The Five Nights at Freddy’s series puts you in the role of a security guard keeping watch of a local pizza place overnight. Your goal is to stay alive until the morning, and ultimately to survive five nights in a row – hence the name. That doesn’t sound too bad you say? Well, when you add in the fact that you share the night-shift with a bunch of creepy animatronic killers, the tension level ratchets up tenfold.
The original Five Nights at Freddy’s made its debut on the video game distribution service Desura and Steam last year, where it became very popular. The game eventually grew in popularity so much, that creator Scott Cawthon gets hundreds of emails every hour and ultimately released the second game a few months after the original and now a third installment has just been released, all within the span of a year. So why is Five Nights at Freddy’s so popular?
Is It The Psychology?
It’s a known fact that people are attracted to things that scare them, that’s why ghost stories have been told since the dawn of time, scary books have been in print since print was a thing, horror movies have been popular since the dawn of cinema, and carnival freak shows have never truly faded into history. The same is true for video games, we like it when they mess with our heads and leave us trembling with fear. The game plays on these psychological phenomena to great effect despite its low-tech approach.
As the player, your character sits in a cramped, dirty office ready to monitor the cameras set-up across the restaurant and it’s here you stay for the entire five-day duration of the game. The recorded orientation message left for you reveals that the robotic mascots at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza restaurant become “unpredictable” at night and wander around the place may even try to sneak in and kill you. Pretty sure that’s an OSHA violation.
It gets even better – your employer is so cheap that they limit the amount of electricity you can use during your shift. To battle the animatronic murderers you need to use a combination of monitoring cameras, turning on lights, and activating security doors – all of which use your available power for the shift. At first, the “cutesy” killers toy with your fears, turning to face a different direction as you flick between the different camera feeds. Not long after that, they begin moving from their usual spots to startlingly appear in other camera feeds – stuck in frozen poses, usually staring right at you through the camera! The lack of animation and low-tech graphics further enhance the disturbing vibe.
As you sit there stuck in the office unable to run away as the creepy mascots roam about with you in their sights, you might start hoping for an immediate jump scare to break the tension. It doesn’t come – not yet. There’s still some tension left to develop! Sounds are used to great effect, such as the shuffling of furry, killer feet or the creaks and groans of the old pizzeria in its nightly death throes. Add to that, camera feeds that go on the fritz from time to time with a sharp crackle and you find yourself in a battle with your own wits trying not to jump at everything and panic while trying to decide whether to turn on the cameras or the lights in your frightening fight to survive another night.
Whatever your decide to do, eventually you’re going to make a mistake and it’s then, and only then, that all of that built-up tension releases and cause you to shriek and levitate out of your chair when one of the homicidal fluff-monsters suddenly appears right in your face with its mouth of razor-sharp fangs open wide! If THAT doesn’t get all thoughts of starting a career as a night watchman out of your head, I don’t know what will!
Is It The Story?
Folk tales and urban legends have always fascinated people – we love a great, scary story and like movies and books, video games can utilize folk lore and legend to develop a backstory to the jump scares that really adds to the heightened sense of tension. Five Nights at Freddy’s has a chilling lore behind it that makes playing the game that much more chilling and much of it develops slowly over the course of the game just to heighten the tension a bit with each passing day.
The story goes that Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza was once a highly popular family restaurant, however, due to a number of strange incidents including the implied murder of five children by an evil man wearing an empty animatronic suit, sanctions by the Health Department over the numerous reports of dirtiness and partial lobotomies of guests by the animatrons, the pizzeria has become less than a fan favorite. The four animatronic mascots – Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie the Bunny, Chica the Chicken, and Foxy the Pirate had a particularly foul odor and what appeared to be “blood and mucus” around their eyes and mouths, which gave off more than a strange inkling that these “mascots” were more akin to reanimated corpses then cutesy fun-time friends.
In the first night’s phone message, “Phone Guy” mentions that the animatronics haven’t been cleaned in all of their many years of service, which might explain the nasty smell. It’s also theorized that the missing children were stuffed into the animatronic suits after they were killed and that’s what was producing the repulsive odor. Supposedly, due to the risk of their mechanics failing from lack of use, the animatronics have been left to freely roam about the place at night over the years. They used to be able to roam freely during the day as well, but “The Bite of ’87”, a series of brain biting incidents, caused the pizzeria to put a stop to this back in 1987.
It later revealed that Phone Guy disappeared sometime before the events of the game, as heard during the phone call on Night 4 and it’s heavily implied that he too may have met a fate similar to the missing children. There are also hints from the phone message on Night 5 at an even more complicated and frightening tale. It’s all quite effective at ramping up the tension the same way a good horror book develops as you read it.
Is It the Gameplay?
Let’s not overlook the fact that Five Nights at Freddy’s is an easy game to pick up and play – it doesn’t concern itself with complicated controls or puzzles. It’s basically a click-and-play adventure so simple a young child could start playing right away – although I HIGHLY recommend you don’t let them for obvious reasons!
The easy controls, in a way, help to enhance the scary experience by not getting in the way – a more complicated gameplay and control set would distract from the terror ridden story unfolding before our eyes on camera and would lessen, in my opinion, the scary factor. There’s enough gameplay to give you control, but not so much that you forget who REALLY has control of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza!
What Else Is There?
It’s normal when we’re younger for truly scary things to become rites of passage so to speak – we dared our friends to go into old Mister Miller’s backyard and retrieve the ball before he grabbed you and pulled you down into his basement or to stay up watching Night of The Living Dead at midnight alone in the dark, or to play with the Ouija Board out in the cemetery on Halloween night, or any number of other equally kid-terrifying things! Video games are no exception – when a game is truly terrifying, kids will almost certainly start to dare each other to play it under all sorts of frightening circumstances.
It becomes a badge of honor amongst them if and when they overcome their fears and conquer the game – to the point where they’ll post it all over social media for millions of others to watch and take the lead from. This phenomenon, as much as any other is responsible for Five Nights at Freddy’s meteoric rise to fame as any other factor and in truth, it’s all of the above that truly makes Five Nights at Freddy’s a scary thrill-ride worth playing – as long as you’re not alone in the dark!