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Five Nights at Freddy’s: Five Lessons in Fear

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We all know by now what makes the best kind of scare in a horror movie or game , and it has nothing, if anything, to do with jump scares.

Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s succeeded in joining the ranks as one of the most stress-inducing games on the market, despite being a very simplistic point-and-click game with no mobility. The premise is deceptively simple as well – you’re a security guard, and your job is to survive five nights alone, from 1 to 6am, in a Chuck-E-Cheese-esque pizza establishment. But as time progresses, the whole purpose of your involvement is made clear. You’re not there to keep people out. You’re there to keep the animatronic animal characters in. 

So how does a point-and-click adventure game manage to elicit the same levels of fear as any good Silent Hill game? Here’s a few lessons in fear from someone who’s spent many terrifying nights on the edge.

Lesson 1: Atmosphere.

There’s much more to atmosphere besides your typical foggy rooms, dirty floors, and bloody handprints on walls. You want an environment that makes your players uneasy from the start, but not enough to immediately tip them off that something terrible is amiss. The only location you’re responsible for in Five Nights at Freddy’s is a single, tiny dark room with a desk, a phone, a fan, and a radio. Children’s drawings and cheerful photographs from birthday nights in the pizza place line the walls behind the desk.

The idea is to give one the sense that the room isn’t exactly filled with happiness and joy, but the typical mundane tolerance of the behind-the-scenes staff. Think about it – customers see one thing, but employees perceive things entirely differently, given that they’re the ones who determine what the customers see. Someone does have to clean pee out of that ball pit every night, you know.

celebrate

To be fair, I’d go nuts too if I had to stare at this for six hours.

 

But as you sit in the office a bit longer, you start to hear the atmosphere come to life. The faint, tinkling Freddy Fazbear jingle can sometimes be heard, along with little arcade noises and the sounds of the animals shuffling around the building. Even the fan sitting on your desk adds to the tenseness of the situation.

Unfortunately, you can also hear the sound of deep, demonic laughter further into your night. It’s faint, and somewhat infrequent, but it’s not exactly something you want to hear in a dark room with two doors open on both sides. As you progress further, you can even start hallucinating, with flashes of images popping by your screen and Freddy’s demonic muttering getting louder and taking on more of a jeering tone. Just how exactly do these animals know you’re watching them, anyway?

Let’s face it – at this point, your furtive glances towards the clock at the right are starting to increase in frequency.

Lesson 2: Fear of the Unknown.

Why is this the most successfully scary way of scaring people? The simple answer is that we just don’t know what’s going to happen. 

To be fair, the player is told what happens if one of the animatronic figures gets ahold of them. Thinking he’s one of them, they’ll grab them and stuff them in a suit, filled with metal parts and wirings. Obviously, you don’t want to be impaled in multiple places, so of course you’ll follow the advice given to you by your unreliable narrator, who’ll we’ll discuss in a bit.

But as you’re cycling through the cameras, trying to keep an eye on the animals, you’re ever so slowly increasing in worry because while you know they move, you don’t know how, when, or for what purpose. Are they just shambling through the pizza place, bored? Are they hungry? Are they actively hunting you down? It doesn’t help that you can only see one of them move, and if you’re seeing him move, you’ve got a split second to save yourself before he shows up in your room.

Thing is, you know the consequences of getting caught, but your brain’s conveniently put that on the back burner for the time being, so that paranoia’s just going to build, ever so slowly. Thanks, brain, you’re a pal.

chicka

There’s also the whole idea of being stalked by five serial killers at the same time.

This type of fear is what made Amnesia work so well. The jump scares certainly helped, but that paranoia sets in and never leaves. You can recover from getting startled by a jump scare, but Amnesia and Five Nights at Freddy’s don’t give you a chance to shake off that paranoia. Once you’re on edge, you’re pretty much screwed. It’s why I stopped watching Ghost Hunter reruns at 2am while sleep deprived.

Lesson 3: The Unreliable Narrator

Here’s a more obvious one – you do have a guide of sorts, another security guard (Phone Guy) who leaves you messages every night. He’s the one who tells you to keep the animals away at all costs, and he also serves as the obligatory exposition jockey. You might think you can listen to him and you’ll be just fine, right?

Well, as the nights progress, Phone Guy’s information starts to get a little bit darker and raises a few more questions that you as the player aren’t really going to be given the answer to. Which of the animals caused the ‘Bite of ’87’? Why isn’t the company doing anything about the homicidal robots? Why is he the only one who bothered to give you any information about your current job, especially the details about your impending doom?

