The more I play these indie horror titles, the more I start to feel that video games are the perfect vehicle for modern horror stories. Books and movies can be great, but they lack any sense of agency – you’re a passive observer, and you know that no matter what you do, the things you’re watching will never become any more or less terrible. You can avert your eyes, walk away, or grit your teeth and go through it, but no matter what you do, the story will trudge on.
Games aren’t like that. They put just enough power in your hands that you feel as though you can do something to avoid your fate. But when they’re well-designed, you don’t have too much power. The perfect horror game should feel breathless and desperate. You should have just enough resources to survive, but only barely. That fear of, “Will I get through this? Am I making the right choice?” is what creates the anxiety that really causes you to engage. A perfectly crafted ambiance, then, is all it takes to keep your experience firmly planted in terror rather than frustration at what are, objectively, pretty tedious tasks.
It’s a balancing act, but when it works, it works really well.
All of that brings me to Five Nights at Freddy’s.
This game was released in August of 2014 by ScottGames, a little one-man operation run by Scott Cawthon. Despite only having been on the market for a few months, it already has a successful sequel, and a third game in the series has just been announced. The game is gaining a ton of popularity in large part due to all the “Let’s Play”-style videos made of it.
And that’s a phenomenon that makes sense. This is a particularly delightful game to watch somebody else play, because it is absolutely the type of game that can make an otherwise levelheaded person jump, scream and hurl nervous curse words at the computer.
So let’s back it up a second. If you’re not familiar with the Five Nights franchise, here’s the game in a nutshell: You are hired as the night security guard for a Chuck-e-Cheese-esque pizza place called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. You work from midnight to 6 a.m. keeping an eye on the animatronic characters that entertain kids all day with their happy songs.
But it’s not burglars that you have to worry about.
Because the animatronics get restless at night, and tend to wander. And if they see you…well, you don’t want to let them see you.
Your user interface consists entirely of a single screen. You have a series of cameras that you can monitor, and you have lights that illuminate the hall outside your office. You can also close each of the two doors to your office, protecting you from animatronic invasion. Otherwise, all you can do in the game is listen to the breezy advice left on phone messages from the last guy who held down your job.
These messages serve the dual purpose of teaching you how to play the game and filling you in on the story. They do a lot for setting the game’s tone, which is simultaneously lighthearted but disturbing. “Don’t worry!” Your mentor cheerily tells you. “You’ll probably be totally safe.”
Somehow, that’s not comforting.
So the game, as the title suggests, is broken out into five levels, each one representing one night shift. If you survive ‘til 6am, you progress to the next level. Otherwise, you start over at the beginning of the night.
Gameplay is deceptively simple. After all, all you have to do to survive is keep your doors closed, right?
Well, no. Because Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza is run by a bunch of cheapskates who can afford malevolent, sentient animatronics but cut their utility bills by limiting your power usage. Everything you do, from turning on lights and shutting doors to flipping through the camera feeds, burns power. And once you’ve run out of power, everything shuts down and you’re left in the dark, listening helplessly as the animatronics shuffle their way toward you.
So your strategy, then, becomes one of resource management. You need to keep an eye on the movement of the characters through the camera feeds, and you need to guess when they’ll come your way so you can get the doors closed in time. But you also need to keep your use of both doors and cameras to a minimum so you can make it through the night.
The result is a gaming experience that makes you twitchy and paranoid. You find your heart racing as you click frantically through the cameras, trying to find the character that was right there a second ago…only to look away and realize that he’s standing right beside you.
This is not a deeply psychological horror like PT. There’s something childish and whimsical about it. The lack of gore and tongue-in-cheek narrative make it feel a little bit like something from a Goosebumps book, but in the best way possible.
It’s a game that relies heavily and unapologetically on jump scares and the uncanny valley. If creepy dead-eyed fursuit-style animatronics don’t give you the heebie-jeebies, you probably won’t see why this game is so terrifying.
But you should play it anyway. Because it’s cheap, it’s fun, and it supports the creation of more innovative horror titles that don’t revolve around shooting zombies. And as far as I’m concerned, that is always a good thing.