[Currently listening to: Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite, to balance out the jibblies of this post.]
It’s October, Halloween’s coming up, and we’re gonna talk about creepy animatronics.
I haven’t played this series. I don’t plan on playing this series. It will be a rare universe where I decide to download any game in this series onto my computer and attempt to beat it in the warm comfort and safety of my own home.
I will, however, watch the stuffing out of Youtube Let’s Players screaming as Foxy charges them from the hall.
Do you know what makes Five Nights at Freddy’s so scary? Is it the jumpscares? The feeling of helpless dread as you can only sit in your office chair and watch monitors? The fact that there’s no one living on this earth who doesn’t find animatronics freaky?
Well, yeah, I mean, those things, sure, whatever. But also, this game knows how to do lore – a key ingredient to any proper horror story.
The fans of the series know this already. There are countless videos, forum threads, and art pieces devoted to parsing out FnaF‘s dark storyline. I’m not really sharing any new information, but you know what? This is a storytelling blog, and dagnabit if I’m not going to beat a dead horse.
The first Five Nights at Freddy’s was a game-changer. Typically, horror games were built around exploring dark, creepy areas and chancing a scary encounter. In FnaF you could only wait for the terror to creep toward you. This was enough to occupy gamers’ minds for the first few nights – so that when they got a feel for the mechanics and started looking around the pizzeria, other small details began to make their skin crawl.
Once you take a look around the rooms, chilling story elements begin to show themselves. Subtlety is key here. The horror genre is built on the foundation of what you don’t know. Now you’re left to piece together the breadcrumbs the game has left for you: There are children missing, the pizzeria has sanitation issues, and those animatronics seem a little more aggressive than Phone Guy’s assurances that they just like to “wander a bit”.
Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 expands on the backstory through similar means – Atari-style minigames and more obscure messages from Phone Guy. New information comes to you suddenly and unexpectedly after random deaths throughout the game. The thread culminates in FnaF 3, when the threat behind the scenes becomes the gamers’ very real threat in person.
There have been a dozen more games done in FnaF style that pay homage to their predecessor, but very few of them come close to the eerie atmosphere Freddy and his friends produce. Those other games can dish out the jump scares, they can craft animatronics that’ll make your skin crawl, but they just can’t manage the overarching dread of something far more sinister to worry about.
It’s because Scott Cawthon – in his genius or neglect (depending on who you ask) – left a lot of plot details solely up to the imagination of the player. We’re given a healthy dose of intrigue…and then dropped like a baby on the front steps of the FnaF orphanage to figure out the darker points of the story.
This is something that makes any story stick with a player/reader/viewer. It’s not just limited to the horror genre. To give your story staying power, it’s important to remember what the person on the other side will experience. Should you spell everything out to them? No, you need to give them their own room to participate in the storytelling. Surprise them, engage them, inform them – but know when you need to abandon them, too.
BONUS STORYTELLING POINT: I would also like to mention that Cawthon is an absolute genius at timing. There are sooo many moments in each game where every aspect of the mechanics comes together to create an absolutely terrifying experience. I remember particularly the point in FnaF 3 when Phone “Dude” says, “We found one. A real one.” – and then leaves the gamer to stumble upon Springtrap in the security cameras on his own.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is the property of Scott Cawthon. You can purchase any game of this series on Steam.