His purpose in the game, besides providing plot information and a distraction for the first 20 minutes or so of the character’s shift, is to prod those questions, thus increasing the player’s uneasiness. Phone Guy’s speech is always in a hurried, unsure manner, as if he feels he’s giving out more information than he really should.

On top of that, Phone Guy kind of, uh, dies on the fourth night of the game, while he’s delivering a message. Yeah, that’s right. You’re 100% on your own. I hope you brought extra pants.

Lesson 4: Limited resource vulnerability. 

For some reason that isn’t revealed, the people who run the pizza place have their power wired stupidly enough to confuse the world’s best electrician. You’re to survive on a constantly draining power reserve for six hours per night – with the doors open. Shutting the doors drains power, as does flipping through the camera screens to keep an eye on the animals. You can forget about shutting the doors at the beginning just so you can hunker down in your office. That power drains at the speed of light, and your already skyrocketing panic isn’t exactly helped by the fact that you have to seriously micromanage to keep an appropriate amount of it.

bunny

The bunny knows what he’s about, son.

To bring back Amnesia for the moment, you have a supply of oil with which to light your lantern, which becomes your best friend throughout your journey through hell. You find jars of oil throughout the game, but it’s advised to use them sparingly despite the fact that the main character goes insane in the dark.

Well, Freddy’s doesn’t make you go insane, but that moment when you run out of power, the room plunges into darkness, and the doors snap open…..

Lesson 5: Animatronic figures are fucking terrifying.

Ever since I was a kid, I was terrified of anything walking around in a suit. I wouldn’t get near Chuck-E-Cheese, would drag my mother halfway across the park to avoid Buzz Lightyear and Woody at Disney World, and to this day, I have to leave the room if my school’s eagle mascot shows up. Phobia? Maybe. But my point still stands. The uncanny valley tends to suck, and the general consensus among those aged 13 and above is that animatronic figures are just plain creepy.

But in this deceptively simplistic point and click game, the animals are able to memorize the player’s movements and play style.

Let’s give an example. Foxy, the one animal you might not realize exists until he’s breathing down your neck, likes to hang out in his Pirate’s Cove for most of the night. Sometimes he’ll pop his head out, or peek through the curtains. But if you don’t make his camera a part of your cycle, he’ll rush you faster than you’ll be able to shut the door.

foxy

Fuck.

Unfortunately, he’s not the only one. The rabbit and the chicken thing usually try to stalk you at the same time, if you’ve been having trouble keeping up with their movements. And by the time you realize you’ve spent all your power keeping an eye on those two (who are the most active, from Night 1), Foxy’s already on his merry way into your office. Not to mention that he’ll start pounding on the door if you manage to shut it in time, which drains your power even more.

Freddy, on the other hand, is reminiscent of a silent, passive leader. You don’t really see him move until Night 3 or 4, unless you’ve managed to lose power on the other nights, thus triggering his death scene. His schtick is to sit and track the player’s patterns to an even more anal degree than the others, to the point where the animals’ increased aggressiveness on Night 4 is most likely his doing. So the reason why he’s not as active in the first couple of nights is because the guy just needed a bit of time to figure you out, and sending the other three to play cat-and-mouse with you.

Oh, and Freddy’s death scene? He leans into your office just as the power goes out, just staring at you while playing his trademark jingle (which you’ll learn to hate). If you can make it to 6am while that jingle plays, you’re safe. If not…well, my friend, I hope you aren’t wearing headphones.

Cawthon, you sadistic bastard.

The animals almost completely mirror the Weeping Angels of Dr. Who, and are only able to move when they aren’t being observed. AKA, Cawthon decided to take Weeping Angels, easily one of the most terrifying monsters of pop culture, and combine then with the equally terrifying animatronic figures who creepily stared at your vulnerable five year old body while awkwardly playing plastic instruments as you desperately shoved pizza into your mouth and hoped your birthday ended soon.

Basically….

Five Nights at Freddy’s, despite being built around a simple concept, has a very carefully crafted system of scares that use that perceived simplicity to their advantage. The jump scares don’t even come until you’re pretty much dead. It builds upon paranoia and stress, using even the subtle plot details to heighten that terror.

And the best part of dealing with all this is the fact that you’re completely and utterly defenseless.

freddyscare

Welcome to Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a magical place for kids and grown-ups alike, where fantasy and fun come to life!

Sweet dreams, readers.

 

 

 

 

About Deborah Crocker

Deborah is a 22 year old semi-hermit currently plodding through her senior year of college and getting her feet wet in game journalism. She has a somewhat unhealthy obsession with high fantasy, video games, novels, and Elder Scrolls. When she's not in front of a screen, she enjoys singing and a bit of beading. She's also currently on the hunt for the restaurant with the best cheeseburger.

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