Five Nights at Freddy’s
Developer: Scott Cawthon
Publisher: Scott Cawthon
Release Date: 8/18/2014
The horror genre hadn’t seen a lot of huge strides forward this year; while there are more than a few decent indie releases poking around here and there, nothing transcendent had really risen to the forefront, and honestly, Dark Souls 2 was the closest thing to “scary” I’d played all year. That’s not to say that there aren’t going to be some potential winners later in the year, such as Alien: Isolation, The Evil Within and Routine. Daylight was a wash, though, and many of the other games that have been popping up either might not end up being completed this year (The Forest) or might end up being retreads of the same ground we’ve seen before (Dying Light). So when Five Nights at Freddy’s started going viral recently, I was intrigued. A five dollar Steam game that was developed by one person, Scott Cawthon, using Multimedia Fusion, a tool that looks like it’s really good at making Myst knockoffs? That hardly sounds like the kind of game that’s going to really do anything exciting, but the game rocketed from Greenlight onto Steam proper in a couple weeks, and people have been streaming it and screaming a whole lot recently, so it’s clearly doing something right. So, out of a combination of growing curiosity and a desire to see if the game could live up to the growing viral hype, I picked it up and played around with it to see what made it tick and what was causing so much screaming.
Welcome to Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a magical place for kids and grown-ups alike, where fantasy and fun come to life.
There are actually two different storylines going on in Five Nights at Freddy’s, the obvious one and the one going on behind the scenes. The obvious one is that you take on the role of one Mike Schmidt, a faceless protagonist who is apparently not very good at finding a job. He takes on a job working as an overnight security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza for the princely sum of $120 for a week’s work, only to find that his job is much less about keeping people from breaking in, but rather, keeping the animatronic mascots from breaking out. As the game begins, you receive a phone call from the previous night watchman, who explains he’s recording a series of messages for you to acclimate you to the experience, which serve as a combination tutorial and explanation that something’s not right in Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. The prior night watchman’s explanation is basically that the animatronics are screwed up and the songs they have to sing are horrible, so he doesn’t blame them for going a little nutty. The actual explanation, which can be found by reading random newspaper clippings through camera 4B, is a lot more… disturbing, as you’d expect. Either way, though, it hardly matters why things are as they are; because Mike is stupid, the only thing you need to really concern yourself with is not getting murdered by the animatronic mascots for six in-game hours per day, at which point you go home and start the next day’s work. As a concept, this works; there’s a good amount of backstory poking around if you’re inclined to look for it, and the plot that’s presented is amusing in its own way. Anyone who’s been to a Chuck E Cheese or the Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyworld can probably appreciate the idea of creepy robot mascots trying to murder their face, and even if you haven’t, the idea is certainly novel. There aren’t a lot of horror products that have done this idea in general, to be honest, so that lends the game a bit of novelty, and the game really just gets down to putting you into the experience instead of trying to talk to you constantly, and because of this, the execution really works very, very well.
Visually, Five Nights at Freddy’s uses a bit of visual trickery to accomplish its tasks, due in large part to the way the Multimedia Fusion engine works. The game world is assembled almost entirely of static images and animated gif files, much like the aforementioned Myst, but you can barely tell. The visual quality of the images in the game are generally top notch, and the animations look fluid in motion, such that the game looks like a much higher budget product than it actually is. Aurally, the game does a lot with a little, as much of the game is silent on purpose to take advantage of the paranoia that induces. There are only one or two songs in the game, and when you do hear them you should probably start praying for your digital life because they usually mean your end. Ditto for the voice acting; aside from the phone calls from the prior security guard, which are fabulous and both terrifying and hilarious, you won’t be hearing anything that really resembles human speech throughout the rest of the game. That said, the animatronics do have a few aural tells of their own, such as laughter and odd scraping noises, as well as much… more horrifying noises they make should they catch up to you. It’s through that simple bit of execution that the audio presentation works so well; by keeping everything ambient, you spend your time listening to the minimal noises that come from the various tells, and then when something catches you and screams in your face, well, it’s super effective.
Uh, the animatronic characters here do get a bit quirky at night…
Playing Five Nights at Freddy’s is deceptively simple, but way harder than the game lets on. The gist is as follows: you sit in the security room for six in game hours (roughly about ten to fifteen minutes) and monitor the cameras, which has an odd Night Trap vibe to it. What you’re doing when you monitor the cameras is looking to see where the animatronic mascots that inhabit the pizzeria are… pretty much at all times. The basic gist is that you need to keep track of them with the cameras to make sure they’re not too close to your office. If they get near the door, you can turn on the lights by either door to see if they’re waiting outside, and if they are, you can shut the door to keep them out until they go away. The trick, though, is that you’re only allotted a set amount of power usage per night, and anything you do consumes power. You’re technically consuming power at all times by keeping the security room running, but anything you activate, from the cameras, to the lights, to the doors, consumes one bar of power per object you’re using. In other words, if you’re using the cameras and the left side door, you’re using three bars of power at one time, which will put a hurting on your power usage, so you need to be smart about how much power you consume and when. However, you need to balance that with caution, as if you aren’t paying attention, one of the mascots will sneak into your office and, when you look away, jump out at you before stuffing you into an animatronic costume, which, as you’d expect, kills you dead.
