playing all the way through, but it hints at enough backstory that I feel as though I should really play them all in order.

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