In the run-up to Halloween, this author will be producing a series of revi..."/> In the run-up to Halloween, this author will be producing a series of revi..."/>

All Gamers’ Eve I: Five Less-Than-Fearful Nights at Freddy’s

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In the run-up to Halloween, this author will be producing a series of reviews of particularly notable recent horror games, both AAA and Indie. This is part I of that series.

Hell on earth has a new name, and it’s Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza.

But it’s not a bad place to stay. In fact, if you decide to play Five Nights at Freddy’s, you’ll be literally spending five nights there in a game that might be the most poignant tribute to the economic plight faced by Chuck E. Cheese’s security guards in the 1980’s ever designed. And by poignant, I actually mean pants-wettingly freaky because DEAR GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING WHAT IS MAKING THOSE NOISES MUST COMPULSIVELY CHECK MY CAMERA–

Oh wait. Maybe those noises are obvious false alarms designed to make me feel nervous, when in fact the things out to get me actually follow a pattern that becomes fairly rote and predictably once I actually start to approach this like an experience I can optimize. Huh, never thought of it that way. Guess this job isn’t so bad after a–


Alright, alright, I’ll stop being cute. If you’ve checked Youtube at all, you’ve probably heard of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” an indie game that’s made nearly all the “Let’s Play” rounds and has amassed quite a reputation for terrifying. And given that Halloween is coming up, if you’re a gamer, you probably want to play something that’ll freak you out as this most wonderful time of the year demands. Given “Five Nights at Freddy’s” reputation and low price tag, you might be tempted to pick it up.

And maybe you should. But it depends on what sort of horror game you want. Because rather like the sentient animatronic Pizza mascot that is the titular Freddy, pictured above in one of his more horrifying forms, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” is an aesthetically brilliant nightmare in form that just happens to hide what is ultimately a decent, but repetitive and overly mechanistic game in function.

Let’s start with what the game gets right, and then move onto what it could have done better.

No horror game can work without a decent premise, and “Five Nights at Freddy’s” has one of the more original and genuinely frightening ones to come out of gaming. Your character has just been hired as night watchman at Freddy Fazbear’s pizza, an obvious ersatz 1980’s Chuck E. Cheeze-style pizza joint with four mascots. Obviously, there’s Freddy, the creepy grinning teddy bear, but there’s also Bonnie, the equally creepy purple rabbit with one of many punny names, as well as Foxy, a pirate fox with a hook hand and eyepatch, and Chica, a female yellow duckling wearing what looks distressingly like a Hooters getup.

The catch is that the restaurant has created human-sized animatronics of these mascot figures, and for some reason those animatronics get up and walk around the restaurant at night in what a previous security guard calls a “free roaming mode.” Oh, and did I mention that if they stumble across you in your very easy to locate security guard’s office, they’ll mistake you for a defective animatronic and kill you by stuffing you into a costume that’ll electrocute you to death? Yeah, sorry, OSHA compliance in the 80’s was kind of a b—h that way. Oh, and your contract literally stipulates that they have the right to cover up your death. I know because on the first night, someone reads you the terms and conditions of employment over the phone and that’s one of them. Guessing the health care plan is probably not that great either.

Your goal in all of this? Survive five shifts as night watchman, staying in the restaurant from midnight until 6 AM, while the animatronics get progressively more and more precocious and predatory in their attempts to trap and kill you.

This all leads into one of the game’s legitimately brilliant design choices — namely, the fact that the main character cannot leave his office. Perhaps it’s simply terror or perhaps there’s something in the employee handbook, but you apparently can’t so much as budge from one spot in your office. This means that effectively, the game gets to play on one of the oldest forms of fear — one that’s probably plagued practically every person in their sleep at least once — the fear of being totally frozen in place while something malevolent slowly closes in on you. What’s more, while you have an ability to protect yourself by shutting the doors to your office, this drains a finite source of power that you start every night with, and which also is drained by using the building’s security cameras to keep track of the moving animatronics. When this power runs out, unless you’re literally minutes away from the end of the night, you’ll almost certainly die horribly. In other words, the desire to be aware of the danger and the desire to protect oneself from it are in constant tension, and negotiating the tradeoff successfully is what makes for victory.

To sustain this type of terror, the game cloaks itself in an oppressively tense atmosphere. There is no music, except for the unsettlingly cheery jingles played by the murderous animatronics, and the occasional scare chord when one pops up outside your office (at which point your instinct will probably be to jump away from the computer in terror).

But even without music, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” has one of the most effective sound designs in any game.  The game breaks up long stretches of silence with the occasional whir of a mechanical limb, or the occasional ominous sound of jaunty humming, to inspire a feeling of paranoia as you frantically check your cameras to see if that means one of your animatronic stalkers is getting close to the office. When the animatronics penetrate your defenses, they scream in distressingly human sounding voices before the Game Over screen appears. One of the more dreadful experiences in the game occurs when your battery finally runs down, at which point a set of disembodied teeth and eyes will inevitably illuminate outside your office, with the light flickering in time to a music box-style rendition of the refrain in the aria “Votre Toast” from Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.”

The situational dissonance of the triumphal, martial tune is bad enough, but its mocking character (the original aria is sung by a mildly drunk bullfighter glorying in his capacity to goad his quarry) makes the sense that one is being toyed with all the worse.

In other words, when it comes to making the player feel like they are being stalked by sadistic, implacable foes determined to feed on their fear before killing them, the game succeeds beyond all expectations, and it’s probably because of this that it’s gained its reputation.

Wish that the same praise could be heaped on the actual gameplay and story.