My love of video games knows no bounds, but my ability to display an appreciation for the difference in form between film and interactive gameplay is most obvious within the genre of horror, because that’s when the viewer is challenged to solve the inherent puzzle of gaming via an interactive system that takes more than it gives, and often aims for emotional blood.
On the most basic level, my favorite games challenge you to survive with a combination of existential dread and classic puzzle-solving, and just a dash of sacrificing your own sanity in the name of victory. So when the Five Night’s At Freddy’s series was unleashed upon the world, the product of a single creator’s horrifying vision, I was sold.
Welcome to this year’s most clearly defined nightmare. Freddy’s takes place in a facsimile of Chuck E. Cheese where the anthropomorphic southern animal band just so happens to come to horrifying vengeful life by night and you, the minimum wage security night-shift boy, is tasked with making sure they claim no innocent lives, especially yours. Interactivity is limited to a poorly-aged security camera system that allows you to monitor the slow advance of the uncanny valley’s greatest warriors as they hunt a minimum wage employee for sport.
The joy of the game is a mix of outwitting an an unholy foe while grounding yourself in the kind of minimum wage position you fear succumbing to and the brutality that accompanies even your best resolution. It exploits a childhood fear that’s so universal, most kids with an anthropomorphic animal fear have successfully blocked our the source of their collective darkness, until confronted by the premise of Freddy’s. I know I thought I’d spent a life without nightmare robot fear, until the first level reminded me of a Denver pizzeria I’d deliberately pretended away at 12. My first of many kudos to the creator is exploiting a universal fear that digs so deep many of us 80’s kids buried it so successfully that only a goddamned nightmare simulator could re-open the wound.
Freddy’s is a deceptively simply engagement. You’ve been hired as the night security fodder for a pizzeria whose daytime entertainment is provided by android animals with instruments, like a less horrifying Mumford and Sons. A former employee of the company calls in at the beginning of each night to alert you to the fact this job is accompanied by a horrifying fatality rate. You have access to zero weapons or defense systems, but you can apply a limited amount of electricity towards a security system that might, at best, allow you to view your robotic death as it stalks you through an abandoned restaurant but also may or may not exist in an infinitely repeatable system of socially specific finalism.
The greatest trick is convincing an audience that you can combat childhood fear adjacent experiences with adult dedication towards hourly rates and employment systems that might ignore a monsters under the bed. There’s a delightfully small subset of horror dedicated to dudes with minimum wage jobs that lead them to confronting cosmic horror, and for college educated people there’s something doubly exploitative about this arrangement wherein the possessed animal suit horrors aren’t nearly as oppressive as he basic concept of accepting a Craigslist night-shift gig, even when it is doom incarnate.
The game functions around you cycling through a series of security cameras that allow you to spy on anthropomorphic entertainment creatures that want to delight a non-existent audience and/or take revenge for a series of child murders. You monitor the property until 6AM each night for a week, and by night three you’ll find yourself plagued by nightmare creatures that can only be dissuaded through light flashes, door jams, or the thin prayer that they’ll mistake you for one of the other monster beings.
The biggest element which separates Freddy’s from the indie game world is the release of three different iterations within a single year. Each adopts new locations and adjusts game-play elements, but no one else in indie games has ever displayed the self-confidence to trilogy their new IP within twelve months.This leads to two very important conversations. First is the deliberate provocation of the internet’s imagination by submerging the relevant back-story in Amiga-era graphics. Bizarre interstitial from 5NAF2 onward dare you to interpret a series of interconnected child murders strewn between the pizza chain’s history. This stylized approach to historically actualizing a series of pizza restaurant child murders has become catnip for internet commenters who see something different in the nightmare bytes. The second thing which sets Freddy’s apart is the shockingly inspirational backstory.
Freddy’s accomplishes a great deal of nightmare fuel by balancing simple graphics against an AI that hunts you for sport. Scott Cawthon is the secret weapon. Scott is a game designer who has never aimed to profit from his status as a Christian, but amongst his other releases over the years has produced a Bible-centric slot machine game for a comedicly limited audience. A few years back, he released a game called Chipper & Sons about a family of beavers, that was wildly panned in the critical community for not only being un-fun, but also presenting characters that seemed more Event Horizon than Madagascar.
Whereas so many other creators might take the heavy criticism of producing a brutally un-engaging game as a sign they have no business making interactive entertainment, Scott almost pointedly reapplied the work he’d put into a family friendly game that was poorly received, and used it to create one of the most oppressive gaming experiences of this generation, single-handedly.
Delightfully, this series of three interdependently produced horror-shows has been opted for film production through Warner Brothers’ go to script-monkey Seth Grahame-Smith, who promises an “insane, terrifying and weirdly adorable movie.” It’s obviously unproven whether the writer of “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” can turn in a feature film hit, but let’s hope he realizes that the joy of the franchise lies in constantly having your safety stripped away while friendly musician animals jam packed with child-bodies attempt to hug you in the night. But in my honest opinion, it might be that first undeniable example we can all point towards which shows the potential of video game’s emotional reach versus that dumb transition of a fun device into a poor narrative.