Five Nights at Freddy’s: I was not ready for Freddy
Updated: Jan 13
Did anyone expect Five Nights at Freddy’s (or FNAF as I will refer to it from now on) to explode the way it did? I honestly don’t think so. Who would have thought a small spooky game about animatronics pizzeria mascots, would spawn a massive media franchise.Complete with seven official games (including one soon to be released this year in fact), five spin-offs, and eleven books. I doubt that Scott Cawthon himself could have predicted that. So I think we should look at the start of this media franchise extravaganza. Does the FNAF hold up? Of course, it bloody does! How else would have an IP so small explode into something so big without it being good?
I will be looking at the story as told during the events of the first game without any of the content added in the subsequent sequels. There isn’t much of a story to be found. You are just an unnamed security guard hired for night watch at the Fazbear Pizzeria. But for five nights, Freddy and friends become progressively aggressive and unsettlingly sentient. One might criticize the story for not explaining why our security guard would even stay at the job past night two when his life is clear, imminent danger. Whether or not this was an intentional choice on Cawthon’s part, I say it works. It creates the atmosphere of a nightmare. Where you cannot escape from the hostile environment. Even if it makes no sense. You keep returning to the nightmare, night after night no matter how dangerous it becomes.
Power of suggestion
“Then there was the Bite of ’87. Yeah. I-It’s amazing that the human body can live without the frontal lobe, you know?” That little bit of dialogue Phone Guy says at the start of the first night, I believe showcases the power of FNAF’s writing. We never see the Bite in this installment but I believe it would been less effective if we had. The suggestion that these animatronics can bite the frontal lobe off is disturbing, to say the least. Then other little things suggest a deeper story than what is being said on the surface. For example, the spooky flashes of animatronics whispering “It’s me.” at the player suggest a deeper connection between the security guard and pizzeria. Which helps make the game feel personal and as a result, more memorable.
Freddy and friends hunt the guard with such deliberate intent that it makes you wonder if they are not just malfunctioning robots and suggest sentience? Scott Cawthon knew the power of the well worn (but true) phase less is more to keep the player engaged and unsettled, even if they don’t quite get why at first. The implication of aggressive intent and past tragedy all add to a growing sense of danger. That the player is in a hostile place where it otherwise shouldn’t exist. The Fazbear Pizzeria is a location where innocence is corrupted. Also, Freddy and friends-characters created to bring joy to children, are transformed into nightmarish killers, stalking the halls of rundown Pizzeria.
FNAF is a simple game at its design core. You have to survive from 12 to 6 AM (three minutes real-time) while managing your limited power to know where Freddy and friends are and shut the doors when they get too close-lest you suffer death by Jumpscare. The mechanics lend themselves beautifully to ramping up the tension. Playing each night induced the longest three minutes I've experienced, period. I hold FANF in high regard because of this. There is elegance in the game's simplistic mechanics that work towards FANF's status as a survival horror classic and I hope to discuss them now.
FANF does an excellent job of limited POV to increase tension. You have to go onto the cameras to see where Freddy and friends are. But you cannot see anything in your office and the cameras have blind spots. The game forces you to use a mechanic that places you in possible danger every time it is utilized. There have been many a time when I have been too busy looking at the cameras, trying to find Freddy only to get jump scared by Bonnie. I love the deceptively easy gameplay of looking at the cameras, checking the blind_spots closing the doors if necessary. The stress of not knowing exactly where they are at all and blinding yourself to possible danger is an amazing means of building that all-important tension and suspense.
When they malfunction
A problem I have with FANF is the unfair and often arbitrary dice roll where the door malfunctions forbidding you from closing it. This happened to me at least four times and there was nothing I could do asides from getting jump scared. I honestly don’t know why this is in asides from demoralizing the player and rail reading them into the jump scare. It’s not particularly fair and pads out what is a pretty short game. My only real criticism but it is something that bothered me non the less.
The failure state
I have heard complaints about the FANF series regarding its jump scares. Namely, that it relies on them too much for scares. To my mind, this is a very simplistic view of how the jump scares are set up and delivered. There are jump scares in FANF. However, they are only delivered as part of the failure state, a punishment if you fail as opposed to getting a cheap scare out of the player. If you perform well then you never receive the release of tension one gets from a jump scare. Scott Cawthon knew that tension and suspense drive horror more than loud noises. Ensuring that the player is on the edge of their seat until/if they die. As opposed to just experiencing the game.
As a result, FANF is extremely effective at grinding the player into a sense of paranoid terror. You are trying to avoid dying and by doing so, you are involved in the game. Because dying means an unpleasant sound blasting in your ear. The panic I experienced whenever I found Bonnie trying to sneak into my booth, was made all the more visceral by the knowledge that; I am going to get screamed at if I don't shut the door in time. What if I fail to conserve power Freddy is going to get me or if I spend too much time on the cameras. I might get caught off guard and be pounced by Chica or Foxy. The knowledge of being screamed at after what feels like hours of quiet dread and suggestion was potent.
They are coming
FNAF’s AI is very basic but does the job perfectly. You know that Bonnie and Foxy only come from the left while Freddy and Chica come from the right. Freddy moves every time he laughs and Foxy only becomes active if you don't look at him for long periods. In this case, the AI is relatively predictable, at least enough to where it doesn’t become annoying. But there is the clever element of unpredictability under the coating. Sure Freddy will get closer to you with each laugh but sometimes he will go to the kitchen and sing a song for a couple of seconds.
Chica too might spend an unusual amount of time trashing the kitchen as opposed to attacking the player. Bonnie sometimes stays in the doorway for a little too long, stressing the player because they know power is being wasted. Foxy might not even become active for a while, lulling the player into a false sense of security and creates a sense of terror when you idly glance over at Pirate Cove and seeing it empty. The AI is just predictive enough to not be frustrating but just unpredictable enough to keep the player on edge.
Art style and Graphics:
Animation and movement are very limited. Nevertheless, FNAF utilities strong lighting and audio to keep the player on edge of their seat. Freddy's deep hornlike laugh sends shivers down my spine with implications, is he laughing at me or is he just performing his automatic functions? The pizzeria looks suitably grimy and tacky, like a Chucky Cheese that was never properly cleaned. The innocent facade of tables lined with birthday hats and plates is just a paper-thin facade over a place filled with tragedy and ugly secrets. Which caused Freddy and friends to go kill-crazy. All being told though what amounts to static imagines.
Minor nitpick: But I wish the game had a full-screen resolution.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is a masterpiece of suspense and minimalism. A fantastic game to start the year and Imaginative Rambling’s end. Scott Cawthon might have not known during the creation process but he created something truly special and memorable. I look forward to Security Breach later this year and I wish him the best of luck with the Blumhouse film.