FNAF and the nature of fear
Despite never having played the games myself (because I don’t have the mental fortitude) I’ve watched so many Let’s Plays and although it probably is obvious by now, I think I’ve finally got a good idea why Five Nights of Freddy’s works on the fear level and why the newer games are not hitting that note as well. And no, It’s not because “jump scares” and no, it’s not entirely the “lore” either. (although the lore doesn’t hurt. tbh)
Yes, the ingredients that work are visuals, the animatronic designs, the sound design and the anticipation of the jumpcares (not the jumpscares themselves) but I think what the original games had going for them was;
1: the inability to move. Now I’ve heard people say when the 4th one came out “Oh good! I’ve been dying to move in these games for years!” but here’s the thing. When you play a PC game, you are sitting at your desk, staring at a screen. So playing a character essentially sitting at a secuirity office desk, checking cameras, creates a better association to put yourself in the environment of the game because you are physically doing what the character is doing. Once you start moving around in the game, it removes that sense of being within the events.
2: the believability of the environment. In the first game, you’re in a Pizzaria. It looks like a pizzaria, it’s the size of a pizzaria, the rooms are laid out like a pizzaria. The second game is immediately where this starts falling apart and the games never really managed to recapture that. With each game, the enviornements become more and more fantastical and fake. “But what about game 4?? It’s a bedroom! That’s believable!”
Yes, but is it YOUR bedroom? Does it resemble your bedroom that you have in real life? Is it set up with the same furniture? Is it laid out the same way? Because unless it’s a complete re-creation of the game’s bedroom, then there’s no way your brain is going to put itself in the mindset that this is a “real” location. You don’t live in a pizzaria (presumably) but you have probably been to several pizza restaurants. All with different layouts and designs. So it’s easier to believe the first game’s location to a fake bedroom being “your’s”
3: the believability of the animatronic designs. In the first game, they LOOK like animatronics we’ve seen at pizzarias or Disneyland or arcades or any number of places. There is something noticeably “off” about their expressions but that’s more in their posing than the designs. They still look very much like animatronics that could really exist. In the second game, you have the “toy” versions and immediately all bets are off. They’re too slick. too streamlined to resemble real animatronics for kids’ entertainment. They’re “too well made”. In the third one, Springtrap DOES better resemble a rotting animatronic, but unfortunately, because most of us have experiences with working animatronics in real life more than rotting ones, there’s a disconnect there. Also, the “horror” atmosphere of the third game minimises the effect. Springtrap starts blurring into the background. The 4th game’s designs are ridiculous. And the 5th game’s designs are WAY too complex and complicated to resemble any kid of reality at all.
4: the lack of movement. The further the games went, the more we saw the animatroics move. This is actually a bad thing. Did you ever see that “creepy Watson” video on youtube? (if not. Check it out. it’s amazing.) the game creators needed Watson to follow Holmes around, but they hadn’t animated or programmed a walk cycle for him. So they merely had him teleport behind you, ALWAYS behind you, the second he slipped out of your peripheral vision. And even though Watson in the game is your partner and does no harm to you in the game, he becomes TERRIFYING. Because you NEVER see him move. You see him move when he’s in front of you, but you can never catch him in transition. And you can look at him, look away quickly and look back and he’d still be where he was. But once he slips juuuuust far enough out of your vision, he changes position. that’s CREEPY. And it’s what makes the animatronics work. We never see them move, and it gives the sense that we don’t even really know HOW they move. Because we only ever see them stationary. Standing around, staring at the camera. In the second game we see them get slowly closer in the hallway, but we know it’s because they’re walking. We see them crouched next to the vent so we know they’re crawling in there. We see them slide across the screen while wearing the mask so we know they’re moving. The unsettling nature is removed, because although we don’t physically see them move, our brains fill in the blanks better based on posing and the movement we DO see. And from the 3rd game on we just see them move wholesale. The inclusion of movement is actually a subtractor as far as the uncanny valley goes and the fear it instills in us. It makes it less creepy because we can better understand it.
