If you’ve spent any time among the Let’s Play crowd on Youtube you’ve probably heard of Five Nights At Freddy’s. It’s sort of like the next Slender, in that it’s a small indie horror game that rose to meteoric fame after a ton of videos came out of people having heart attacks while playing it.
You might therefore be tempted to dismiss the game as a gimmick. It certainly doesn’t look like much at first glance- animatronic characters? Really? is that supposed to be scary?
Well, guess again. Those characters will haunt your dreams, and FNaF is one of the freshest and most original horror games to come along in years.
You play as a dude named Mike Schmidt, who due to unknown but presumably dire circumstances has decided to take a job as a night security guard at a Chuck E. Cheese style family pizzeria for the princely payment of a week. The game takes place entirely within the confines of Mike’s grungy office; the only things you can interact with directly are the doors on either side and lights that illuminate the adjacent corridors. To monitor the rest of the building you’ll need to use security camera feeds.
So what are you guarding against? Burglars? Nope. As a previous employee explains in a series of curiously blase messages, the animatronic characters that make Freddy’s so beloved by children have a tendency to wander around at night and might try to stuff any humans they find into an empty mascot suit. This is usually not survivable.
(Or at least, that’s his version of what’s going on. Ingeniously, there’s another, far darker layer of story to the game that only the extremely attentive will ever pick up on without consulting a wiki)
As such the player must use the security camera to keep an eye on the four mascots and their nocturnal wanderings, working out how to effect their unique behavioural routines to keep them at bay and slamming the security doors closed when they get too close. But there’s a catch: you’ve got an extremely limited amount of power and looking through the cameras or closing the doors will cause it to drain faster.
Each night then becomes an exercise in multi-tasking and resource management, as the player tries to keep track of where the robotic monstrosities are while ensuring they don’t run out of electricity before morning. During each successive night the mascots become more and more active and the game piles on more mechanics to juggle, until the final night becomes a nerve-shredding balancing act with almost no margin for error.
I cannot stress how fiendishly clever this setup is. Some horror games trade in adrenaline-fuelled jump scares (and there certainly is an element of that here, if you’re caught) and some focus on slow-burning psychological effects. FNaF goes for a less frequently explored realm: paranoia. As soon as the game begins most players are seized with a feeling of intense panic, frantically switching between cameras to try and keep track of where the mascots are. The feeling of helplessness that overcomes you as you’re forced to sit with the doors open, listening to distant clanking sounds, is almost overpowering, a masterful play on one of the most basic kinds of fear: there’s something in the dark, and it’s coming to get me.
Since there isn’t a whole lot of actual animation in the game the environments and characters are a lot more detailed than you’d generally expect for a one-man indie game. The whole thing is presented in a quasi pre-rendered style that puts me in mind of the old shareware games I used to play on my iMac. In fact the entire game feels like some unearthed gem from 2005, so I was surprised to find out that it was released earlier this year.
Happily, FNaF’s popularity appears to have translated into financial success. The game is now available on Steam and both Android and iOs (I don’t recommend playing it on anything smaller than a tablet) and the developer recently announced a sequel due out some time next year.