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Behind The Mask: Five Nights At Freddy's

Freddy, Steady - No

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, "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.

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