Monday 15 May 2017

Thoughts on Five Nights at Freddy's

I have seen many people saying Five Nights at Freddy's is simply a jump-scare fest. While the game does rely a lot on jump scares, I think it's wrong to dismiss it just because of that. There are a number of aspects of Five Nights at Freddy's that I find really interesting and I think it's worth exploring them.

Here are my top take-aways from the game:


No traversal

Just about all horror game games revolve around the protagonist moving around. It's a core part of the game. Not so in Five Nights at Freddy's. Here the player is unable to move around at all. Instead, the game is all about observation and seeing how other creatures move about.

As I've said in a previous article, traversal can be problematic. So it's very interesting to have a game that solves those issues simply by ditching the entire concept. The lack of traversal also helps the game to have a more nightmarish feel and further simplifies the gameplay (more on that later).

Great use of sensory deprivation

In my previous post I talked about how it's really helpful to put the player in the right mood by not overwhelming their focus. Five Night at Freddy's is excellent at this. The game is so simple and there really isn't much for the player to do apart from observing. This means that you have plenty of mental capacity left over, and all of that is put into simply being worried. This fuels all sorts of paranoia.

Tight connection between story and mechanics

While the setup is quite silly, one has to applaud just how connected the systems and narrative are. As the background story of the game is told you also learn how to play the game. They are really one and the same. There are very few narrative games where this is true and it means your mental model of the game is almost entirely built in narrative terms.

Obscure mechanics done right

At first it's almost impossible to figure out how the animatronics behave and you simply have to rely on intuition. The thing is that your intuition is pretty good at letting you survive, but not so good that you start understanding any underlying systems. When you hear particular sounds, you'll want to close the door or turn on a light, and in many cases you are doing just the right thing. But as these intuitions are not based on simplistic systems, you are driven to mentally model the various creatures as living things. Just like the previous point, this makes your mental model much more story-like.

Death and jump-scares combined

In Five Nights at Freddy's there is always a jump-scare right before the game ends. This weaves a very tight connection between "failure" and "being spooked" allowing these things to reinforce one another. This really helps to increase the tension as it provides feedback both in terms of mechanics and by giving you a painful experience. This makes you not want to fail at the game, which ramps up paranoia and other things described earlier.

Focus on anticipation

Five Nights at Freddy's is also unique in that it puts all of its focus on the things that happen before an encounter. This is quite rare in videogames where much of the gameplay happens once a monster starts coming after you. But in most horror movies and books, much of the narrative revolves around what happens beforehand. This makes sense, as a lot of fear comes from anticipation. Just take a look at movies like Ringu, where the entire story is build-up for a proper encounter in the end.

This game works pretty much like that. When the game goes your way, you never encounter the monsters. In fact, the moment there is a monster encounter the game is over. I don't think any other game has done a better job at emulating this way of building up a horror story.

Dynamic horror situations

Finally, the game is also great at causing moments of horror to emerge from its systems. Five Night At Freddy's doesn't script specific situations, but it sets up systems which will allow them to occur naturally. To me this is one of the foundational aspects of really good interactive storytelling. My own favorite moment:

It was just a few hours before the night was about to end, and I was getting really anxious. I heard a footsteps but couldn't really figure out where they were coming from. I scanned the camera feeds and couldn't see anything. The sounds died out and an eerie silence replaced it. The night was almost over and I saw that my power was nearly exhausted. I decided to a small amount of it just to make sure that nothing was outside the window. The moment I turned on the light I saw this rat creature, just staring at me. My entire body froze.

In that moment it really felt like I was taking part in a horror movie. I built up most of the tension myself and then it was a dynamic system that made the crescendo happen. It felt amazing.


Five Nights at Freddy's is far from a perfect game, of course. My biggest problem is that it gets boring fairly fast. The scares stop being scary after a while, and once you understand how the systems work your mental models becomes a lot less interesting. For me it took a less than an hour before I felt I'd had enough of the game. Much of that hour was really, really good though.

It's also worth noting that I've written this about the first game. I've played two of the sequels, but didn't think they were as good as the first.

In any case, if you haven't played the game yet, I highly recommend doing so. It's great while it lasts and there's a lot of great to design to inspire you.


  1. It is always very interesting to read your thoughts on (horror) games.

    Have you ever played "Bloodborne" or "Demons Souls"? Those games feel like some kind of experimental survival horror games - and they are absolutely stunning!

    The immersion is great and they evoke a "feeling of presence" that I have never had in another game (System Shock 2 is close second, followed by the Metroid Games).

    While I love Penumbra, Amnesia and Soma, there seems to be too little actual "gameplay" or "interactivity" (despite being able to move a lot of things around almost like IRL) to feel a part of the game world. I can`t say why, but it feels a lot more like "watching" an "interactive" horror movie. On the other side: Bloodborne, SS2 or even Super Metroid make me feel like I am "part of the game world" and the game world appears like a "real", "existing" place. It has nothing to do with the graphics, since Super Metroid or SS2 don`t have very good graphics (nowadays). But those games literally "build worlds"...

