Behind The Mask: Five Nights At Freddy’s

I hadn’t played Five Nights At Freddy’s until Saturday night and when I finally got around to it, the game made me angry. I stomped around my flat, complained loudly about how much I hate jump scares and screamers, and told anyone who would listen that the whole thing is terribly designed.

Stress can make liars of us all.

If you haven’t heard of FNAF, a description of the basic premise should be enough to tell you whether you want to know more. You play the night watchman in a Chuch E. Cheese-style kids’ restaurant, with a ‘famous’ and ‘lovable’ cast of animatronic characters who spend their days entertaining diners with music and mirth. At night, their programming is switched to a free roam mode and they wander the dark and dilapidated building looking for…something.

You. They’re looking for you. As a phone call explains on the first night, Freddy and chums don’t quite understand why there would be a person in their restaurant at night. I’ll let the game explain itself. Here, plucked from the game’s Wiki, is a transcript of the relevant part of that first phone call.

“…if they happen to see you after hours [they] probably won’t recognize you as a person. They’ll most likely see you as a metal endoskeleton without its costume on. Now since that’s against the rules here at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, they’ll probably try to…forcefully stuff you inside a Freddy Fazbear suit. Um, now, that wouldn’t be so bad if the suits themselves weren’t filled with crossbeams, wires, and animatronic devices, especially around the facial area. So, you could imagine how having your head forcefully pressed inside one of those could cause a bit of discomfort…and death. Uh, the only parts of you that would likely see the light of day again would be your eyeballs and teeth when they pop out the front of the mask, heh.”

The gameover screen is the only place you can see any of the player character’s features. He has blue eyes.

Hideous and ludicrous as FNAF is, it’s the nervous ‘heh’ that really sells the message. The phone calls act as an introduction to each night, providing tips as well as grim context and morbid humour, but it’s that initial description of the setup that gets me every time. Suitably grotesque for horror, but packed with enough excessive detail to be a form of awkward, embarrassed comedy.

This guy doesn’t hate telling you what might happen because it’s horrific, he hates telling you because it’s all a bit much. It’s ludicrous and the delivery of the lines – FNAF creator Scott Cawthon’s own performance – is well-pitched. Of all the nonsense things in the plot, the actual need for a security guard is perhaps the most striking. What is he guarding that the automatons could not guard themselves? And why does he come back to work on the second night? He exists to die and the game acknowledges that with a couple of effective punchlines when the five nights (and more) have been completed.

The concept is extremely silly, and the game acknowledges that, but you should still be absolutely terrified.

And terrified I was. As I sat down to play, with a companion goading me on, I felt deeply uncomfortable. It’s not just that I’m scared of animatronics and models (I break into a cold sweat when there are animatronic displays in museums – I come close to full-on panic if someone pushes me in the direction of a ghost train), I was also less than happy about the presence of ‘screamers’. FNAF is a game that kills you with jumpscares.

The whole thing plays out from a fixed first-person perspective. You sit in your security office, checking camera feeds throughout the building. When the murderous mascots close in to either of the office doors, a light can be activated to reveal them and if they are there, posed and ready to pounce, the doors can be closed. Why not just close the doors and put your feet up? There’s not enough power. To survive the night, you’ll have to balance your camera, door and light usage so as not to run out, leaving yourself exposed to the metal fingers of doom.

My issues with the game are as follows:

1) I don’t want a horrible animatronic character to pop up on my screen, screaming, caked in mucus, blood and rust.

2) There’s a lack of consistency in behaviour. Characters have tendencies but their movement speed varies, they occasionally seem to teleport, and the best solution appears to involve abandoning the cameras and simply relying on lights and doors. If the cameras are a distraction, likely to diminish power and bring about an untimely death, then they are window dressing – the game’s key feature is a flaw.

3) I don’t want a horrible animatronic character to pop up on my screen, screaming, caked in mucus, blood and rust.

4) Because the animatronic characters move in an unpredictable fashion, survival is often a case of blind luck. The later nights are sometimes a relentless assault, with faces leering in the darkness and Foxy banging on the door from the first minutes, and I wonder if it’s ever possible to ‘win’ in those instances? Is my most important input the reflex action that flicks on the light and locks the door in case of emergency?

5) The only reason I want to succeed is to prevent the death animation from triggering. Therefore, the easiest way to win is close the game.

