Is Five Nights at Freddy's the best horror game ever made?

Five Nights at Freddy's takes advantage of its deceptively simple mechanics to terrify players in innovative ways.

Some call it horrifying, others call it a jump-scare simulator, and many dismiss it as a cash grab.

But one thing's for certain: Five Nights at Freddy's has taken the gaming world by storm.

This infamous series has put developer Scott Cawthon on the map and has given horror gaming some much-needed love. Something about this game clicked with the general audience, and word of mouth turned it into an overnight sensation. 

As a long-time horror fan, it almost pains me to say this, but looking back, I'm starting to think that the first installment of Five Nights at Freddy's might be the best horror game ever made.

Now, please, before you take out your torches and pitchforks, notice that I'm using the full term here: "horror game." There are far better horror stories and horror experiences to be had in other video games. Five Nights at Freddy's isn't about to usurp a series like Silent Hill or put a dent into the atmospheric romp of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. However, let's consider these other popular horror games for a moment: do their game mechanics do much to scare you?

Silent Hill has never been much-loved from a gameplay standpoint. The controls get frustrating, and the quality of the game shines through in both atmosphere and story, almost in spite of the poor gameplay.  

Amnesia is a little better in this regard, but that's because Frictional took a very minimalist gameplay approach, favoring instead the exploration of Castle Brennenburg with a monster or two thrown in for good measure. This has become even more apparent in their latest horror "game" SOMA, which has practically reached walking simulator status.

Horror games have an unfortunate tendency to try and keep away from gameplay, to separate the horror from the game itself, relying instead upon atmosphere and story. These are games that can scare you, but they do this by finding workarounds to the mechanical side of gaming. 

This is what separates Five Nights at Freddy's from other games in the genre.

Where most horror games scare you in spite of their poor gameplay, this is a game that uses its mechanics to scare you.

Five Nights at Freddy's is diabolically crafted from a mechanical standpoint, in that it provides simple gameplay that demands two things of you: keeping your cool and paying attention. 

The game is optimized to psyche you out. Frightening sounds, an unsettling art direction, and, of course, the animatronics themselves, all lend themselves to an environment meant to put you on edge. Of course, that's exactly what the game wants. By tilting you, it makes you more likely to fail. One slip up that lets an animatronic inside means you're dead.

Of course, many who have played the game see it as little more than a jump scare simulator. And there's no arguing that there are jump scares aplenty, but they are cleverly implemented as a contrast to the attention the game demands from you.

The monitoring process in Five Nights at Freddy's requires you put your attention into watching the animatronics, and during this stressful process, the game is pulling a devious bait-and-switch. The more attention you're paying to the mechanics, the more likely failing is going to startle you. You're so caught up in trying to prevent the startling "game over" that when it finally comes it really gets you.

Five Nights at Freddy's even takes advantage of the classic level system, if you consider every night to be a new "level." If every night in the game were the same, the player would soon be able to get into a rhythm and keep their cool. The game wants you to think this is possible as it eases you into the system of defending yourself from bloodthirsty, possessed Chuck E. Cheese mascots. Much like any game, once you know the ropes, it should be smooth sailing.

However, each night represents an escalation in the danger. New mechanics and more active animatronics demand an increased amount of attention and more opportunities to screw up. As you begin to think you have the game figured out, it throws you for a loop. Later nights introduce more animatronics and new quirks to the same game.

Sure, going back to the game after mastering it will make it feel repetitive, but most horror games have fairly poor replay value, since understanding something makes it significantly less scary. The same is true for the mechanics behind Five Nights at Freddy's. But the initial gameplay experience it offers, I would argue, is the most effective design we've seen in the horror genre.

Helplessness is also at the core of Five Nights at Freddy's gameplay. The fact that your character is immobile plays a huge part in the game's capacity for scaring the player. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent are praised for the fact that you have no weapons to defend yourself with, adding to the feeling of vulnerability as you're faced with deadly horrors. However, Amnesia offers you the opportunity to run, hide, and simply sit in corners and wait patiently while the enemy forgets where you are.

Five Nights at Freddy's plays out almost like a nightmare: you know something is coming for you, but you can only sit and wait as it comes closer and closer. Obviously, you can shut out the animatronics, but this does nothing to decrease the sense of urgency since the only thing keeping them out is a power supply that is rapidly dwindling down to zero. 

This feeling of dread is masterfully evoked within Five Nights at Freddy's through surprisingly simple, traditional game mechanics. When you describe a video game nowadays, things can get wildly convoluted. Amnesia, for example, is hard to describe in a conventional sense, as it is more focused on exploration. This is perfectly acceptable, given the story it's trying to tell, and it makes for a good horror experience, but not necessarily a good horror game.

Five Nights at Freddy's, however, can be boiled down to a resource management game with strategy elements. 

It is through these mechanics that the game manages to terrify its players. This first game that managed to capture the hearts (and wallets) of so many people has managed to do so not in spite of its simple design, but because of it. 

Whether you like the game or not, it's hard to argue that Five Nights at Freddy's doesn't do everything in its power to make a tight and simple game into something terrifying.

Published Dec. 10th 2015
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