The (Apparently) Accidental Brilliance of FNAF, and Why FNAF2-5 Aren’t As Good

There was a mechanic in Five Nights At Freddy’s that was almost universally hated, and you already know what I’m talking about: the power mechanic. Everything the player did consumed power, including sitting there doing nothing because a fan constantly ran and couldn’t be turned off. I have to admit that I, too, initially hated the mechanic, but the more I played the more I began to see its subtle brilliance. Before we get into that, though, we have to talk about something more overarching:

What Makes Games Hard?

There are two types of difficulty: fake and real. Fake difficulty is heavily reliant upon trial and error. Anyone who has played I Wanna Be the Guy has taken a primer course in Fake Difficulty. Much of I Wanna Be The Guy is also genuinely difficult, but it’s Fake Difficulty when a Delicious Fruit flies up to kill you, or when Dracula in a cutscene kills you by throwing a goblet at you.

Most specifically, I want to talk about the primary difficulty: resource management. There is resource management in a lot of games that may surprise you. RPGs, in their current state, are nothing more than resource management games. It’s all about swapping out a number in the MP column to do a number of damage to the enemy to earn enough Experience to gain a level and have a higher MP pool while also earning enough money to buy an MP restoring item. This is precisely why RPGs are notoriously harder at the beginning and become increasingly easy as progress is made: the player acquires not only more resources, but more types of resources.

At early levels, a player may swap out 4 MP to do 75 damage to an enemy with 150 HP that gives 5 gold, while a healing item that restores 20 MP costs 10 gold. As you can see, if there were no other factors, the player would have to kill two of those enemies–burning 16 MP–to earn enough money to buy one MP restoring item. That leaves one extra spell cast, and that’s not much room for screwing up. Later in the game, though, the player is using 45 MP to do 4,320 damage to an enemy with 3,000 HP and earning 150 gold for doing it, while an item that restores 250 MP only costs 125 gold. The ratios become more and more balanced as the game progresses until the scale tips firmly in the player’s favor.

Even more specifically, I want to talk about Resident Evil 2.

You see, Resident Evil 2 had finite resources. The number of bullets in the game never changed. Enemies didn’t drop bullets, and if the player exhausted their supply, that was it. There were no more. At all. While there were more than enough bullets to cover the game, that didn’t change the fact that a trigger happy idiot with terrible aim would have an extremely difficult time beating the game until they learned to conserve and save ammo. This was real difficulty, and it could result in a game that was practically unwinnable because the player was extraordinarily careless and… bad at the game.

Yes, a player who runs around emptying an entire clip into a single zombie is bad at Resident Evil 2, and the game is going to severely punish them for that. They’re going to die, and there’s no way to recover those bullets. The only way to undo it is to start over and git gud. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the finite amount of save points that were in the game. That’s correct: the player could only save the game a certain number of times, because each save used an ink ribbon, and there was a limited number of them. Not only could the player burn through their ammo, but they could back themselves into a corner where they had to navigate the last 20% of the game with no saving and very little ammo. No room for error. They had to buckle down and give it everything they had.

When that failed, they had to restart the game, putting what they had learned to use, and improving.

FNAF

My experience with Five Nights At Freddy’s went exactly like this.

I died on the first night. I burned through my power because I had my cameras up constantly. This is what initially earned my ire about the game. It was fun to be creeped out watching the cameras, but the power mechanic punished me for doing it; the power mechanic punished me for having fun. However, it was so much more brilliant than that, and I just hadn’t grasped it yet. I naturally ran out of power.

Or I was killed by one of the animatronics. I don’t remember any longer, but I didn’t know that I could just not check the camera and would still live.

Regardless, the first time I completed the first night, it was with very little energy remaining. I died on the second night. A few attempts later, I survived the second night with very little energy remaining. Now that I’d gotten a decent feel for it, I made it through most of the third night until I ran out of power at 3 AM. Shit! Then 4 AM. Damn! Then 5 AM. Fuck! Then I finally had the clock roll over while I was out of power.

It wasn’t accidental, of course. Each time I played, I got a little bit better at conserving power and doing what was necessary without going overboard. The fourth night played out exactly the same way. Foxy really screwed me over for a while, because I wasn’t checking the cameras enough, and man… When he bangs on that door, it murders your remaining power. So I ran out of power early. Then I made it a little further, and then a little further. Then I was again saved after losing power by the clock rolling over.

