Five Nights at Freddy’s 1 – 4
Tea: English breakfast tea
A happy time leading up to Halloween to all of you. This article is one of several that will fit into the grand theme of horror related articles with the final one being released in October 31st. The indie-horror sensation Five Nights at Freddy’s needs little introduction after every let’s player has pointed a webcam at his face and recorded his immensely terrified reaction at the jump scares the game is built around. But besides being the favourite game to watch other people play it, FNaF is said to be the next step in horror games and video game storytelling by some people. Let’s see whether this bold statement holds true. (This article contains no jump scares, maybe…)
The premise of every single entry in the series is easily explained. You are a security guard (or one time a child) and work the nightshift in a pizzeria (or are stuck in your bedroom) and must avoid the killer animatronics that bring fun and happiness to children during the day, but a load of pain and death to you at night. Who you are exactly is never made clear in relation to the overarching story and the games’ chronology is not the same as the order the events take place. There is a lot of debate about which game fits into what point of the timeline. In fact, the community around the game is one of the most fascinating aspects as they try to piece together the cryptic pieces of lore hidden throughout these games. But more to that aspect later on.
The core gameplay of FNaF is simple: You sit around checking cameras and try not to get jump scared by creepy humanoid animal robots. What you have to do exactly to avoid a rather unpleasant encounter with the local wildlife is different from game to game, but to such a small degree that I even hasten to call it different. More like a substitutable “avoid-method” that boils down to waiting for the horrors to pass. Some animatronics are different and must be dealt with accordingly, thus necessitating you to be on edge all the time, making you all the more susceptible to the inevitable jump scare blowing out your eardrums, especially by the fourth game that requires you to listen for barely audible sounds.
The plot revolves around a vague incident called the bite of 87 during which someone got their frontal lobe bit off. Who this person or the hungry animatronic was remains shrouded in the fog that is made up of the game’s absolutely rubbish clues. You can argue that the game uses different kinds of methods to tell the story like Atari-style mini games or phone calls etc. But all of it is kept so vague that literally every theory can be backed up and debunked at the same time. Thus clearing the way for all the other youtubers that won’t play the game, but rather theorize whether a fox lunging for your face with his jaw wide open is actually just trying to hug you (I wish I was kidding). The game is theory-bait and I can’t deny that seeing people working through every pixel of the game to uncover the story is heart-warming, but at the same time saddening. The payoff will never be worth the effort for such a simple story. Someone got murdered by a robot and a bunch of kids got killed by a man represented solely in the colour purple. To me that does not sound riveting unless the ultimate twist of the story is that it was all a nightmare of a film producer that relied too heavily on the jump scare trope and is now tormented by it in a purgatory-esque nightmare realm. In my opinion, people are reading way too much into it and expect a lot more than they will get. But it is the feeling of the unfinished puzzle that just misses enough pieces to make it seem solvable that keeps them coming back for more. But the pieces you put down can create any image you like, as the basic structure is so thin than you can project anything onto it.
This got more and more apparent as the ways to decipher the secret messages hidden throughout the game got more and more obscure. The absolute worst is the third instalment that asks the player to input a secret code they first have to track down into the panels on a wall that indicate in no way that they are supposed to represent a dial of a phone. That is not intuitive puzzle design, scratch that. That is absolute rubbish puzzle design. It is created to be only solvable through the internet and thus might be a great thing for the community, but absolutely destroys the single player experience. Now, before everyone burns my house to the ground let me say that there are aspects I actually like.
