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Second Opinion: Five Nights at Freddy’s

More Than Just Jumpscares

 

This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of.  This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of.  Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not.  Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad.  Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about.  Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

Hello everyone!  I’m Doctor I Coleman, I’ve got a PhD in videogames, and I’m here to give you a Second Opinion on the Five Nights at Freddy’s series.  This is a new video series that Hey Poor Player is producing which will focus on challenging some of our preconceived notions about certain games.  It’s not a series that’s gonna be shedding light on underappreciated games, because there’s already plenty of people doing that, and it’s not gonna be another gruesome game theory series where we take some obscure detail of a game’s lore and tell you how it “CHANGES EVERYTHING” in all caps with a couple of dozen exclamation points.  No, instead we’re gonna be talking about games everyone already knows are amazingly good or horrifically bad, and looking at whether or not those claims actually hold up.  And for our inaugural episode, we’re looking at a series that everyone has an opinion on: Five Nights at Freddy’s.

On October 7th, 2016, the fifth game in the Five Nights at Freddy’s series was released, a spinoff of sorts called Sister Location.  Critics gave it mildly favorable 6 out of 10 and 7 out of 10 reviews, and the general gaming public waited until they’d had a chance to play the game before offering a reasonable-

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Just kidding.  It’s the Internet.  Everyone made the same reactionary comments they made the last four times a FNaF sequel came out.  The games are too similar.  He’s clearly just milking it for money.  These shit games don’t even deserve a review.  I think my favorite is iam16bit, who even goes so far as to suggest that releasing a bad game that people still enjoy playing and watching on YouTube is somehow indicative of a shady conspiracy.  And this is some of the tamer hate I’ve seen the game receive!  People get really, really angry whenever they see that a new Freddy’s game has come out.  And this is where I, as a trained fake medical professional, step in, because in my opinion, the Five Nights at Freddy’s games are one of the best examples of videogame storytelling of all time.

For those of you who haven’t already gone to type angry comments, I’d like to start by discussing the false dichotomy of “good” and “bad” games.  Credit where credit is due, a lot of this comes from Cory Rydell and Grey Carter’s “How To Talk About Games”, which I highly recommend.  See, most people think there are only two types of games: good and bad.  But really, it’s a lot more nuanced than that, because – and this is gonna blow some dang minds – opinions are subjective.  Hence the name “Second Opinion”, not “Second Objective Fact.”

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The first thing you have to take into consideration is: was this game made for me?  Is this game trying to be something that I enjoy?  And the second thing to consider is: did they succeed or fail?  For example, I really like Real-Time Strategy games, and I can see that, say, Age of Empires is a really good Real-Time Strategy game, while Halo Wars is a really poorly-made dumbed-down RTS that was ill-conceived and made by a dev team that wanted to be doing something else but was forced by Microsoft to make a crappy tie-in to a popular series.  On the other hand, I don’t much care for fighting games as a rule, but even though I don’t enjoy Mortal Kombat very much I can see that it was a well-made product that injected life into a dying series.  And, um, I dunno, I guess Shrek Super Slam was a pretty bad fighting game? I feel like you get the point.

The thing about Five Nights at Freddy’s is that it’s an independent survival horror game with unusual and fairly repetitive gameplay whose main draw is a story that’s only told through hints and weird minigames.  Of course it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea – heck, it’s pretty amazing that it’s as popular as it is.  Even big budget horror games that have been designed to appeal to a more mainstream audience, like The Evil Within, typically don’t do as well as say, first-person shooters.  I’m not here to convince you to like Five Nights at Freddy’s.  I just want to explain to you why it might be in your “it’s good but it’s not for me” square, and not just a terrible game that only exists because Let’s Players like to scream at it.

Oh, and we’ll get to that, too.

One mistake a lot of people make when they rant about how unbelievable it is that the FNaF games got popular is that they focus almost exclusively on the gameplay.  “How can anyone be so stupid as to shell out money for the exact same game?!” they cry.  Well, first of all, let’s talk about that.  The first game was about surviving five eight-minute intervals by managing electricity and time and learning the different movement patterns of several different robots.  It was more a strategy game than an action game, albeit a strategy game that would occasionally scream at you for doing something wrong.  The second game had the same basic mechanics, but also ramped up the difficulty by taking away your office’s doors and introducing some new mechanics, like having to wind up a music box and occasionally having to put on a mask and sit in silence so the monsters would think you were one of them, all of which put even more of a drain on your time resources than the first game.  The third likewise increased the difficulty by adding a second set of cameras and making it so that electronic systems could fail, forcing you to reboot them or be caught unaware by one of the murderbots.  And the fourth game was almost completely different, taking place in a child’s bedroom with no cameras, no electricity, and nothing but a flashlight and a bed to hide under.

I don’t intend to talk about the new game in this feature, mainly because I haven’t finished it yet and I’d feel pretty hypocritical starting a series about people forming opinions on games they’ve never played by talking about a game I’ve never played.  I also don’t want to spoil it since it’s still pretty new.  But I will tell you that it’s even more off the rails than the fourth game.  I mean, one entire level is just about tightening the springs in a costume.  If it weren’t for a couple of loose story threads and a similar visual style you could almost release it as an entirely different product.