This happened again on the fifth and sixth nights. It didn’t happen on 20/20/20/20, because the movement formula for that is so precise that there isn’t any room for individual variance, but there was absolutely no doubt. Each night forced me to get better at the game. And it worked beautifully. I not only mastered Five Nights At Freddy’s, but something else became apparent.

The Brilliance of FNAF

Because of the power mechanic, Five Nights At Freddy’s literally forces players to do nothing. It forces players to sit on the edge of their seats, almost biting their fingernails, with their hearts pounding and their tension high, and doing absolutely nothing to defend themselves or even watch out for the animatronics. Those moments of doing nothing are remarkable, because they’re necessary.

This is a game where things are constantly coming to kill you, and the game forces you to sit there and do nothing about it at regular intervals. These periods of doing nothing feel like they last forever. Have you ever heard someone doing a livestream or a YouTube video say, “I have to force myself to wait 5 seconds before doing anything else” and then counting off to five? Their “seconds” are never seconds. Most of the time only 2 or 3 seconds elapse while they count to five, because their heart is pounding. Those moments of doing nothing are extremely intense, and at literally any one of those milliseconds an animatronic could pop its head into the door.

And the player won’t know it because the player can’t know it, because the player must sit there in silence and darkness or will run out of power. There’s nothing like sitting there for five “seconds” doing nothing and then attempting to check a light, only to hear the buzzer that means an animatronic is inside and that death is inevitable.

That is what made Five Nights At Freddy’s so amazing. It wasn’t just the jumpscares, although I’ll admit that, for the first few times I played, the jumpscares themselves were very well done. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though. What is truly terrifying about Five Nights At Freddy’s was the one mechanic that everyone loved to hate: the power mechanic. The one that forced players to sit there helplessly, knowing full well that things were coming for them.

FNAF 2-5

This is also the element that has been missing from every Five Nights At Freddy’s game since, though FNAF3 came closest to imitating it with the machinery that intermittently breaks down. Unfortunately, the actual mechanics of FNAF3 were so convoluted and unexplained that the malfunctioning equipment becomes little more than an annoyance. The wind-up box in FNAF2 was another attempt to do the same thing–force the player into a helpless position–but we all know why that was such an annoyance.

Don’t even get me started in the tedious Sister Location that only upped the complexity and made the stages longer and more annoying. FNAF 2 and 3 both had the right idea; Scott knew that the forced period of helplessness was what made the original so terrifying, even if the average player didn’t. However, he handled them in poor ways. The second game saw the wind-up toy and an overabundance of animatronics. I may be atypical, but I don’t think anything more than the original 4 were really necessary… I never paid much attention to which was which between Chica and Bonnie.

Forcing the player to constantly open the camera to wind up a toy was an interesting reversal of the first game and how it forced the player to constantly put down the camera. Since frontal and side assaults were the biggest threats, rather than Freddy, it worked, even if it was as criticized as the first game’s power mechanic. It was a clever way of doing the same thing without pissing off players with the same power mechanic.

In the first, of course, failing to look at the cameras would send Foxy down the hallway to either kill the player or drain power by banging on the door. Additionally, watching Freddy through the camera would lock him in place and prevent him from moving. However, while the player was looking through the camera, Bonnie or Chica could come in and kill the player as soon as the camera was lowered. This is almost certainly what killed everyone the first few times they played Five Nights At Freddy’s.

In the second game, however, failing to check the hallway in front of the player or the vent lights to the left and right would result in certain death, and the only defense was donning a Freddy mask quickly. Foxy or Mangle regularly popped up in the hallway, requiring the light to be shone down them, and the cameras became completely useless. In fact, they became worse than useless, as they blocked your view and meant that you weren’t checking the hallway or the vents. The solution was to force players to open the cameras, and so the remote wind-up box was added, forcing players to make themselves helpless.

I’d venture the guess that the wind-up boxes is hated a little less than the power mechanic because opening the camera to wind up the box is doing something, while putting the cameras down and sitting in silence was not. Though it was probably better received, it also wasn’t anywhere nearly as terrifying. Sure, the player is frantic and rushed while pulling up the camera to wind the box, and is every bit as helpless while doing it as they were while doing nothing in the original, but there’s still a large psychological difference between “doing something” and “doing absolutely nothing.”

Winding up the box is frantic, panicked, and rushed.

Sitting and waiting is terrifying.

