It's Halloween, which means it's time for the obligatory horror game review. Tonight's game is Five Nights at Freddy's, the latest indie sensation to wet the pants of YouTube "let's players" proclaiming it to be the scariest game they've ever played. Hold it there, chief, you're telling me a game about friendly animatronic animals at a children's pizzeria/playground/arcade is supposed to be scary? What's that? They come to life and roam the building's halls at night attempting to murder anyone they find so they can stuff the human remains into an empty animatronic suit? Well, that's a start, I guess.
In Five Nights at Freddy's, you play a security guard tasked with spending the night at Freddy Fazbear's Pizza to keep an eye on the robotic band members, who're set to "free roam mode" every night because they (supposedly) need the exercise to keep their servos from locking up. Except, really, they're trying to murder you. You have to survive six hours each night (roughly eight minutes in real time) by flipping through camera feeds to keep track of where each animatronic character is so that you can close the doors to your office when they get close. What's stopping you from keeping the doors closed all night, I hear you ask -- a limited power supply. Using the cameras, turning the lights on, and locking the doors all consume power.
Therein lies the game -- a simple matter of clicking through camera feeds, watching the screen, and closing a door at the right moment without using too much power -- but can such a simple game succeed at eliciting genuine horror, or are the masses simply overreacting? The answer is a little bit of both, but more of one than the other. How much you'll be scared by Five Nights at Freddy's depends heavily on how much of a wuss you are, and on how much you can suspend your disbelief and immerse yourself in the security office's confines.
I'll cut right to the chase on this one: I don't like Five Nights very much, and I think the amount of "buzz" surrounding this game is way out of proportion. This game's success and popularity seems to be the direct result of it being primed for social media, because it's short and has a bunch of jump scares. Jump scares always get the easiest and most animated reactions out of people, which makes for good entertainment value watching someone else get scared, and the game's eight minute survival scenario is the perfect length for getting quick satisfaction before moving on to the next video. To put it simply, the scares in Five Nights are cheap and easy, which makes for cheap and easy YouTube videos, which makes for cheap and easy exposure, which makes for cheap and easy success.
The security office, checking the light at the left door.
I don't mean to completely demerit Five Nights, though, because it is, in fact, an interesting game that does some things well. For such a simple game that consists almost entirely of still images, it creates a pretty immersive atmosphere that can really bring your imagination into the experience. With few exceptions, you never actually see the animatronic characters move, which makes them seem like lifeless, inanimate objects, and yet they quite obviously move from location to location, always when you aren't watching. You basically have to watch each one in order to keep it from moving, but you can't keep an eye on all of them at once so you always have the dread of not knowing where one or two of them are at any given moment.
The robots can do some pretty creepy, unexpected stuff as well, which helps to set up the jump scares by putting you just a little on edge. You might, for instance, be looking at the three band members on stage, look away, and check on them later to find them all staring directly at the camera. You might flip to a random hallway and see one of the robots' heads spazzing out like it's been possessed by a demon. You might notice that a poster of Freddy on the wall changed to show him ripping his head off. The robots themselves look uncanny as hell, too; some of their idle expressions are weird enough to make you feel a little uncomfortable. In fact, the whole atmosphere with the dark lighting that casts subtle, ominous silhouettes of the animatronics, combined with the static-filled camera feeds and the ambient sound effects is just a little bit creepy, too.
Then you've got the "phone guy," a security guard who worked there before you, who left daily recorded messages to guide you through the job. He serves as kind of a tutorial for how the game works while also filling in some of the game's backstory, like explaining that the animatronics used to be allowed to roam freely during the day until "the bite of '87," which apparently resulted in the victim losing his or her entire frontal lobe. His nonchalant tone of voice juxtaposes the implicit horror you're supposed to feel, adding to the game's uncanny atmosphere as you try to picture what horrible things are happening on the other end of the phone while his own situation quickly escalates from bad to worse, while he barely breaks his nonchalant, professional tone and behavior.
