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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Let’s be clear: Horror games often have substandard gameplay. What’s more, this is almost always a conscious artistic choice, rather than just laziness, because games that are hard to play make the player feel that much more helpless. If one judged a classic like “Silent Hill 2” by its controls, one would probably mistake it for “Ride to Hell: Retribution,” but unlike “Ride to Hell,” the game designers clearly wanted you to want to chuck your controller at the wall in frustration because inspiring a feeling of impotence in a fundamentally hostile environments is one of the key elements of successful horror game design. It is because of this that horror games usually succeed to the extent that they can make the player ignore the fact that they’re not actually having fun by getting them too engaged with the story to stop.

What’s more, even when the controls are not designed to be intentionally clunky, horror games are nearly always successful to the extent that they make the player feel threatened regardless of their skill or experience with the game. The reason for this is that most players will manage to adjust even to the most unpleasant atmosphere eventually, and so frightening them with what the game might do next ultimately becomes the only lasting form of fear most horror games have to go on.

“Five Nights at Freddy’s” succeeds neither at having a particularly interesting story, nor at being sufficiently unpredictable to be frightening. Because of this, while the first three nights will probably feel chilling and thoroughly paranoia-inspiring to the average player, at a certain point the game starts to feel like a grind more than a chiller, and one mechanic can make that grind feel simply arbitrary and unfair.

First, there is the problem with the story. As I said above, the premise of “Five Nights at Freddy’s” — that out-of-control animatronics are menacing you based solely on the sadistic programming in them — is one of the more original out there. The fact that these animatronics are so out of control is established masterfully with a cryptic reference early in the game to “The Bite of ’87,” which apparently stopped the practice of allowing the mascots to walk around during the day. Point is, these objects are meant to be indiscriminately harmful murder machines. Which raises the question of why they were built that way to begin with.

This could have been an intriguing mystery, but instead of explaining it, “Five Nights” instead goes for a much more traditional explanation that is so overused that it arguably dampens the menace of the animatronics. If you haven’t guessed, they’re possessed. Yup, apparently some security guard killed a bunch of kids a while back, and now their spirits have possessed the animatronic mascots and use them to exact vicarious revenge on anyone unfortunate enough to be night watchman. Go ahead, yawn. I’ll wait.

The game never really decides what sort of horror game it wants to be.

Fortunately, this particular plot element isn’t shoved in your face. You have to actively pay attention to the decor of your office and some of the news clippings to catch onto it. However, when a horror game becomes more boring when you take the trouble to solve its mysteries, that’s a problem because it basically punishes you for caring about the game and for paying too much attention to it. The fact that such a derivative, lazy answer waits at the end of such a tantalizing mystery is all the more disappointing precisely because the explanation could have been so much less prosaic. We’ve all seen possessed objects, but murderous manikins that can’t help themselves due to programming is a more original concept for a monster, and one that demands a greater degree of originality to explain it. Most gamers or creepypasta fans could probably dream up such an explanation fairly easily, so one wonders why the developers skimped on it.

And then there’s the gameplay.

Let’s start off by making a very simple point: “Five Nights at Freddy’s” relies on jump scares to relieve its nonstop tension. The sight of an animatronic grinning face outside your door is meant to shock you into reflexive fight-or-flight mode. But this kind of shock only works so many times before people start to regard the experience as grating rather than frightening, and to hate the game rather than appreciate it. This is especially true when the jump scares either feel as if they’re an implicit sign that you screwed up the game, or are just unfair. And they fall prey to both these flaws in “Five Nights.”

Why? Because the game commits the cardinal error of over-explaining its enemies. You know that in order to avoid getting jumped by Foxy, it’s necessary to periodically check Pirate’s Cove with the cameras and to shut your doors if you see Foxy leave. You know that Freddy’s unlikely to jump you except in the dark. And you know these things not from figuring them out, but because the game itself tells you through one of its many tutorial voicemail messages from your predecessor as night watchman. The other characters aren’t explained, but their pattern is so insultingly simple that any even half competent gamer should be able to figure it out without much trouble. This means that the gameplay begins to take on a wash-rinse-repeat dynamic once you learn to ignore the auditory red herrings like the squeal of metal legs or the humming of Freddy Fazbear that occasionally echoes through the halls.

And then there’s Golden Freddy, who might just be one of the most unfair enemies ever put in a game. Essentially, imagine a version of Freddy Fazbear that will randomly spawn inside the office and eat you despite your having virtually no way of blocking it, even though there are signs that it’s coming. It’s rather like the game deciding to Deus Ex Machina you once it realizes that you’ve worked it out. If the game wanted to make all its monsters this difficult to block, then it’d be hellishly challenging, but at least the gameplay would feel consistent. But in a game where most of the other monsters follow an identifiable pattern that can be optimized for even at the highest difficulty level, Golden Freddy represents such a cryptic difficulty spike that it feels like the game developers cheating.

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On that note, the game never really decides what sort of horror game it wants to be. That is, does it want to be the sort where your ability to survive harrowing, unpredictable jump scares and to act on pure instinct is the primary skill required, or does it want to be the sort where one’s ability to use cold calculation in the face of unbearable nervous tension is the primary skill required? It is possible to require both skills, but the game’s decision to emphasize neither means that the gameplay often feels schyzophrenic. Is the goal to be quick enough on the draw that you can click the doors shut on a moment’s notice without needing the camera? Is the goal to be a deft enough wielder of your limited electrical power that you’ll always be able to anticipate the monsters? Which is it?

These issues don’t destroy the game, but they do make it feel under-realized. And given that the concept was so good, and the artistic elements so masterfully done, this paucity of ambition in the actual gaming elements just looks that much more jarring.


“Five Nights at Freddy’s” is still a good game, and for $5, more than worth the price of admission, but it could have been a great one and its refusal to be so is disappointing. The game takes a brilliantly creative premise and a stellar atmosphere of impending doom and undersells its execution with a derivative backstory, gameplay that requires by turns both too much and too little adaptability on the part of the player, and just general indecisiveness about the type of nightmarish experience it wants the player to have. It’s a marriage of A+ style with C- substance, and while that’s a combination that horror games can survive, it’s not one that they should aspire to.