In the beginning you’re generally only stuck dealing with two animatronics, Bonnie the bunny and Chica the Chicken, who stalk back and forth from the band’s stage area (at the top of the camera map) toward the office (at the bottom of the map). As the game progresses, however, you’ll also have to deal with Foxy, a pirate fox who needs just the right amount of monitoring or he’ll charge down the hall and run you down, as well as the titular Freddy himself, who not only behaves fairly randomly, but also messes with the activities of his cohorts, making your life all kinds of difficult. The game eases you into its difficulty (or as much as it can with the short time periods during each night) so you get acclimated to having to deal with two, then three, then four animatronic monstrosities at one time, so there’s a certain degree of understanding to the experience. The controls also work well enough, honestly, as you’ll be able to figure out how things work in minutes, and you’ll easily be able to flip between the different displays you need with no difficulty. Whether your heart will be able to handle a robot bear screaming in your face is an entirely different story, of course, but there’s a certain small amount of satisfaction in narrowly escaping the jaws of death… and if you don’t, well, the game saves at the last day you completed, so there’s always next time.
Hey, you’re doing great! Most people don’t last this long.
Honestly, if you manage to get through all of the nights, you can complete Five Nights at Freddy’s in about two hours, but given that you’ll almost certainly die several times along the way, you’ll likely get closer to five hours out of it at least. At a dollar an hour, that’s not a bad cost-to-entertainment ratio, all things considered. After you’ve completed the expected five nights, the game hits you with a “final” sixth night to plow through that is, as you’d expect, insane in its sheer difficulty. If you can complete that, you’re given a final, seventh night that lets you customize the AI of the animatronics so you can basically see how bad they can get (or how weak they can be), if you want to fool around a bit longer. There’s no more content to the game than that, unfortunately, but for five bucks, what’s here isn’t bad, and you can always show it off to a friend or two if they’ve never seen it… ideally in the dark, because what kind of a friend would you be if you didn’t drive your friends to an early grave?
That said, while it’s hard to expect a lot from a five dollar game, Five Nights at Freddy’s is honestly kind of lacking if you turn a critical eye on it. For one thing, once it’s done, it’s done; outside of the ability to customize the AI, once you’ve completed the game you’ve likely seen everything the game has to offer. There aren’t even any settings to the game, so you can’t adjust the audio, or the display settings, or… anything, honestly, which is extremely weird for a game released in 2014. The game also has more than a few documented crash bugs, including one involving a “hidden” animatronic, though I’ve had it crash on me once when Alt-Tabbing to the desktop (though it was only once), so some tinkering probably needs to be done behind the scenes a bit. To counteract this, the game presents a bigger challenge in the last two nights than the four preceding it, which is fine to a point, but eventually the jump scares are replaced by annoyance, mostly because the power management system only allows you so much action in a given night, and frankly, Freddy’s kind of a cheating dick. It’s not impossible to make it through the game, by any means, but it feels, at times, like the change in difficulty is as much to keep the game going so you “get your money’s worth” as it is for any other reason. That’s interesting, honestly, as there’s some really smart programming going on here; for example, on the first night Bonnie and Chica won’t attack you unless you switch to the camera and back out, so if you never look at the camera, they can’t attack you, but if you do that, Foxy goes active early to punish you instead. Mr. Cawthon clearly put a lot of thought into the game, between the weird visual effects and alternate failure states and such, so it’s kind of sad that the best idea he could come up with for the last two nights is “NEW RULES DAMMIT” to keep the game going longer.
That said, you can only hold so much against the game, and while Five Nights at Freddy’s isn’t going to be for everyone, as a horror game, it’s easily the best one released this year, and one of the better inexpensive games I’ve played in general. The concept is interesting and hasn’t been done much at all in horror or in video games, and the game’s presentation does a lot with very little, between the heavily artistic visual design and the minimalist but incredibly effective aural presentation. The game is simple to play but offers a very interesting hook behind that simplicity, as the power management concept, combined with the constantly moving murderous animatronics make for a tense and often scary experience that’s definitely worth seeing if you love horror in any form. There’s nothing to bring you back to the game once you’re done with it, sadly, and the game lacks any features at all to change, as there’s not even an audio or video setting to be found anywhere. It’s also unfortunate that the final two nights ramp up the difficulty through a combination of a “final boss” who plays by his own rules and some AI changes to existing enemies instead of in a more creative way, given how intelligently the remainder of the game is designed. Still, Five Nights at Freddy’s is, out of context, a fun, inexpensive and scary experience that justifies its asking price, and in context, a game developed by one person that’s more frightening than some Triple A horror games. If you’re into screaming at your computer screen, Five Nights at Freddy’s is probably a game you should own, plain and simple.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Five Nights at Freddy’s is a creepy, effective horror game that should entertain you for more than enough time to justify its five dollar asking price. Honestly, it’s limited in both overall content and functionality, but it’s five dollars and one guy made it, given how well it does work, it’s basically a damn epiphany. If you’re the sort of person who’s super-anal about not having sound controls in your game or horror games don’t work for you, then yeah, maybe you’re better off looking at something else, sure. If you can accept the game for its flaws, though, Five Nights at Freddy’s is the creepiest, scariest horror game released this year, and while it’s not a long game, for five dollars it more than does enough to get your money’s worth out of it.