Sometimes video games aren’t meant to empower or immerse, but for something much more primal: to scare the crap out of you. Playboy’s Fear and Loading series peers down dark hallways and checks under gaming’s bed to find the games that terrify us, and delves into how and why they work.
The hallway before me harbors a terrible secret. Through the crack in the door, the rigid and still darkness whispers it to me, a slow exhalation of breath that sends a crippling tingle down my spine. I close the door and count to four. When I open it, the darkness that greets me is again silent. I click on the flashlight, illuminating the gaudy orange wallpaper of the hall. My muscles tense when I spy the pair of lifeless eyes staring at me—glowing in the harsh beam of my flashlight. Behind me, I hear something stir.
This is Five Nights at Freddy’s, one of the scariest games ever made.
Horror video games are, by and large, flimsy and exploitative attempts to replicate the art of horror on film. They ape movies, desperate to find the same holes to sink their claws into our exposed mental flesh. But too often they merely fumble about in the darkness, failing to achieve little more than prodding at our instinct for survival and relying on the same bag of tricks to elicit cheap scares out of us.
Where most horror games aspire to reach beyond this insubstantial attempt at horror and grasp at the true nature of psychological fear, Five Nights at Freddy’s embraces it with open arms. In essence, the entire game is one simple mission to avoid a single, shallow scare. But in execution, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a volcano of horror, a swelling bubble of visceral dread bursting in brief but intense orgasms of terror. And then just like that, it’s gone. “Game Over” fades onto the screen, and you try again.
In the time that it takes most developers build a game from scratch, Five Nights at Freddy’s’ creator, Scott Cawthon, has released three sequels to his massively successful popcorn frightfest, available on both mobile devices and PC. Where the horror genre is intent on constantly kicking over stones in a never-ending search for new creepy-crawlies to throw at us, Five Nights at Freddy’s seems content to refine its premise in pursuit of the perfect formula for its singular brand of horror.
The four games center around a quartet of animatronic robots, the main attraction of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, who wander around the restaurant singing songs and entertaining throngs of playing children. That was until several went missing and a separate accident involving one of the animatronics and another child resulted in the kid losing a sizeable portion of their skull. By the time you encounter Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza it is a dilapidated, nearly abandoned restaurant on the verge of closure. The pizzeria does for Chuck-E-Cheese what Stephen King did for clowns with It—that is to say, transforming them from innocuous, slightly unsettling attractions into imagery that, just as you’re about to fall asleep, drifts into your mind, making you painfully aware of every noise in your empty house.
Though each game varies the formula by degrees, the general objective tasks you with making it through to dawn while avoiding encounters with the animatronic animals who just so happen to wander the place after hours. In the first game, a series of recorded tapes informs you that they tend to move around to keep their servos from locking up. Seeing you might trigger them to think that you’re a mechanical endoskeleton without a suit—a problem that they will forcibly try to solve. By stuffing you, screaming, into empty mascot suits, mauling you to death in the process.
What makes Five Nights at Freddy’s so effective isn’t how simple it is to play, but how dated the whole package feels. You’re placated by the ancient visuals in the same way an old horror movie becomes funny once its practical effects are no longer convincing. It’s in this self-imposed artistic exile that Freddy’s achieves something fairly remarkable.
All four games confines you to a single room for the entirety of their nights. Beyond the vision afforded by the security cameras, or, in the case of Five Nights at Freddy’s 4, merely the sound the animatronics make as they move around, you have no agency as a player. You cannot run, hide or defend yourself. Salvation lies only in your ability to anticipate when one of the animals has gotten too close and take the proper precautions to stave off their assault. Doing so is the only action you can really make in the game outside of observing. But when God closes a door, Satan opens a window.
The catch is that you can never fully protect yourself. In the first game for example, closing the security doors drains a battery. Being too generous with this resource will result with the lights going out entirely, leaving you to sit in the darkness and await your demise.
This terrible tension as your own fate is placed directly in your hands, and your failure to protect it, results in Freddy’s ultimate punishment: an agonizing, if brief, moment of total terror. Where most horror video games throw their worst at you and then require you to take action by running away or raising a gun, Five Nights at Freddy’s reverses the formula; it requires you to take action and then punishes you when you fail. You begin to feel like a trained animal, desperately working to perform ever more difficult feats while your brutal trainer’s thumb hovers over a button, eager to give you a nasty shock. It’s a task that becomes more daunting when, on the final nights, the onslaught becomes so frantic that keeping an eye on each animatronic is an exercise in self-imposed torture. The moment you manage to thwart one from getting you, rest assured another is coming from behind.
Is it the type of well-realized and thoughtfully constructed horror that we tend to crave from video games? Absolutely not. Is it effective? Hell yes. So many games try to scare you with the unknown, but Five Nights at Freddy’s does the exact opposite: it is precisely the knowing that makes those frantic moments so abjectly dreadful.
The moment you realize you made a mistake—that pregnant pause where you recoil from the screen in preparation for that awful climax—glimpses the true heart of fear like few games ever have.
Steven Messner is a freelance writer with a zealous passion for good beer and good video games. He also enjoys taco night, games about space, and forgetting to take out the garbage. You can find his work at GamesRadar, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and Paste Magazine. Alternatively, you could just add him on Twitter @stevenmessner and say hello. He likes that.
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