5: K.I.S.S. (keep it Simple, Stupid.) So what is the “lore” of the first game? There was someone working at Freddy’s who, presumably, murdered a child at the store location and stuffed their body into an inactive suit to hide the evidence. Now none of the animatronics are working right. It’s based partially on a real life event, where a Chuck. E. Cheese employee was fired, came back after hours, and murdered 5 employees cleaning up for the night. THAT is scary. It’s an event we can process. A crazed wacko kills a child, tries to hide the evidence, and it happens at a location. We throw in a weird supernatural twist that “now the animatronics are acting weird” that’s CREEPY.
Now… what’s the lore of the other games?
Erm… well there’s this guy who worked at Freddy’s who killed a bunch of kids and hid them in animatronic suits, and then the ghost of the first kid gave them all life so they could be haunted suits so they want revenge on the security guard because he’s the one who killed them so the security guard came back after the place was closed down so he could further hide the evidence by destroying the animatronics but then the ghost children chased him down so he climbed into a suit and was killed himself so then HE became a haunted animatronic suit and also there’s a kid who’s like in a hopsital because he got hurt at the pizzaria and he’s having like nightmares or is in a come or something and then there’s like this dude who builds these animatronics and he made one that can make ice cream but it killed his daughter at a party by accident and nobody can figure out why or how it happened and she is like a ghost although we don’t really know why and now she wants to use the security guard so she can possess him to free herself of her animatronic body so she can walk around in the real world as a skinwalker to achieve…. something?
The simpler story, based on a real event, of a child murderer and the possibility of ghosts (not the absolute proof of ghosts either I might add. That came in the later games) is scary because it is simple, and it is something far closer to something that COULD really happen (and in some ways DID happen) and the supernatural element is just downplayed enough to make us uncomfortable. There’s no “mystery”. There is vagueness, but no big puzzle to unsolve. It’s a situation that’s very dirty, ugly, and sadly very close to reality.
The other games are about ghosts and revenge and skinwalkers and evil robots and comas and I can’t even remember all of it.
And the fact of the matter is, the story closer to reality is the one I find more unnerving (even with the supernatural element which some people will definitely say kinda takes them out of it, which I can understand. Ghosts don’t do it for everyone.) The “lore” afterwards is so bloated and there’s so much of it that it becomes a fantasy. And although it makes it more “interesting” to theorise and pick over and try to piece together, it also means it makes it less relateable and therefore less scary.
It’s the difference between Silent Hill: Downpour being inspired by The Walking Dead, The Fugitive and The Shawshank Redemption,
And the Original Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2 being inspired by Centralia, Pennsylvanian. A real place that still exists (although most of the buildings are gone now) and is still ill-advised to be visited by tourists. (although people go there anyway because…. Silent Hill.)
You know what I mean?
I actually deeply admire Scott as a creator. He’s someone who got a LOT of criticism for a game made for kids, and which was called “creepy” and “weird” which really upset him for a while. But instead of whining, he decided “ok, you think these characters look creepy? I’ll SHOW you creepy!” and then made sooooo much money. Like, that’s amazing!! We should ALL have that insight and courage in what we create!
I do feel the FNAF games have lost sight of what the core ingredients were that made them as effective as they are; but this is by no means a post calling them “bad” or insulting Scott himself. He deserves all the praise in the world.
I was just thinking this over while watching a let’s Play, and as always, analysing why something did or did not work for me. And when I realised the “you’re sitting in a chair just like the MC” thing, I felt I’d hit on something and decided to jot it down here. Maybe everyone already knew these things and it’s super obvious, but hey. I just like figuring out how stories/settings/enviornments work or don’t work as well. And I’d been wondering for a while why the new games don’t creep me out as someone just watching and not playing.
because the first game really DOES scare the fuck out of me just as an audience member not playing it myself.