I’m not a fan of the horror genre. In any mode. I don’t like horror films, I don’t like horror TV shows, and I certainly don’t like horror video games. So, it was probably a bad idea for me to play Five Nights at Freddy’s, reportedly the scariest game in the history of scary things. I knew it was a bad idea when I started playing; after all, I had once had a nightmare from having watched the commercial for a Scooby-Doo movie.
Regardless, I played it. I played it, and it was terrifying. I spent several days thinking (and having nightmares about) nothing else, trying to determine why it was so scary. As a result, I have decided to embark deep into the realms of my favorite pastime, overanalyzing the rhetoric of pop culture. Are you ready kids? It’s time to talk about rhetoric, horror, and giant singing robots.
The premise of the game is quite simple, as is often the case with examples of effective psychological horror. You, the player, have just been hired as the night-watchman at a children’s themed restaurant, a la Chuck-E-Cheese. The facility is inhabited by large, animatronic animal figures, who apparently sing and dance during the day. It’s difficult to understand why they were selected to entertain children during working hours, considering that they become vicious murder machines at night, but no one ever claimed that this game made sense. Anyway, your job is to get through five nights (from midnight to six in the morning) without getting attacked by one of the creatures. Your only lines of defense are the two doors on either side of your control room, which you can open and close. You also have access to the security cameras, which go in and out of order, and the hallway lights. As a result, you can see the robots coming, then shut the doors to prevent them from reaching you.
Unfortunately, using any one of these things costs power, which you have very little of. To survive the game, you have to manage your power effectively, while trying not to lose track of any of the robots. If a robot enters the room, it will appear suddenly and emit what can only be described as a shriek, before the screen goes black.
It’s ridiculously hard.
Many aspects of this game fall very clearly in line with the conventions of the horror genre. There are flickering lights; grainy, black and white cameras; creepy children’s toys; jump scares; and unexplained noises (most notably the occasional singing and approaching footsteps of various robotic animals). Five Nights at Freddy’s operates entirely within the horror genre; there are little to no aspects of the game concept or aesthetic that are outside of the typical scope of horror.
However, the ways in which the game mechanics, also not particularly unique, and the aesthetics combine into one, cohesive experience results in one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played. Because there are so few actions you can take (close the doors, check the cameras, and switch on the lights), you are forced to become fully integrated into the world of the game and cannot be distracted by extraneous features. Surviving the game requires constant vigilance and attention to detail, which leaves you extra-sensitive to the jump-scares. There is no player–avatar and very little setting; there is only you, the cameras, and the enemy. As the game progresses, occasional flickers of the eponymous Freddy figure will flash momentarily in front of your eyes, simulating your growing fear and near-hallucinations.
All of these features are effective at creating an eerie atmosphere and sudden moments of fright, but the true genius of this game relies on the information-resource trade-off. To obtain more information about the whereabouts of the figures, you must use power. If you focus all of your power on the doors, you lose information. Moreover, you must often open the doors back up once you believe the puppets have left, making you feel even more vulnerable to an attack. To make matters worse, because you are so limited in both capacities, you never feel fully comfortable with either your resources or your information. Sometimes you have no choice but to lose information, as the cameras stop working or robots move just outside their reach. As the night progresses you slowly run out of power, knowing that when it is entirely gone the doors will open, the lights will turn off, and the robots will get you. When I played, the increasing sense of dread that I experienced as my power got lower and lower went so far beyond what I expected from a video game. I was running out of power. I was running out of power and there was nothing I could do.
Just before I lost the game, I was circulating through the cameras. I saw that the bunny was approaching on my left, but was not particularly close. I heard singing from the kitchen and quickly shuffled through my cameras to the right. I didn’t see anything. I immediately turned on the light right beside the door and there it was. The ducky. I managed to get the door closed and went back to the cameras, looking for the bunny. I couldn’t find it. I flipped through all of the cameras on my left, literally shouting, “Where is he? Where’s the bunny?” Deep down, I knew where he was. He was already here. The ducky was in the room with me. I switched views from the cameras back to the control station, only to have the bunny pop out in front of me and emit its demonic howl of triumph. I was dead.
Needless to say, I spent the rest of the night hiding under my covers, thinking that every creak or bump I heard was the approaching footstep of a murderous rabbit.