Content warning for references of self harm and death, and spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club.
Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF) is an unbelievably massive franchise. It revolutionized horror in video games in the mid 2010s and continues to release new content today.
While it spawned a large following of people passionate about the lore of the series as it refused to stop, its status as a quality horror game is something that has always been on thin ice, and is now seeing more criticism than before.
Although many fans love the lore, FNAF’s refusal for sensible storytelling has made many fans drop off.
This, in combination with the gameplay being more frustrating and mind numbingly simple than anything and the actual horror only really being the threat of a jump scare means they wear out their welcome quickly.
If you watch people play the games on YouTube, for example, you will see more upset players than unnerved ones.
On the more difficult levels, there’s essentially no fear to be found whatsoever, but frustration, as the players need to resort to simply hoping for luck to be in their favour this time.
When jump scares in the game do happen, it’ll almost always be met with an angry yell, instead of a fearful exclamation.
This is clearly not what the game is going for, so comparing it to a game that had the appropriate reaction can make even clearer where the game’s failings lie.
Doki Doki Literature Club is an example of a game that had a similar burst of popularity on its release. However, it remains beloved, if not nearly as popular, to this day.
The game is a visual novel where a player mostly reads dialogue accompanied by visuals. While the gameplay isn’t inherently appealing to most people, it uses the player’s expectations to set themselves up for a more effective and engaging horror experience.
Given the character designs, overall presentation of the game upfront and the fact that it is promoted as a dating simulator, the players who are familiar with the general tropes come in with many preconceived expectations.
The game uses these expectations to play with and later subvert them, first by simply implying darker things about the character’s mental states, such as the depression that the main character identifies in their best friend.
Eventually though, the character is driven to suicide and the game reveals its true nature as a genuine horror game.
At that point, the game restarts the story entirely, but with the best friend character completely removed.
Not only does this game take advantage of the player’s expectations for the sake of unsettling them, it also does this by using the fact that it’s on a computer to mess with the game files.
The game eventually begins to add files after certain points, which begin to imply things about the club leader, or simply creep out the player.
The game’s ending also requires file manipulation, specifically deleting the character file of Monika, who eventually becomes aware she’s in a game and uses that to make the player themselves love her.
Not only are file interaction, genre deconstruction and dialogue mechanics used to unsettle the player, they also do this to promote the idea that the game as a whole is more aware than the player realizes.
This idea of self-awareness is the core theme of the game, as seen with the character of Monika.
The game uses her situation to ask the player: What if you turned out to be in a simulated world? What would that lead to? Would your actions inherently be justified because everything around you is merely numbers or code? What implications could that have?
These ideas that stick with the player as well as the experience of not knowing what’s going to happen keep the game captivating and frightening.
To be clear, a horror game doesn’t need both unsettling ideas and moment to moment scares to be well received.
For example, Resident Evil 4 is a masterpiece and easily one of the best horror games ever, but that’s because the experience of playing it never stops being incredibly tense.
Bloodborne’s gameplay doesn’t inherently invoke horror, but many players find the world and lore more unnerving the more they think about it, keeping the game in their heads as well.
FNAF is very lacking in both regards. The gameplay being so incredibly simple but lacking in substance or style means players bounce off of it after a short time. While the implied concepts of the lore like, kidnapped children being stuck in a suit are definitely creepy, the game never does much with that idea until the later games, and in very confusing and unsatisfying ways.
While the series isn’t inherently unappealing, FNAF never makes use of its potential to become truly potent horror. Its focus on horror through jumpscares becomes obnoxious quickly, and the story being told refuses to deliver on its genuinely disturbing ideas.
The series being a huge hit on release makes sense given this, but given these facts, it’s no wonder the game, and especially the series as a whole is only remembered more and more negatively.