6) I don’t want a horrible animatronic character to pop up on my screen, screaming, caked in mucus, blood and rust.

To be more accurate, those WERE my issues with the game. I didn’t even finish the first night before turning it off and getting into a huff.

“Jumpscares are cheap,” I exclaimed, waving my hands about to emphasise the truth of my testament. “I might as well be sitting watching a timer ticking down toward some horrible event. It’s like a Jack-in-the-Box, a toy which should have been made illegal many years ago. It’s a form of pyschological cruelty.

The game is a box that is going to startle me and I have to click the buttons at the right time to prevent it from exploding in my face. It’s memories of Pop-Up Pirate and Buckaroo, which unnerved me as a child. Ticking timebombs. Kerplunk with killer consequences.

But, as one wise reviewer has written on Boardgamegeek.com, “The biggest strong point that Kerplunk has, is that it goes “kerplunk””. Brilliant. And accurate.

We could similarly say that the biggest strong point that Five Nights at Freddy’s Has is that it goes “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE” while a horrible animatronic character character caked in mucus, blood and rust pops up on your screen.

I hated the game because it made me tense, stressed even. I’m still not at all convinced that creating a stressful situation and having the player work to prevent it from exploding is good design, but FNAF is well-constructed. I was quick to label it as facecam-fodder for the kind of YouTube videos that are seeking the next “Scariest Game Ever”, but the attention to detail in the scenario and the wickedly black humour makes the experience worthwhile. Even if you’re too much of a coward to play the game.

Actually, ‘coward’ is the wrong word. It’s about stress levels rather than courage, I think, and that’s true of many horror experiences. FNAF deliberately plays on anticipation – its rules just about vague enough that the eventual scare is always slightly unpredictable. Sometimes it seems to be deferred for an awfully long time after a fail state has been reached. Horrid.

And then there’s the Wiki. It’s an incredible edifice, mining a simple setup for oodles of detail and backstory. The game has inspired grand theories, boosted by the sequel/prequel, FNAF 2. Sadly, it’s not as cleverly constructed, placing the creatures front and centre (literally) far too often, and muddying its mechanics with the addition of a timed music box that makes the whole thing veer a little too far into Diner Dash territory. The result is that the images and sense of place fade into the background and the claustrophobic tension drips away.

I was wrong though, in my initial assessment. FNAF isn’t a bad game. It got to me. I was stressed out, scared and unhappy, so I pushed it away like a plate of rotten food. Now that I’ve seen every night – although I’ve still only played one myself – I’ve learned to admire the game’s craft. It’s a nasty, brutish and short, but the central conceit is handled with admirable lack of restraint. It’s the equivalent of a comedian completely committing to a character or gag.

On Sunday morning, around 1am, I would have told you that FNAF is one of the worst games I’ve played this year. I’d still tell you it’s not a game I ever want to play, particularly not with headphones on in the dark as it probably SHOULD be played, but I think I understand its appeal. I try out as many games as I can find time for and so often the appeal escapes me and I never bother to pursue it.

In this case, I think the attempt was worthwhile and I’m very happy to concede that FNAF isn’t just a glorified Jack-in-the-Box. The setting and horrifically improbably ways in which death approaches and occurs are reminiscent of the kind of trashy but enjoyable horror that dominated the higher shelves of my local Blockbuster back in the nineties. It’s a corner of the horror genre I don’t explore often these days and I’m happy to have been reminded of it. I’m also pleased to see imaginations sparked by FNAF, even if much of the fanart is far more disturbing than the game, for entirely different reasons.

24 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    To me, FNAF feels like too much of a cynical YouTuber cash-in to really take it seriously as a game. That is, a game that can be made on a shoestring budget, with minimal actual game design and just a bit of 3D modelling, and yet be so perfectly tuned to create endless YouTube “Let’s Play”s and reaction videos that it’s guaranteed to be a commercial success via free marketing and heavy hype. The fact that a sequel came out so quickly just felt like it was confirming my suspicions.

    But then, the jump scare genre is not really my cup of tea, so maybe that’s just me being shortsighted, dunno.

    • Melody says:

      No, I totally agree. It’s in the same kind of boat as Goat Simulator, albeit slightly better in terms of technical delivery.