    Sadly I am from Germany, and my English is not good enough to clearly say what I feel about "games and immersion"...

    Looking forward to your new game!

    1. I know what you are saying and this something I will talk about in an upcoming blog post!

    2. Bloodborne is amazing. Level design, dreamy lighting to set the mood, fun and challenging gameplay, Lovecraft's narrative.
      Did you play King's field ?
      King's Field series is old first person dungeon crawler which precedes it and has Bloodborne and Souls roots.

    3. Yes, I have, thanks! If you want it really dark an weird try:

      "Shadow Tower Abyss"

      What Bloodborne is to Dark Souls, is Shadow Tower Abyss to King`s field. I think it`s the strangest game From Software ever made.

    4. Oh, yes. I would like Shadow Tower Abyss gets a remake in new engine.

    5. Could we also discuss level design generally?
      King's Fiels and more so Souls and Bloodborne, utilize 3D metroidvania level patterns.
      There are secret walls, some platforming jumps which do not have any link to narrative. They are there just to give player a satisfaction on discovery or to give, some previously though encounters, a shortcut. With game design this works well becasue of player's conditioning from Pavlov's behaviorism theory. Game gives to the player potent stimulus through gameplay but also it's keeps challenging weight. Player always come back no matter how hard the game encouter is, or to discover a secret in environment.

    6. Don't know if i'm thinking of the same game, but isn't Bloodborn that Devil May Cry like action game? If not, disregard what i will say next, if yes, then no wonder you think Frictional Games, games, are interactive movies with little user intervention. Even tho i don't concur totally with that, they'r indeed more story oriented and less action oriented, totally different kind of games to BloodBorn, similar only in the fact that they have monsters and they'r considered horror games.

      System Shock 2 is indeed similar to FG games but SS2 is a action FPSRPG mixture, where the horror is more implicit then explicit, the atmosphere is also less dark and more colorful.

      Personaly I never played bloodBorn but would be surprised if someone, because of being scared, would be afraid to continue playing, in the case of SS2 has well, because even tho is among my favorite games, i don't consider it scary at all, in the case of Frictional Games, Penumbra, Amnesia, Soma and even tho is not my case, some people did stop playing because of fear (more on the Amnesia game tho).

      If you think FG games need to be more like BloodBorn, then i'm afraid i need to strongly disagree, imo the day FG games, become over the top action, gun popping, sword swinging, kind of games, is the day i personally will stop playing them. I do agree on one thing, a SS2 like game with FG kind of horror, sounds fantastic but i'm also sure, it would be hard to balance the FG kind of horror with a RPG system ala SS2, like, will you spend brain power on the story and being dirty pants afraid or will you spend brain power on, what do i need to do next to augment my hacking ability?

  2. "It's also worth noting that I've written this about the first game, I've played two of the sequels, but didn't think they were as good as the first."

    2, 3 and 4 are basically more of the same, but I found Sister's Location actually interesting. The gameplay is more varied and it actual plot, but it also retains the simplicity of the original in a sense. I think of it as the "proper" freddy sequel as it tried to evolve the formula of the original, so it's definitely worth a try if you liked the first game.

  3. Also interesting how the game forces you in a passive position, always waiting for the monsters to move first. The lack of the ability to act "on your own" combined with the time limit makes you to stay there with the eye on the timer, which makes the time to flow slower and the waiting more anxious.

  4. Learning the game mechanics "passively" like this is nice, and I think maybe Frictional could also take this more into account in future games, rather than using "hints" to explain controls and gameplay mechanics. Then again, your hints appear at just the right time such as "Pressing Ctrl to crouch makes it easier to hide from enemies." just as the lights go out, reinforcing the idea that you're in danger. lol

  5. I think the sensory deprivation really goes under the obscure mechanics territory.
    The paranoia in fnaf only lasts as long as you dont know what the sounds you hear really are (ie the "systems" behind these sounds). When you master playing it, that paranoia completely disappears, because you have a really good grasp of how the game plays out.

    "The game is so simple and there really isn't much for the player to do apart from observing. This means that you have plenty of mental capacity left over, and all of that is put into simply being worried. This fuels all sorts of paranoia."

    That doesn't seem to have much to do with how simple or complex the systems are, but only with how obscure they are. Even in a complex game, if the player is in the darkness about how the systems work, he will still have a lot of mental space to make assumptions, fantasizing etc. While in a simple game, if you have a clear idea about how the systems work, all the fantisizing and paranoia is gone.

  6. nice topic

    System Shock 2 is indeed similar to FG games but SS2 is a action FPSRPG mixture, where the horror is more implicit then explicit, the atmosphere is also less dark and more colorful.

    -Clipping path


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