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Fear Complex: How Five Nights at Freddy's Overcomplicated It's Scares

Examining how the gameplay alterations to Five Nights at Freddy's make it less scary with each new sequel.

Game Developer, Staff

March 6, 2015

9 Min Read

Let me start by saying I wish the creator of this series, Scott Cawthon, all the best. The first Five Nights at Freddy's took a genuinely simple concept, and created a new type of horror experience that was unbelievably tense and nerve-wracking. I've read that the first game was his last attempt to make a hit before he would have chosen another career path, so I’m glad it kept him in the industry, and I’m glad for the success it and it’s sequels have giving him.

However, I've enjoyed each sequel less and less. And while part of this is due to general familiarity ( they're all basically the same concept, and were all released roughly within the same year), I can’t help but feel that it's because the mechanically simple, elegant design of the original game has gotten muddled in each of the sequels, creating games that are less scary and far more frustrating than originally intended.

The original had a mechanically simple set-up: You must stay in a room from 12am to 6am and keep monsters out of it until the morning comes. Functionally, this meant keeping track of two meters—the time of night, and how much power you had left ( with the "usage" meter giving you feedback on how much power you were using at the given moment).

Fear Complex: How Five Nights At Freddy's Overcomplicated It's Scares

The challenge came with the three actions your character could take: either look through the cameras and track the baddies, hit the lights outside your door to make sure they weren't there, or closing your doors if they were. You didn't have enough power to simply shut your doors all night, and each action drained away at your power in different amounts, and combining actions (such as closing both doors and flicking the lights to see if the baddies had left) would drain it even further.

It was a simple set-up to a tense, scary game. But it’s the simplicity that allowed it to be so scary—despite the multitude of inputs the player had, in the end they all boiled down to the one power meter. There were only two ways to die: failing to keep your power until 6am, or failing to notice a baddie outside your door and locking it in time. It created a tense form of play where you'd fight to conserve as much power as possible for those sudden moments where you needed to seal the room up tight.

The sequel, Five Nights at Freddys 2, amped up the difficulty considerably by adding more complexity to everything. In the first game, you had two openings to watch. In this you have three, as well as a series of vent systems besides the main rooms to examine. In the first game, you had four possible enemies that would come for you (excluding the golden Freddy hallucinations). In the sequel, you have the original four, redesigned versions of them, and new enemies like balloon boy and the killer puppet (FUCK that puppet). On top of this, enemies now need to be dealt with in different ways.

First, the instant death puppet. During the game, you must constantly wind up a music box. Failure to do so results in an instant death. Get used to this face:

Fear Complex: How Five Nights At Freddy's Overcomplicated It's Scares

While you're busy keeping the puppet's music box playing, you must deal with the other enemies. The main character doesn't have the luxury of shutting doors to keep monsters out this time—instead, if they get to close, he can “disguise” himself as one of them. This involves quickly putting on a mask to fool them and wearing it until the threat dissipates.

Third is the flashlight. The flashlight “stuns” all enemies momentarily, but is the only way to keep Foxy from rushing your room (the mask trick does not work on him). This is tied to a meter that slowly dwindles with more use, similar to your power meter in the first game.

That is A LOT of added complexity, and for me, I found it to be a lot of added frustration. While the first two nights in the game seemed scarier due to the added worries, the fear very quickly turned to anger as I found juggling all of these inputs far more irritating than scary.

Now you have multiple mechanics that aren't dependent on one another. Your flashlight is tied to a different meter than the music box, which are independent of the mask. The increase of things to keep track off is supposed to ratchet up the stress, which is does, but mainly because you will die over and over again trying to keep all of these plates spinning. I’m a guy who can enjoy a challenge, but survival horror titles must always tread the line between giving you enough of a threat to always feel uneasy, without being overly burdensome ( as every time the player dies they get more and more removed the from the experience). The altercations to Five Nights 2 left me furious, and I had to force myself to finish the game.

And now the third one is upon us, with a very different set of mechanics.

Fear Complex: How Five Nights At Freddy's Overcomplicated It's Scares

At first, it seems like a step in the right direction. Now there is only one monster, and there are only two ways it can enter your room. You look through a camera system to survey the rooms and vents as before, but now you can play audio in each room to make the monster scatter to another, stay in the room it's in, or lead it to a place you want it to go. If you find the monster in the vents, you can seal the vent it's in and prevent it from getting closer to you.

What's the wrinkle? Well, as opposed to having to conserve power for these systems throughout the night, they will all continually fail and need to be rebooted. You can do so one system at a time, or redo the whole thing, but it generally takes 10-15 seconds ( depending on if it's a partial reboot or full) to get everything back online. If your cameras go out, you can't track the monster. If the audio goes out, you can't lead it anywhere away from you. And if the ventilation goes out it’s hallucination city, as you get jump-scared to oblivion by all of the characters from the previous games ( luckily none of them can kill you). From what I can tell, receiving a hallucination usually knocks out another system in addition to the ventilation.

In some ways this is a much smarter, tighter set-up than the previous game. Each of these systems are tied to one master input, as in the first game. There are fewer mechanics to juggle, and the idea that any of these systems could fail at anytime leads to some interesting new wrinkles. There is one element from the previous games that was removed that makes this one more frustrating: a last minute stop device for players.

In the original, you could shut the doors for a for moments. In part two, you put on a mask for a few moments. This third game has no such option. If the creature reaches you, you are dead.

Why is this a problem? Simply put, I've experienced ( and watched several others experience) moments where the monster makes it to the door, and the player is forced to have a staring contest with it, because there is simply no way to stop it at that point, but it’s not an instant game over. Only when you bring up your console screen will the jump scare that ends your life occur.

This means there are situations where I actually hastened my own death because I knew I had a game over and needed to retry again. This removes the unpredictability, because I know that the monster will remain there until I put up my screen—in essence, I'm in control of it killing me at that point.

Read that again: In a horror game, I made the monster kill me just to end the level and try again. That is the definition of becoming overly comfortable with a horror game.

Also, to be frank, the third game does a terrible job of explaining how anything works, and it took quite a bit of trial an error just to UNDERSTAND the mechanics ( a fault I have no doubt the creator realizes, since you’re given the entire first night to tinker with the controls without any fear of monsters).

Remember horror designers—you want your mechanics to be instinctive. Obfuscating how they work to make players more nervous may give the opening of the game a short adrenaline boost, but they will fail you in the long run. The more the player has to THINK about what to do, the less in the moment they are. You never want the player to be so focused on juggling or understanding a bunch of systems that the scares don't effect them. While I would argue that the third game does better than part two in this respect, I still feel the sheer, simple brilliance of the original was the high point of the series mechanically.

There's lots of talk that this will be the last Five Nights at Freddy's game, and personally, I think that's a good thing. The mechanics have been experimented with about as much as they can at this point ( for better and for worse), and now seems to be the right time to bow out and try a new project. And despite my misgivings with how the mechanics evolved in this series, I will be eager to see what the future holds for Mr. Cawthon.

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