    • Pich says:

      i wouldn’t say that it is youtube-bait voluntarily, the quality is similar to the author precedent work

    • Kitsunin says:

      Meh, I dunno. Each game contains more or less exactly what it needs to, there isn’t really room for more or less. Because of that, it’s probably simple enough to make one in a matter of (a reasonable number of) months. The sequel fits into a story which was established by the first game, and clearly was the author’s intention from the beginning (there are a couple Game Theory videos which are great, and show that there is an intentional, well told story there…though it doesn’t exactly explain the gameplay)

      Whereas goat simulator is obviously reaction-bait, FNaF is mechanically a quite decent horror game first and foremost, it just so happens that you can create an incredibly tense game on a shoestring budget, and reaction-ers love their damn jumpscares.

      I just wish the games rewarded you for watching the animatronics and really getting into tracking everything via camera. That’s what I expected, and a game which really focused on that would have been fantastic, but in the end the best strategy is just to check all the in-room lights constantly, and only check the camera to placate foxy/marionette, which is really a shame, and knocks FNaF one and two down a couple massive pegs.

    • ZycroNeXuS says:

      Actually, this game wasn’t intended to be like that at all.

      See, Cawthon was bad at 3D rendering. His games were frequently complained about with one specific comment: “The characters look unrealistic, like animatronics.”
      Scott was not happy about that, and decided to take one last shot at making a game, only THIS time using his magnificent ability to make 3D animatronics to his advantage, and thus, FNAF was born.
      Scott was absolutely dumbfounded when it exploded into what it had. So he planned to make another, then release it on Christmas Day. Then the demo process for IndieDB was way too slow to upload, so he just decided “Eh, what the heck. Let’s just release the whole game,” because it was finished for some reason and he was just holding it back for cruelty or something.
      Anyways, now Scott makes enough money to be a full-time game developer.
      And we all lived happily ever after, except for those of us who need to buy fresh underwear. The End.

      • BooleanBob says:

        Fascinating, thanks for that insight. It’s an easy trap to fall into, I know I’ve done it before – you don’t personally like something, so you dismiss it as lazy or cynical, unaware that you’re projecting these qualities onto the creator to feel more secure in your opinion.

        As far as jump-scares go, yes, they’re a cheap ploy if you just slap them as a nasty surprise for the unawares. But this game forms a contract with its player – the rules are not difficult to learn, if you’re good enough you won’t get jump-scared – and the whole experience builds out of that. It’s not at all cheap or superficial and is in fact incredibly engaging.

        • ZycroNeXuS says:

          Maybe the same could be said for people like EA, Activision,or Treyarch? I’m aware that pretty much the entirety of the game industry hates all three of them right now, but what if they aren’t as bad as people see them?

          Treyarch and Activision make copy-paste shooters, sure, but we need to keep in mind one thing about these people. Any big-name game company ISN’T there to entertain you. They’re there to make money. Treyarch and Activision found what will make money, and are using that to get more. It doesn’t lead to an entirely good ending for those who buy the game, but the company has achieved its goal. That’s all these companies are doing, making money, like any good business is designed to do.

          EA, however, is a different story. EA has definitely made some… questionable decisions. But what if they just painted themselves into a corner with their past decisions, and then saw no other way to keep the business alive OTHER than making the choices they’re making? It’s certainly working, though, isn’t it? EA is still alive and kicking. Sometimes, you have no choice but to be the bad guy, and that’s what EA put themselves into. And it worked. Sims is still going strong, their other games are selling rapidly, and all-in-all, EA is doing fine, even if they AREN’T doing fine to get there.

          Also, I haven’t played FNaF yet. However, I really want to. It’s so strange, I hate horror games (with the exception of the actual good ones, like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Silent Hill (early)) and I hate jumpscares even more, but FNaF put them to use in such a fascinating way that I can’t help but want to play it! You can chalk that down to ONLY good game design and nothing else.

          What people need to do is, before stopping to judge a game or company about what it does or what it did, stop and check to see what put them in that position in the first place. Then they will see the truth, and maybe they won’t feel like they have the right to judge anymore.

          • Josh W says:

            Treyarch and Activision make copy-paste shooters, sure, but we need to keep in mind one thing about these people. Any big-name game company ISN’T there to entertain you. They’re there to make money. Treyarch and Activision found what will make money, and are using that to get more. It doesn’t lead to an entirely good ending for those who buy the game, but the company has achieved its goal. That’s all these companies are doing, making money, like any good business is designed to do.

