Five Nights at Freddy’s Success Formula
The secrets behind Scott Cawthon’s remarkable horror franchise
With Five Nights at Freddy's (FNAF) initial release on 23 July 2014, Scott Cawthon unleashed one of the biggest horror franchises of the last decade on the horror-game scene.
The question is: how did this happen? Short, jump scare packed horror games are a dime in a dozen. What, exactly, did the game get right that resulted in its enormous success?
Let’s explore this question further, but be warned, there are spoilers for the first game contained herein.
All games in the series, besides the fifth game Sister Location, have similar gameplay mechanics. I will mostly refer to the first installment as it marks the start of the franchise.
In FNAF, you play as a nighttime employee in a children’s restaurant called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. You are instructed to watch over the restaurant's animatronics, which are large robots who perform at the children's parties during the daytime.
In the night, however, they try to attack you in your office. To survive the night, the player must protect themselves from the animatronics using various tools. Each animatronic has a unique moving pattern and therefore, requires an individual defense strategy.
Obviously, a game with such a huge success has to be well made. I want to discuss the aspects where FNAF stands out:
Nowhere to Go
If we compare FNAF with other horror games regarding the interaction between the player and the threat, the player either has the possibility to run and hide (e.g. Slender, Outlast) or to battle them (e.g. Resident Evil).
Things are different in Five Nights at Freddy's. Here you are stuck in your office chair, unable to run, let alone to fight. Your only chance to survive is by observing the animatronics and handle them according to their movements.
This puts immense pressure on the player, which is the next aspect.
To save yourself from an ending jump scare, you need to take care of multiple animatronics inside the restaurant.
You begin to create a mental map inside your mind, trying not to forget about one mistake that could cost you the night.
The second game did the best job in this regard. Eleven animatronics can come at you from three places. The lack of doors and the need to wind up a music box every now and then make sure that you don’t get a moment of relief.
The game does not forgive you. One mistake and the night is over.
Sound as Horror
The game’s sound design does not get the recognition it deserves when the game is discussed.
One of the main sounds you hear is the omnipresent humming noise from your office's ventilation. When you begin to play, you quickly stop noticing it.
But there is a moment when you start to notice it again — or better said, you notice the lack of it, and that's when the power shuts down.
When you have used up all the power, the last sound you hear is a long-lasting, descending drone that fades into complete silence. The sudden silence in addition to the completely dark office is genuinely stressful.
Without power, you are helpless to take any action, to do anything in your own defense. As the weight of the sudden silence presses in around you, all you can do is wait. After a while, the animatronic Freddy appears while the Toreador March plays in the background. If you are lucky, the night ends right there. If your luck has run out, you are greeted with a jump scare.
The first game’s design in particular is weird and uncanny. The ‘80s-style children's restaurant in combination with a slightly childish art style is one of a kind. We tend to get an uneasy feeling when we see something which is supposed to be happy and friendly in a threatening atmosphere. The game nails this kind of feeling. FNAF uses the dichotomy of such friendly surroundings with the fear and suspense of the relatively unseen approaching threat, to really ratchet up the tension.
The game's antagonists are the animatronics.
Their behavior does not differ much from each other. They rarely seem to move. And, as animatronics, they are originally designed to be entertaining, rather than scary.
But because of their damage and certain features like big sharp teeth, and fake mimicking of human behavior, their appearance makes us uneasy. This is explained — in part, by the Uncanny Valley.
While all animatronics are well designed and terrifying, Foxy’s appearance in the first game is arguable the scariest one. The way the game introduces him is amazing.
Unlike the other three animatronics, Foxy does not appear in any poster or image inside the restaurant. Likewise, he is absent on the first night, giving you no hint of his existence.
At the beginning of night two, you get a hint that you should check the Pirate's Cove from time to time because there is a fourth animatronic there. This is Foxy, who is slowly unveiled from behind a set of curtains, giving you the impression he is a slow and plodding robot.
Then something happens that catches you completely unaware the first time you witness it: you see him running towards your office, something you don’t expect in this game.
This scene is outstandingly well made and is the only time you see an animatronic move. This makes you wonder about what other secrets the game might hold for you.
The animatronics’ design goes deep into the Uncanny Valley
The game’s lore is a huge part of its success.
It seems that mostly the younger generation enjoys FNAF’s background story. This is one reason why, despite the rather short playtime of roughly 2 hours, the game was still talked about a lot. Many people claim that the game's lore is the reason why they think the game is terrifying and interesting.
Five Nights at Freddy's managed to inspire fans of the franchise to create their own content, games, and theories about it. Some of them are very high quality, like the YouTuber Junior 0437, who created several videos of the game.
It is because of the huge amount of background story that the game is more than just a short-term horror experience for players.
Watching other people play a horror game is arguable as exciting as playing one yourself. FNAF is perfectly suitable for playing on a Let's Play or Twitch stream. The game’s slow beginning ensures that the content creator has enough time to joke around and interact with the community.
As the night goes on, the tension rises more and more. Jump scares are almost inevitable at some point, which is enjoyable for the viewer (less for the creator).
Due to its simplicity and easy horror through jump scares, FNAF was often played on many big YouTube channels, which has proven to be the best advertising a game could ask for.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is truly one of the most remarkable horror games of the last decade.
The player has limited information about the threats they are facing and can only take a few actions. The player also has no avenues to move or fight back, which adds greatly to the pressure they face.
The game’s lore allows it to transcended the status of a short, jump scare-packed horror game into a fully developed horror franchise that is respected by fans of the genre.