The atmosphere in the first game and to an extent in the second are really well done. It is claustrophobic and manages to keep me on my toes the entire time through noises, well angled cameras, and sparing use of light sources. While the second game got a lot of that right again and sometimes even better by ditching the safety of two doors, there are simply too many enemies that make the place feel crowded. The less the better. If I look into every camera and see another plastic face staring back it will not have the same impact as checking three cameras with nothing unusual in them and then discovering a bunny that turns his head towards me. But even this aspect gets stomped on by the third game that takes the familiar setting of the pizzeria away and puts the player into a haunted house attraction. It would seem to me that a.) the developer doesn’t understand what makes his games effective beside the jump scares or b.)he wanted to change something, but made it worse in the process. The pizzeria is a productive horror setting because of the twisted familiarity of the surroundings and most importantly because it is not trying to be scary at all. A haunted house is doing exactly that and will ultimately fall short, since you are not walking through it, but rather just looking at it through cameras. Same goes for the animatronics. The ones from part 1 and 2 were designed to appeal to kids, but the blurred line between humanoid animal and robot gave them the potential to be truly horrifying. The unwavering smile is creepier than a ripped up and damaged animatronic that is designed to be spooky. And it gets even worse by the fourth game where they simply become nightmarish versions with so many teeth it gets ridiculous. They are overdesigned and lack the simple horror of the first. If the phrase “trying too hard” was ever applicable it would be here.
The further the games progressed the clearer the realization dawned that the only thing this game series has going for it are the jump scares. And what are jump scares at their core? Cheap. Yes, I jump when somebody shoves a sudden image into my field of vision accompanied by a loud sound, but that doesn’t mean you scared me. And even that wears out rather fast. Even by night 3 of the first game I rarely flinched at the sudden close-ups. The art of horror lies in the use of sound and imagery, but not like that. It is grounded in subtlety and atmosphere and FNaF had at least one of those qualities in the beginning.
I packed all these games into one review, since I didn’t see any innovation beyond the first game and I still stand by that statement. One might say that this is what we have to expect if someone rushes out four games over the course of a single year, but nobody really asked for an immediate sequel, much less expected one, or rather three. The core game mechanic is well-designed and the concept is intriguing and genuinely scary at the start. It all falls apart pretty quick after the jump scares lose their impact and it only gets worse from there. The following games cannot reclaim the creepy charm of the original. The upholding of the story as complex and deep is rather ridiculous, firstly due to the insane puzzles that bear the marking of bad design choices and secondly because you need to stomach so much bullshit first that ruins the entire immersion. A game is not intelligent when you can find logical errors around every corner: Doors that require energy to stay down, a flashlight you can shine through a camera, a music box that can be wound up through a camera, a power-saving system that requires strict management while a fan wastes energy right in front of you, a haunted house that causes hallucinations through bad ventilation in mere minutes with only one person breathing inside, bedroom doors that won’t stay closed, and so on. With all of that the game loses any credibility and is only worthy of the occasional youtube-let’s player and I cannot simply deny how flawed this game is at its core. It’s a fun experience to play, but not something that had to be dragged on for four games or spawned a load of theory videos. In the end FNaF is an above average indie-game with some really nice ideas, but it loses its lustre as fast as the jump scares lose their scare-potential.
Image Sources in order of appearance:
- http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20140825032110/freddy-fazbears-pizza/images/f/fb/2.png (Last date of access: 16.10.2015)
- http://images6.fanpop.com/image/photos/37700000/FNAF-2-LEAKED-SCREENSHOT-Old-Foxy-five-nights-at-freddys-37710333-994-553.png (Last date of access: 16.10.2015)
- http://www.cinemablend.com/images/gallery/s69674/Five_Nights_At_Freddy_s_3_14223081791710.jpg (Last date of access: 16.10.2015)
- http://www.google.de/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fvignette2.wikia.nocookie.net%2Ffreddy-fazbears-pizza%2Fimages%2Fe%2Fe4%2FFnaf4_jumpscare_chicaindoorway.gif%2Frevision%2Flatest%253Fcb%253D20150728040643&imgrefurl=http%3A%2F%2Ffreddy-fazbears-pizza.wikia.com%2Fwiki%2FNightmare_Chica&h=768&w=1024&tbnid=mvDyuUOs4c3LKM%3A&docid=j8xizJnzdY0AfM&ei=wxAhVo-bJMmWsAGK-raoAw&tbm=isch&iact=rc&uact=3&dur=289&page=1&start=0&ndsp=15&ved=0CEEQrQMwC2oVChMIz4iy0KDHyAIVSQssCh0KvQ01 (Last date of access: 16.10.2015)
- http://s2.dmcdn.net/HOfnX/1280×720-vy-.jpg (Last date of access: 16.10.2015)