You don’t have to be a major fan of video games to know about Five Nights at Freddy’s. The series has taken the internet by storm in the two years since its initial release. Last week we saw the launch of Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location, the fifth installment in the main series. Each game, while deep, is relatively small. As such, I’ve decided today to review the entire series at once.
Five Nights at Freddy’s (hereafter shortened to FNAF) released initially in August of 2014. It was an indie horror game in an era where indie horror games were a dime a dozen. This trend, as it happens, continues to this day. Scott Cawthorn developed the entire game on his own, an impressive feat for certain.
The game revolved around you, a silent protagonist, as the new night security guard of Freddy Fazzbear’s Pizzeria. The family establishment has advanced animatronic entertainment, capable of moving around on their own. The animatronics, which are anthropomorphic animals like bears and foxes, are left on at night so they can move around. It keeps their joints from getting stuck.
The problem is that at night their programming alters. They develop a quirk where they can’t distinguish people from naked endoskeletons, the robotic frame inside the cute animal suit of the animatronics. This wouldn’t be a problem, except the default programming for the animatronics is to put any naked endoskeletons they see into a suit. So if they see you, they jam you into a suit. But there isn’t room for you in there, so instead you just die.
You play the entire game from inside the security office. Your shift runs from midnight to six a.m. You have a finite amount of power, used for your security cameras and (inexplicably) the two doors that lead into your room. If you run out of power, the doors lock open.
The game revolves around you keeping track of the four animatronics as they move about. Whenever one gets too close, the player must close the door to block them. The doors can’t simply stay shut forever, or the player will run out of power. It’s up to you to keep track and close the doors only when needed.
When the animatronics make it to you, you don’t even notice at first. If one makes it to the room, there’s no indication that they have. Instead, the game waits for you to look down at your camera screen. The next time you look away, the animatronic jumps into your face, screeching loudly and killing you instantly.
In short, the game was a phenomenal success. The overall quality of the game was superb, with heaping helpings of little details that added up to making the game scarier. The atmosphere of FNAF was horrifying, with a constant sense of dread as they creepy-cutesie robot dolls stalked you. As the five nights progress you’re pushed to your limits, with more animatronics showing up and all of them moving faster.
It was just fun to be scared by the game, it was fun to watch people be scared by it. This in part lent to why the game was such an overwhelmingly popular title. Commentators on YouTube, such as the popular Markeplier and PewDiePie, made entire series devoted to the game. It exploded across the internet, and soon everyone knew about it.
This would make the game popular, but what made the game stay popular was its surprisingly deep lore. Lots of little hints were scattered about the game. These were hints that shaped several possible narratives to help fuel fevered dreams.
This lore would be expanded upon further by later releases. FNAF2 more than doubled the number of enemies and altered several gameplay mechanics while keeping the same overall feel. The game was deeper and wider, spawning the same online reaction as the first. Additionally, the story of the game began to take shape. Just enough clues were left for the audience to form conclusions. Yet nothing truly concrete ever materialized.
That trend continued on into the third and fourth games in the series. The core concept would remain the same but with different mechanics and different enemies. Each one in turn would add more story elements. It was handled brilliantly, forming a perfect balance of new ideas and elaborating on old ones. It was tantalizing, constantly leaving people in awe and wondering what would be next.
Which brings us to FNAF: Sister Location. The fifth (but almost certainly not last) title released just last week, and it changed up the formula more than any game in the main series so far. Unlike previous titles, Sister Location didn’t have you play as someone sitting at a post keeping monsters at bay. Instead, you went to the monsters.
You take the role of a maintenance worker at a factory and storage facility. The building houses advanced animatronics similar to those that were in Freddy Fazzbear’s Pizzeria. Instead of hosting the parties, however, the company would rent the animatronics out.
When you first start the game your introduced to a GladOs-esque automated voice to help you in your duties. Each night he instructs you on the tasks you need to do to maintain the facility and animatronics.
The concept is simple enough, except the animatronics very rarely comply. From the word go it’s clear things are not as they should be. The facility is strange and creepy, partially damaged. If the animatronics, supposedly lifeless automatons, aren’t functioning correctly, you are instructed to shock them until they comply.
It’s the beginning of a strange new precedent for the series. Instead of a simple dynamic made harder each night, Sister Location plays out as a series of mini-games. None of them are complicated, but they often have a small margin of error. Failure indicates death by robot.
Further enhancing the dramatic differences of this game, people talk to you a lot. The game has almost constant narration, a stark contrast to the previous games. Sister Location evolves as a definite story, when with a clear arc and development. It has a lot of moments with light comedy, brief punctuations of levity to make you smile before you descend back into hell.
It’s a risky change for a series that has built itself on a consistent style and tone. FNAF is known for a minimalist, relentless barrage of tension with tight gameplay. Sister Location eschewed that for a narrative chain of smaller mechanics.
Fortunately it worked. The gameplay is fun and never complicated. The story unfolds itself and a good pace and leaves you genuinely horrified. The change in gameplay leaves it easier than previous titles by a large margin, and as such it won’t see as much replay value as them. But those are small complaints for a game that was otherwise extremely successful.
Because FNAF needed to change. All four games in the chain were well received, with new and novel adaptions to keep them fresh. But the formula was beginning to become formulaic, and the series needed a paradigm shift. Sister Location was exactly that shift, and it leaves me thrilled to see what will happen next.