When Does Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF) Become an Arcade Game?

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Cult classic FNAF provides an interesting insight into longevity in horror games. The eternal struggle to keep players under the game’s influence; to keep them playing but not want to win.

Five Nights at Freddy’s, FNAF, has been a horror cult classic. We’ve sung its praises here at Non-Fiction Gaming for the longest time. Like any horror game, however, is it in danger of losing its sheen?

Replaying horror games come with all the excitement of a ghost train: timed scares of which you’re fully aware. While FNAF doesn’t follow a script, it steps scarily close to this territory. At what point does it tip the scales from being a horror experience and become an arcade game?

The horror genre and video games do have some compatibility. On average, people are more immersed in games than a movie, and will have an easier time identifying with the protagonist. But do they have realms of incompatibility? To a degree. A natural part of video games is challenge.

By and large, horror games employ puzzles (a la Amnesia), stealth (Phantasmal), or timing (Slender), or some combination thereof. Pacing is vital here.

Too easy and they’re annoying. Too hard and they steal focus from the purpose of the game. Puzzles have stolen one focus, gamers will likely feel they’re playing a puzzle game, not a horror.

FNAF Camera look
Maybe puzzles provide you a sense of dread.

This incompatibility is my primary dislike for combat in horror games in general. When it comes to shooters, all modulations of difficulty boil down to two resources: health and ammo. Monsters do more damage or medkits are few and far between? Health. Monsters are more plentiful or have more health? Ammo. Not to say it can’t be done well, but the great ones are scarce.

Horror often follows a pattern: slow build up before an eventual payoff. This has been referred to as terror building up to a horrific scare. A great formula but, traditionally, requires us to continue moving along a linear narrative. Being a game, there are naturally obstacles. Interrupting this linear pathway precludes us from the payoff. A joke without a punchline.

But what does this have to do with FNAF?

Five Nights at Freddy’s doesn’t necessarily have a linear narrative for us to follow by progressing through the games, per se. Later games do incorporate mini games for exposition, but primarily the plot isn’t necessary for enjoying the game.

It does, however, have a few levels that increase in difficulty. As such, it’s more akin to an arcade game, for example Space Invaders or even Pac Man.

Because of this, there isn’t a payoff that we’re being deprived of as the levels get more difficult. Interrupting the narrative isn’t too bad because the game is episodic.

Each chapter (or night) is self-contained and you don’t have to wait until Night 3 for a horror experience that has been built up on Nights 1 and 2. But there is an incompatibility that can cause a shift in the player’s viewpoint.

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Is a jump scare still scary when you’ve seen it before?

This incompatibility stems from the challenge of completing the game. It’s something best seen in videos from renowned YouTubers such as Markiplier. So keen to complete the game, his experience was separated from the original horror intentions of the game.

When does it happen? At what point does the game’s scares not matter and it’s more about you vs. the animatronics, not you trying to survive?

Does it matter? I hear you ask. Possibly not. The question is impossibly difficult to answer; and the truth is it’s different for everyone. I feel, however, it would be something for potential horror developers to be wary of to be able to create games with longevity to their experience.

We want to be scared. We’re buying horror games. It might be challenging but it is possible to make a game that sits firmly on one side of the line.

Dead Sapce
In Dead Space, you often shoot dead bodies, ‘Just in case’

Is it a case of acclimatisation? As if replaying Dead Space, knowing where the jump scares are. Perhaps. Like I said before, games by their nature invite challenge. Each gamer, and his or her resistance to horror, will have a different toppling point between fear and combativeness.

For FNAF, this point is likely to fall somewhere between nights three and four. By the end of night three, players should have experienced all animatronic attacks (with possible exceptions being Foxy and Golden Freddy due to probability). Also around this time – and possibly due to having seen everything – the difficulty is ramped up.

FNAF Patrol Patterns
When you’re mapping out Freddy’s patrol route you’ve hit the point of no return.

These two factors provide interesting motivation for the player.

Firstly, the curtain is raised. Once all animatronics have been seen, FNAF has played its hand. Demystifying the game. No more questions, only strategies. Similarly, once other horror games show their cards (for example, Dead Space with ‘dead’ bodies in tight corridors), only strategies remain.

Secondly, dialling up the difficulty invites challenge. Once we are on equal footing with the game, it’s comfortable. We’ve struck the equilibrium between effort and pay off. Difficulty increases, requiring more effort for a successful result, players begin analysing the game through the lens of strategy.

These are theories at the moment and each player will have their own unique combination of resilience to horror techniques and desires for completion of the game – referred to earlier as ‘combativeness.’

Going further, it would be interesting to examine other games, outside the Five Nights at Freddy’s series, through this framework. I’m sure the results will only make for scarier games with surprising longevity.

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