The point is, even every game in the mainline FNaF series expands on or changes the gameplay in some way.  And maybe it doesn’t sound like a lot to you, but think about it: sequels have been praised for doing far less.  XCOM 2 is still a turn-based strategy game where you fight aliens, Portal 2 ramps up the difficulty while using the same core mechanic just like Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 did, and hell, Nintendo’s been releasing the same two Pokemon games for years and people are still excited for Sun and Moon.  And all of those games are full-price.  None of the FNaF games even cost as much as $10.  Buying the four main games costs as much as the new King’s Quest game, and the five episodes in that certainly don’t do anything to massively change the gameplay.

But here’s the main thing: like King’s Quest, the reason fans want to shell out money for the whole series isn’t because of the exciting new gameplay.  It’s because we’re invested in the story.  And this is where the Five Nights at Freddy’s series really shines, because the creator, Scott Cawthon, gets how to tell a story in videogames.

Like the original Portal, if you were to actually tell someone the story of the game outright, it wouldn’t be very interesting.  In that case: a homicidal AI neurotoxins an entire research facility and is defeated by the sole surviving test subject.  In this case: a group of children are murdered in a Chuck-E-Cheese style theme restaurant, possess the animatronics, and eventually get revenge on their murderer.  It wouldn’t make an interesting movie, and it certainly didn’t make an interesting book.  Seriously, I don’t have time to go into it right now, but here’s my review, and that book sucked.  And the main reason it sucked is because it spelled everything out.  What’s scarier: a murderer who’s just a guy named Dave, or this:

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I am not exaggerating when I say that this picture, this stupid little picture, genuinely gives me chills every time I look at it.  If you haven’t played the game, you probably think I’m crazy for that.  But if you have played the game, you remember.  You remember watching this nightmarishly creepy figure stalk you in the minigames.  You remember seeing him smiling as you passed the corpses of the children who had been so happy a moment ago.  Always smiling, with that stiff rictus grin that’s all the ATARI-style graphics will allow.  You remember wandering around, not sure when he was gonna show up, but knowing that he would, and then…you remember the sound.

This is the power of videogames.  They’re interactive.  You can get things across simply by atmosphere and feeling alone.  Cawthon conveys a more personal feeling of helplessness in the painful slowness of the player’s walk cycle during the minigames than the book could in tens of thousands of words.  Sure, the story may not have that much to say if you really lay it all out, and no one can say for sure whether Cawthon really has had some master plan for the series from the beginning or is just making it up as he goes along, but that doesn’t matter.  These games are full of these emotional moments that, yes, still get to me even now.  Like your abusive brother trying to communicate with you after the end of FNaF 4, or Purple Guy’s death, or the slow, somber chanting of the letters that spell out “HELP THEM.”

And that’s not even talking about the horror in these horror games.  The series gets a lot of criticism for “just relying on jumpscares”, but that’s incredibly reductive.  Sure, the jumpscares have become infamous thanks in part to the YouTube Let’s Play community, and that may be the part that makes you scream outright, but what  about the time building up to those jumpscares?  What about the time spent sitting in a tiny office, listening for any sound that might indicate a monster’s getting closer, trying desperately to hold off the nightmares just a little bit longer?  Sure, you’d probably jump at a nasty scream without any of that stuff, but it’s that anticipation that makes the game truly scary.  The jumpscares almost come as a relief, ’cause at least it’s over.

And again, I think the minigames first introduced in the second game truly don’t get enough credit.  To my mind, they’re the most chilling part of the whole experience.  See, in the age of really good CGI animation in which we live, a lot of creators forget that the essence of horror is the unknown and the unknowable.  Like I said, the Purple Man wouldn’t be as scary if we actually knew what he looked like or his motivations or his backstory.  But the janky, completely inhuman two-frame animations of his ATARI graphics avatar?  Now that’s terrifying.  The graphics of the game are a perfect example of how to show the player just enough to be frightening.

I mean, have you ever looked at any of the models in an actual editor? Look at this:

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That thing looks ridiculous.  But when you’re only catching a glimpse of it in some grainy camera footage, well, you’d be doing some ridiculous YouTuber scream, too.

And by the way, even if the game were just an excuse for Internet celebrities to freak out for ad revenue, would that really be such a bad thing?  I mean, I don’t get it either, but obviously there’s a big market for such things, and are they really hurting anyone?  Really?  The existence of something you don’t like doesn’t hurt you at all so long as it’s legal, ethical, and moral.  It’s just videogames, guys.  Let people consume media however they want.  The existence of a few weird horror games isn’t going to take Overwatch away from you.

So whether you like the Five Nights at Freddy’s games or can’t get past the first five minutes, I hope this video has at least convinced you that they deserve to be respected for their story, presentation, and brilliant development of an atmosphere that would only be possible in the videogame space.  When it comes to presenting a spooky story with style, you really can’t beat ’em.  And that’s my professional opinion.

Except for that horrible turn-based RPG spinoff.  That thing really was a tire fire.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct GamerSyndrome.com with years of experience writing for and about games.
https://bit.ly/2JwXD5Q

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