Two doors. Two lights. Eleven security cameras.
That’s it. That’s all you have to interface with the world of Five Nights at Freddy’s, a horror game about observation. Indeed, two out of the three things listed above are instruments that enhance observation.
Horror, of course, relies on the senses, on the unseen and the obscured, that which is partially known and the terror of perhaps coming to full knowledge of what might be lurking in the shadows.
The premise of Five Nights at Freddy’s is that you have taken a job as a night watchman at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, an obvious nod to Chuck E. Cheese’s, that place where a “Kid Can Be a Kid!,” stuffed as it is with arcade games, prizes, slides, pizza, and animatronic singing animal-like creatures.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is, of course, set at night, after this pleasure palace for children has been shut down. As you discover, at night Freddy Fazbear’s is a little less kid friendly, given that the animatronic critters on display in the daytime roam the pizzeria at night and are not at all friendly to non-animatronic creatures that they may find there.
The first thing that I did on playing Five Nights at Freddy’s for the first time was to try to figure out its controls. The game opens in the dirty security office of Freddy Fazbear’s, the desk piled high with security equipment and empty soda cups, a telephone rings somewhere. I clicked around a moment, trying to see what I could “do” in this room and, of course, reached for the WASD keys on my keyboard, attempting to move somehow.
But you can’t, you are immobile in the game. Your mouse allows you to track left and right to observe the room, but there isn’t anywhere to go. Instead, as I listened to the phone pick up and a message left for me by a former employee, warning me casually of the unnatural dangers of the job, I discovered that I could open and shut two metal doors to my right and to my left by clicking on buttons near those doors, turn on two lights by each door, and by moving the mouse pointer down on the screen, open a menu of eleven cameras that allowed me to see various areas of the building.
In other words, all that you can do in Five Nights at Freddy’s is watch. You can watch the two doors on your right and on your left, illuminating those darkened doorways with the two lights that you can turn on and turn off, or watch the restaurant through the cameras.
What you see on those cameras will always be immobile, too. The camera furthest from the security office lets you see behind the curtain of Freddy’s stage, which three animatronic animals occupy, Freddy and two of his friends. They will remain immobile until at some point you stop looking at them, and that is when the challenge of the game begins and also when the horror of the game begins.
These creatures will roam the halls of Freddy Fazbear’s, freezing up when a camera is trained on them. When you aren’t looking at one of them, they may move freely around the restaurant and eventually wander down to your office, which means that you will die.
The terror of Five Nights at Freddy’s is that you know something dangerous and weird is out there, but that you will always only have partial knowledge of where those things are. If you guess that one is likely coming for you, it is time to slam one of the doors shut in order to survive. The other troubling part of this game of watching and waiting to die is that the doors, the lights, and the cameras all drain a limited source of power when used. Thus, the more that you look around and keep tabs on things, the more likely you are to run out of power before your shift ends and be left unable to watch for danger, left in the dark. The total obscurity of darkness, the total terror of the unseen, suggests certain death, of course.
In a sense, it is the senses themselves that become the limited resource of this survival-horror game. If you can’t know what’s around you, you can’t control it. The only way to stop the approach of something terrifying is to be certain where it is by seeing it. Knowledge is power, but your power source is limited.
Also, in a sense this means that the horror of Five Nights at Freddy’s is based always on what is often considered the cheapest method of evoking horror in visual media, seeing something scary all of a sudden, provoking, of course, the “jump scare.” Any time that the animatronic animals make it into your office, the last thing that you will see is the sudden appearance of a creepy, fuzzy animatronic face twitching madly in front of you.
The interesting thing, though, about the phenomenon of Five Nights at Freddy’s is how sight, observation, and watching not only becomes the central theme of the game (through mechanics that make you as immobile as an animatronic animal should be when it is powered down, allowing you only to watch and wait before you are assaulted by something that shouldn’t seem so alive), but that it has become probably more popular to watch people play the game than it is to play it.
A search for Five Nights at Freddy’s on Google will produce scores of YouTube videos, usually called things like “Five Nights at Freddy’s: Teens React” or “Five Nights at Freddy’s: Elders React.” You will also find that these videos will usually have 2 or 3 million views or sometimes 12 or 16 million views. In other words, people clearly like to watch people play this game.
I wrote fairly recently about the idea that horror is a genre, often like comedy, that is best experienced communally (”Horror with Friends”, PopMatters, 30 July 2014). We like to laugh with other people, especially since others’ laughter encourages our own, and we like to scream with other people, if only to feel like we are not alone with our terror. The “Teens React” and “Elders React” videos seem related to this idea, though there is, perhaps, something more observational, more related somehow to the very voyeuristic role that you take on as a night watchmen in the game that seems to be the allure of these videos.
We want to see kids squeal and old folks howl. The pleasure of Five Nights at Freddy’s comes from the suspense that builds from watching and waiting. Additionally, a feeling of vulnerability is evoked by your inability to act, only to watch what you are afraid of. This sense of vulnerability is strangely exciting. The pleasure of horror is the pleasure of feeling a negative emotion creep up on you until you can’t stand it anymore. The pleasure that is derived from the reaction videos comes from watching especially vulnerable players responding to the terrors of Five Nights at Freddy’s, which is a similar pleasure created by a tension that builds towards a sense of the inevitable.
We are watching human vulnerability and waiting for the inevitability of the scream. We just want to see it.