            That argument never works to endear people to me, “they aren’t actually trying to serve you as a customer, they’re just trying to get the most cash out of you they can without pissing you off enough that you boycot them”. Great, really humanises them.

          • ZycroNeXuS says:

            Josh W:

            Meh, the entire comment’s all just speculation anyways.

          • Veldril says:

            Josh W: It depends on how they segment their customers. Their target customers are not us, to put it simply. They are trying to serve their customers, but we are not their customers so they are not trying to serve us. Their customers are simply people who like mindless shooters that can be complete in 10-12 hours. And those target segment/customer is a lot larger than our segment.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    I think as a rule of thumb “good game design” should generally come down to “does its design successfully create the experience it intended to” or at least “did this design create a coherent experience or message” and from the sounds of it FNAF did, even if it wasn’t an experience that everyone wants or enjoys.

    • LordxMugen says:

      ABSOLUTELY!! And thats why i like the game (even if i dont like stressful scary games). it does what it says its going to do (scare you with animatronic robots in a creepy night shift restaurant setting) and does it VERY WELL. Whats even better is how it gets it’s narrative across (not just through phone guy but from the ever changing posters and the death minigames in FNAF2). its there if youre willing to look for it and its just vague enough to maybe let you put your own spin on it. A game that brings people together, not just through scare videos but through its own story is the mark of an amazing game imo.

  3. SMGreer says:

    Good article and I agree on most points. FNaF’s is a game I respect more than enjoy. I mean, if you play it for twenty minutes you’ve essentially seen all it has to offer but it’s appropriately cheap, well made and a solid idea delivered probably as well as it can be. So lots of kudos for that.

    The fanbase though? All that fanart and fanfiction? Baffling in the extreme. How did a game with such a disturbing premise (albeit an absurd one) end up with such a “cutesy” fanbase? Weird.

    • Paul B says:

      I think the fact it’s cutesy, makes the fanart more disturbing for me! I don’t think this is the game for me, though I can see it’s appeal.

    • KDR_11k says:

      On one hand it makes sense to figure out how those characters should appeal to kids since they somehow gotta do the advertising job by day.

      On the other hand, furries. Apparently turning characters into Freddy animatronics is a trend now.

  4. Premium User Badge

    distantlurker says:

    Bill Hicks. Goat Boy.

  5. Muzman says:

    There’s a lot of sniffiness around this game from certain quarters. Why I’m not entirely sure. I guess most of the cited reasons like ‘jumo scares’ make some sense. But I don’t think that gives it its due. It’s a darn clever piece of design this, completely flipping the script on a seemingly endless glut of Slender-alikes (some of which were quite polished). Artfully economic with its assets without stooping to pixel art or some such, while being broadly accessible. Even if the mechanics lend themselves to optimal playing fairly quickly, it doesn’t stop it being amusingly tense.
    So what if it goes ‘Boo!’ and youtubers love that? We have to completely ignore how it does this to be that sort of critical. It’s not creatively nor mechanically derivative and it’s laced with wit, walking that line between creepy and funny like a good horror movie of old. If playing to the gallery (which I’m not convinced it does) regularly yields this amount of inventiveness, gaming is in damn good shape.

  6. Synesthesia says:

    metal fingers, you say?

    link to youtube.com

    (how do i embed this?)

  7. rondertaker says:

    my 9 year old friend tells me this is basically the most popular game at his elementary school and that every kid is playing it on their mobile devices all the time.

  8. Blackop2 says:

    Why is all the fan art with furrys?

  9. Shardz says:

    I’d rather see an Undead Muppets game to be honest.

  10. Heliocentric says:

    A strange game. the only winning move is not to play.

  11. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    I see FNAF as the best possible way to make a game based entirely on jump scares, in which the jump scares aren’t “boo you’re scared now”, but are the losing condition, so the anticipation of the jump scare is what drives the game forward.

  12. babbler says:

    I feel like this game is broken, and don’t get me wrong, I like the game but the atmosphere is built up through the camera and the movement of the animatronics but the only way to win is to almost completely give up using the camera. When you’re only using the camera to wind the music box and check on foxy, the game loses something. The first few nights are great as you can watch the cameras and see the animatronics move around without immediately being murdered.