FNAF3 forced helplessness by having the equipment randomly stop working–except it wasn’t really random. I think the voice player broke after three uses or something like that. I’m not really sure, because I loathed FNAF3. The mechanics were too complex for a game like that. There are five nights, each of which lasts ten minutes, and dying a few minutes from 6:00 AM on the third night leaves players not having any idea what they did wrong. Or maybe the ventilation just stopped working at the worst possible time. Who knows? The game is too poorly explained for mechanics that complicated.

That was FNAF3’s biggest problem: the helplessness was unpredictable. The player couldn’t just improve their management and make progress, because there were too many variables and too many things that at least seem luck-based. When I die in Five Nights At Freddy’s 1 or 2, I know exactly why, I know what killed me, and I know what I should have done better. Often, I know that I’m dead before I die. This was even true before I mastered the game; to be fair, now when I die, I know exactly why, without fail. Even before that, though, I knew it was my mistake, I knew what I’d done wrong, and I knew what to do to fix it. This was usually “consume less power.”

That meant “Take on more helplessness.”

That meant intentionally putting myself in a state of helplessness.

That’s terrifying.

This was rarely the case in Five Nights At Freddy’s 2. I don’t think that I’ve ever been killed by the Puppet, and I suspect that this is true of most people. And because we’re engaged in the act of doing something–looking through the camera and winding the box–we don’t feel helpless. We just feel annoyed.

Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 was better, as I said, because it was true helplessness. You had to reboot the systems, and that took a while. During that time, it was very likely that Springtrap was going to get very close to you. And if he was already close to you, then you were probably looking at a death. This time, however, the powerlessness was beyond the player’s control. It happened when it happened, and there was nothing that could be done about it. While this could have been scarier, it’s not, primarily because it was forced upon players.

Players making themselves helpless and dying because of it is one thing. The game making players helpless and then killing them is another thing entirely. Players were forced to be helpless, instead of forcing it upon themselves. I lack the expertise to explain why the latter is so much more intense, but it absolutely is.

FNAF4

Then Scott decided that musicians shouldn’t be able to play his games any longer. Look, my computer is run through a Sony surround sound system that cost me about $700 back when I worked at Harrah’s. On top of that, I purchased two supplemental speakers, each of which contains a 15″, a 6″, and a 2″. There’s a reason that it’s my primary device for music. It sounds amazing. And with the enhanced subwoofer and rear speakers, it gets louder than most people would guess.

Yet even turning it to full blast and cranking up gain on everything, I cannot hear the opening crickets of Five Nights At Freddy’s 4. Irritated, I unplugged my sound system and plugged in headphones. What happened? I still couldn’t hear the crickets. I attempted to play the game, but never heard anything that could be described as “breathing.”

I’m a rock musician. From 18 to 27 years old, I stood in front of 8 twelve-inch Celestion speakers in a Marshall cabinet playing guitar. I’m not hard of hearing by any means, but my hearing is certainly not what it should be. Five Nights At Freddy’s 4 relies entirely on sound cues. I heard something while listening at the doors, but none of it could have been described as “breathing.” There’s too much ambiance noise for a child’s bedroom. There shouldn’t be music at all, if that’s what he’s going for. How am I supposed to listen for breathing anyway, if the music swells in random places? Are you kidding me? That’s terrible game design.

And it’s all in the name of jump scares, isn’t it? That’s the trick. Make the player listen real closely to every little squeak and sound, every tiny, low-volume noise, get really quiet, and then RAWR SCREAM REAL LOUD IN THE PLAYER’S EARS.

“Scary” right?

“Bullshit” would be more accurate.

Sister Location lost me midway through the second night by adding even more complexity than FNAF3 had. These games are made in Clickteam Fusion, or something like that. They are not suitable for complex game mechanics. They’re simple games made in simple programs using simple concepts. Adding in a bunch of complexity isn’t a good idea, and I would have thought FNAF3 would have taught people that. One of the FNAF YouTubers I like got to Night 4 in FNAF3 without having any idea what he was doing or what he was supposed to be doing. When he died, he had no idea why, or what he had done wrong.

More to the point, though, the fear is gone. The terror is gone.

It wasn’t the jumpscares that made Five Nights At Freddy’s so nail-biting. It was the player-forced helplessness. It was knowing that you were in a dangerous situation, yet knowing that you had to sit there quietly and doing nothing if you wanted any chance of surviving. Five Nights At Freddy’s was brilliant for that, but the follow-up titles make me think that it was accidental brilliance. I’d love to see the series return to its initial glory, not chase after complexity and whore-ish jump scares.

Don’t make me strain my ears just so you can randomly blow a horn in my face and startle me.

Terrify me.