If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll be horrified to hear that the Sega CD’s table scraps—namely Night Trap, Double Switch, and Ground Zero Texas—have risen from the dead. Because Five Nights at Freddy’s is Night Trap with jump scares. And in a perfect world where a benevolent god shoots terrible game creators with lightning, we could end the review right there. Unfortunately, most of the people playing Freddy’s weren’t even alive when the Sega CD came out, and the result is that 1994’s bargain bin can become 2014’s indie success story.
Here’s your simple question: “In a day and age where videogames are delivering the scope of galaxies and worlds, why would you design a horror game where the central and limited goal is to man the security cameras and survive five nights of murderous animatronics?” The answer is that videogames cost a ton of money and manpower to make. And when you’re a one-man development team—in this case, a Mr. Scott Cawthon—both are in pretty short supply.
Well, videogames have long passed the days where Mystery House and Rogue could achieve cutting-edge ideas with one or two people at the helm. And in the world of modern game development, where billion-dollar publishers are asking hundreds of men and women to pursue a common goal, the system of security cameras would be one of the multiple options in a game where players could fight back, hide in the environment, and uncover the clues showing when and how everything in this virtual world went to shit. Or, you could use the cameras to direct another individual, ala Lifeline or République. Or, you could even go the Dungeon Keeper route, and allow players to manage a significantly more elaborate security system that doubles as a full-fledged strategy game.
But when you open the floor to those games, you’re inviting comparisons to real projects with real talent and real resources, games with actual narratives, interesting progression, and meaningful mechanics. And since one man (no matter how talented) will not be able to compete with a Resident Evil, then you do what Freddy’s does and you bet the farm on jump scares, ending up with the videogame equivalent of a “screamer”* and ignoring that people were already sick of the jump scares by the time Resident Evil made “survival horror” a household phrase. Lest we forget that the cheap scares afforded to shattering glass were considered the most shallow part of Shinji Mikami’s beautifully-realized universe, a world of interesting puzzles, serviceable combat, and a narrative that was more ambitious and interesting than “work the night shift at a Chuck E. Cheese.”
And when you strip back Freddy’s busted premise, you’re looking at little more than a simple strategy game built around the most basic meter management possible. Yes, kids, that may seem a little startling to those of you who have been enjoying SimCity and Civilization, but give it some thought and it will begin to make sense. After all, there’s no mechanics that we could consider common to traditional action games and the goal is to conserve your power supply so you can survive the night. And given all the strategy games that allow me to build cities, explore galaxies, or wage awesome simulations of war, don’t mind me being a little patronized by a game where your options are “turn on the lights” and “shut the door”.
Just to hammer home how trivial and basic Freddy’s is, you can dive back into the horrible world of eight-bit licensed videogame development and end up with 1991’s Home Alone, a game that asks the player to survive the home invasion for twenty minutes by laying down traps and making good use of various hiding spots, with the idea that you will eventually run out of the traps and the bandits will wise up to where you are hiding. And yet, one of the absolute worst and stupidest videogames for the system, a game that was immediately cast to the garbage by its contemporary audience, looks like a mechanical masterwork when you set it side-by-side with Freddy’s, for the simple reason that in a game of similar resource management, you can explore an environment and fight back.
In other words, Freddy’s is so simple as to exist as a tiny subset of what is being done in games ranging the whole spectrum, even games that were thought to be an utter waste of time over two decades ago. And so long as its defenders harp that “It’s good for the price point!” and “It’s good for a one-man developer!”, they will continue to absent-mindedly affirm every single flaw that can be cast against it. Now yes, elegance is something games should strive for, but elegance only works if you can maintain the complexity inherent to the games that established blueprints and genres. Because otherwise, you just end up with a Gone Home, or a Journey, or a Stanley Parable, all of which “achieve what they set out to do” but are too simple and basic to ever be worth your time.
And since Freddy’s entirely lacks the scope and ambition to compete with the masterworks, you don’t have to bother with the laughable implementation of the game’s ideas—the primitive intelligence of the robots, the abrasive aesthetic design—to tear the game apart. As a sum of all parts, Freddy’s is a little like walking into the Hadron Collider and bragging about the volcano you brought to your school science fair. And if you truly desire a horror game focused on survival, one where helplessness rules the day, then you have to look no further than 1996’s Clock Tower, 2005’s Haunting Ground, and 2014’s excellent Alien: Isolation, all games which were superior to Freddy’s from the second they came into conception.
The one nice thing to be said is that, to Scott Cawthon’s credit, he made the brilliant choice to build a game which could viraled in the most virulent way possible, a game manufactured to exploit the moronic behaviors of PewDiePie and Markiplier, the perfect game for a generation that is so clueless to the art of enjoying games that they would rather watch others play them. And on this front, we already seem to judge that Cawthon is one hell of a salesman within his slice of the videogame universe. But it sure-as-hell doesn’t make the man good at his craft, and it doesn’t make Freddy’s worth anything more than the dumpster.