Foxy's peeking out of Pirate's Cove, getting ready to pounce.
Having the game set in a children's party restaurant is a pretty clever idea, since many of us have memories of visiting ShowBiz Pizza or Chuck E Cheese's as a kid. This game plays on your childhood memories by bringing out the genuine creepiness that actually existed (whether you felt it or not as a kid) and/or by twisting your recollection of fun times into something sinister and terrifying. Furthermore, these restaurants are places we all have some experience with in real life, which makes the setting feel that much more plausible. It's equally impressive how much lore there actually is in this game, too. At first glance, the game seems like a simple, straightforward facilitator of jump scares, but you can piece together an actual backstory to explain what's (possibly) going on in Freddy Fazbear's by listening to the phone guy and reading newspaper headlines that randomly appear on the walls.
The central gameplay mechanism -- managing a limited power supply -- is not something unique to Five Nights, since most horror games worth their salt implement some kind of resource management, but it does the job well enough here that I welcome and appreciate its presence. You already have the problem of not being able to keep an eye on each animatronic at all times, but the limited power supply is the type of thing that forces you to lower your guard because you just can't afford to keep your defenses up constantly. Sometimes, you just have to take risks and hope for the best, which can be some of the most tense, gripping moments of gameplay in any video game. This is a game that leaves you feeling vulnerable, as survival-horror games should, yet still leaves you with enough agency to stem the tide so that you feel like you're in control of whether you live or die.
So, there's enough reason to like Five Nights at Freddy's and I respect it for being a clever, simple game that is, surprisingly, quite effective for what it is. The biggest problem -- and this is a big one for a horror game -- is I just did not find it scary. At all. The animatronic characters aren't inherently frightening or menancing; they're just a little weird and creepy, and nothing in the game actually depicts anything greusome or violent. You could just as easily pretend that these robots are harmless pranksters attempting to give you a wedgie or even a friendly hug.
Chica hanging out in the dining area. Let's eat.
The jump scares -- the source of anything remotely scary in this game -- are as basic as you can possibly get. It's always a loud, high-pitched screeching noise accompanied by something jumping directly at the screen from out of nowhere during a moment of quiet downtime. It's a one-trick pony, one that admittedly masks itself well with some unexpected twists on its one scare tactic, but a one-trick pony nonetheless. I felt a little startled once, and then never felt like I was actually in danger of anything, because the jump scare just signifies a "game over." You only have two player-states, alive or dead, so there's really nothing the robots can do to harm you except to make you replay such a trivially short scenario over again.
Should you intend to finish the game, and not just play one or two nights and call it quits, you're going to run into two problems: the game is going to start feeling really repetitive, and the gameplay is going to become incredibly dry and mechanical. Each night involves the same gameplay and the same eight-minute scenario -- it just becomes harder each night, with power draining faster and more animatronics coming to life. By night five, there are certain things you simply have to do in order to survive, which involve following a pre-determined script because each of the four robots has its own set behavior pattern with a set counter-measure. Beating the game basically requires you to dissect it to learn how it works; once you've done that, suspension of disbelief goes out the window and all immersion is lost.
It didn't feel like there was much of an actual challenge involved in the gameplay, and the scares had no effect on me. I felt essentially no emotion whatsoever while playing this game. Not to mention, the game is short, simplistic, and repetitive. I therefore can't recommend Five Nights at Freddy's in good conscience. There are worse ways you could spend $5, but to me, this is a game that's only worth watching someone else play -- preferably someone who's a complete wuss who'll emit operatic shrieks whenever something scary happens. That's where the game's real entertainment value stems from. For that, I direct you to YouTube and its approximately 1.4 million videos, which you can watch for free. As an actual game, Five Nights is really kind of boring -- you basically just sit there watching camera feeds and waiting for jump scares. I don't see what the fuss is all about.