Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
Now recently I’ve been researching a little horror indie game â€œFive Nights at Freddy’sâ€. While I haven’t played it, I’ve researched it enough to have, at the very least, an academic understanding of the game and the world it creates. But this leads to a rather interesting question: Why is it (and survival horror in general) deemed so scary?
To understand the true power of survival horror, we first need to analyse the very concept of video games. Because, consciously or otherwise, we can all agree that video games are about one thing: conquering obstacles that are in your way to achieve your goals given the tools you are provided. Whether those tools are running, jumping, shooting, hitting, whatever, the very core element of a game is overcoming obstacles that are set in your path. Even one of the earliest video games in existence, Pong, is all about this concept. The obstacle is the other block, the goal is to get the ball past it, the tools at your disposal is the ability to move your block. Even board games follow this logic. Hell Tic Tac Toe follows this logic in its most crudest of forms. This is not something that can be said to be ‘evolutionarily’ new. But why do I bring it up? Because we so rarely think about what a game is, we don’t tend to recognize what it is that we’re doing. We take it as read that a game is designed to operate underneath this basic principle, that’s what makes it a game. And while I could go on and apply this to things you wouldn’t class as games (in other words prove that the internet is one of the greatest ‘games’ ever made), lets stick our focus on topic for now.
So if games are all about overcoming obstacles, how does this relate to survival horror? Well we often think that a good game is one where the tools allow you to successfully overcome the obstacles. If you can’t overcome them due to faulty tools (or, more specifically, faulty and poorly-designed controls) we don’t tend to think of them as being good games. We must be given a way of overcoming these obstacles that feels satisfying. But, when it comes to survival horror, we’re willing to do one crucial thing: Relinquish some of these tools in order to have a better experience at the game. We willingly give up tools that would aid us (a gun, for example), in order to have a more terrifying experience. It’s a deal we make with the content creators. They take away the tools, in turn they make the game more scary by definition. This is why something like Doom can have survival horror elements (as in you have to survive the horrors being unleashed towards you) but not be survival horror (since you have a practical way of dealing with the horror, to neutralize it). Good survival horror leaves the player powerless. You have no power to eradicate the beings that mean you harm, you only have the power to hold them temporarily at bay. But does this mean that Space Invaders is a survival horror?
Now Space Invaders can be seen as a survival horror, at least more so than Doom. You are facing an inevitable threat that will win and will defeat you. Your doom is guaranteed before you even start. And yet, despite this sense of pessimism, we never think of the game as survival horror. We have the power to hold off the inevitable. We have some measure of control. We are not totally helpless. At least, not compared to Pokemon. I always joked that the best survival horror game was one where your Pokemon were poisoned and you were desperately trying to get back to the PokeCenter before they died. It was a race against time that left you paralysed with fear. Your power had been taken from you and all you had left to do was run for your life. So those are examples of games with survival horror elements. What about survival horror games themselves? What makes them so scary?
Well turning our attention back to Five Nights at Freddy’s, the concept of the game is very simple. You are a night watchmen at a Chuck-e-Cheese type restaurant (to the international readers, imagine it a restaurant that have audio-animatronic robots dressed up as cheerful mascots) when it turns out that the harmless looking robots want to kill you. Your only defences are a door button (to close the door), a light switch (to see into the hallway) and security cameras (to see where the robots are at any given time). You have a door to either side of you and, more importantly, only a limited amount of power to survive the night. Once the power runs out you’re as good as dead. The more you use the doors or the lights, the quicker it drains, the less likely it’ll be that you survive. As such you’ve got to constantly check on the robots, weighing up the pros and cons to see whether it’s better to take risks or not. It’s a fantastic game that requires skill, luck and a very large amount of courage. But that’s what the game is. Why is it scary?
Well it’s scary for two reasons. The first are the jump scares. Now it’s standard practice at this point to dismiss jump scares as a way of getting a cheap thrill. It’s a good way of shocking someone, but only hacks would use it, right? See the problem is, people tend to miss the true power of the jump scare. The point of the jump scare is not so much the scare itself, but the tension building up to it. As it goes on you get more and more wound up, waiting for that horrible thing that you know is about to happen. You can’t help it, your bracing yourself for the eventual scare that could happen at any moment. Thus, when it does happen, you immediately react to get away from the danger. It’s your first thought, to get away. You jump back, you let out a scream to disorientate your enemy, your body lashes out. It’s a perfectly natural reaction. Now the worst kind of jump scares are the ones that try to lull you into a false sense of security to scare you. They’re okay, and have their place, but they’re not the best kind. No the best kind of scares is that slow build. When done right the tension is so unbearable you’re almost wishing that the monster would come, just so you could get it over and done with. And that’s what Five Nights at Freddy’s does so well. You know the danger is coming, you have little to do to stop it, and the fear is building with every passing second. But that’s one element. What’s the other?
One of my favourite things about life in general is how much mythos tends to be created on a daily basis. I’ve written before on how Christianity is a fandom, and how people need religion in some form, but I do love when people take very little and create a world from it. Because in Five Nights at Freddy’s, all you really have going for you is roughly 800 pictures. That’s all the game takes to make, just 800 images. Add to that a narrator to explain what is going on, some creepy looking visuals and haunting music, and you have one scary game. Why? Because it lets the viewer themselves put their own spin on what is happening. Early in the game you learn about the ‘Bite of 87’ and how amazing it is for someone to live without their frontal lobe. And that’s all you get told. You don’t get told what exactly happened, or why, or even which robot did it. Just that something really, really, rea`lly bad happened once. This is where you imagination comes in and starts to fill in the details as quickly as it can. You come up with your own stories and theories about why this is happening, most of them generally quite bad and horrifying. You wind yourself up by making yourself imagine all the worst that can happen. Now some could argue that the fandom exploring these ideas ruins the fun, but I think it’s the first. Seeing other people’s interpretations on the characters and story help you define your own story. You see theories you like and incorporate them into your mythos. You see a scary idea, look at it and go ‘wow if that is true in game, then this game is now even scarier’. By using imagination as a tool Five Nights at Freddy’s, and survival horror in general, manages to become some of the scariest, and greatest, games ever made.
So there you have it. My look at Five Nights at Freddy’s and survival horror in general. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.