I try VERY hard not to judge games I’ve never played, and that goes double for games I haven’t personally looked into. It’s a good goal, and has saved me from many foot-in-mouth situations, but I’m not perfect. Sometimes I hear enough about a game to start forming opinions based on what others are saying, often without even realizing I’m doing so. Such was the case with Five Nights at Freddy’s and its sequels.
When the game was first being talked about, I somehow formed the idea that it was about college kids staying at a haunted house on a dare. I’m not even joking, and I’m not sure how that happened. I further gathered that it was a horror game based on jump scares for the “screamy” Let’s Players – two things that are not my cup of tea. (No insult meant to anyone, there.)
I knew I hadn’t played or even looked at the game, but underneath those logical thoughts were all kinds of assumptions.
Last night, random Youtube binging led me to catch up on what Jim Sterling has been up to. When I got to his Five Nights at Freddy’s 4 video, I paused to go back and see what he thought of the others. After watching his short first look plays on each game in the series, and being interested enough to look up the wiki, it was clear to me that most of my “obvious” assumptions about the games were incorrect.
(Errr, I mean other than completely missing the actual setup! A security guard there because of his job, and later a kid in his room at night, are both more interesting to me than college kids out on a dare. Also, Freddy’s is not so much a haunted house.)
1. “It’s just jump scares.”
While the gameover screens tend to be preceded by a jump scare, it’s the build up to those scares that makes them work. Lo and behold, these games have story and lore about the building you are in, what’s happened in the past, and what might be happening now. Information is picked up in bit and pieces during play rather than dumped as exposition all at once. The player has to survive through the game to learn the whole story, and I happen to love games that reward gameplay with more story. The story is very dark, and compelling enough to make me want to know more. I’ll note that I love horror in general, so that’s partly personal taste.
More than that, the game isn’t primarily playing on the jump scares. It rather deftly takes advantage of fear of what you can’t see. That sounds lame written out, but in practice I found it riveting – I have no doubt actually playing would be even more effective. You know these things are out there, they’re creepy as hell, and you can’t watch all of them at once. The idea of something sneaking up behind me while I’m not looking is always one that gets me when done well, and it appears to be done well here.
The scares that happen after checking something on the monitor are super effective, and lead even a viewer to get jumpy each time the player has to adjust or check on something. It’s not so much the jump scare on my mind as, “Gah, that one’s close! Don’t go looking away now!” But if you don’t check the monitor, you can’t know where the other ones are.
The artwork and atmosphere of the game also adds to this. I’d had some vague idea that the graphics probably weren’t super impressive, but I wasn’t entirely correct there, either. While camera views are dark and sometimes staticy, this is used to the game’s advantage. I found myself peering closely at fuzzy images, trying to see what was hiding in the shadows, which is exactly what you want in a horror game. Effective horror makes me jump at least as much at what I think I see as what the game actually shows me. Even the animatronics were much creepier during gameplay than I had previously assumed from pictures.
2. “They’re all the same thing.”
While the games have the same general premise, (you know, like most series) the mechanics between them do change. Typing out, “In one game you can shut doors and in another you can’t,” doesn’t sound impressive, but in actually watching a playthrough I could immediately see you’d have to change your tactics. For myself, if I’d gotten used to having one thing to protect me, and lost it in the next game, I’d feel eerily vulnerable until I mastered the new mechanics.
Speaking of the mechanics, the idea of having to stay put (except in the fourth game) works beautifully to build up tension. It’s another aspect of the game that sounded dull to me, but is far more impressive to see in action. Knowing something is coming for you, AND you can’t run away? Brrrr. Even in the fourth game, the limited movement is helped by a limited view to not give any comfort; only the sense that something might be looking at you from the spot you’ve just left.
There are also more mechanics than the obvious ones. In one game, being attacked by a certain enemy causes the entire game to crash. I freaking love when games break into the reality of the player like that. There are sometimes minigames done in the style of old Atari games, and those manage to show backstory better than you’d think. I seem to be talking a lot about how things sound vs. how they work within the game, but this is another case where something that sounds gimmicky feels perfect in these games.
3. “They’re only popular because Youtube.”
As I mentioned, I’m not personally a fan of screamer Let’s Plays. Horror, yes, screaming no – it takes me out of the experience. Go figure, just because a game suits a particular style of video, that doesn’t mean it can’t be an interesting game in its own right. I may have no desire to play Slender despite it being huge on Youtube for a while, but it doesn’t follow I should discount every horror game that gets popular.
I think this is an important point, here. When a game is popular with “my people,” it’s easier to ignore complaints and give the game a fair shot. When it seems popular with “everyone else,” I’m far more prone to the lazy thinking that it’s likely not worth a look. “I hate it because it’s popular,” is as ridiculous as the opposite, no matter how easy the thinking is to fall into – and often equally tough to notice while you’re doing it.
As I mentioned, I honestly try not to act like I know anything about a game I haven’t played. It leaves my options open to find fun things regardless of what others do or do not like, and saves me from having to go back and admit I was wrong.
In this case, I never publicized my views about the Five Nights at Freddy’s games, so it’s not like I need to make a public apology. This has, however, been a great reminder for me that even if you try to stay neutral, it’s easy for mistaken assumptions about games to creep in. Playing it yourself, or at least watching a stream or Let’s Play (in a style you enjoy!) remains a far better way to get an idea of a game than any number of opinions from others.
These games that I discounted completely? I’ll probably pick them up at some point, I’m 99% sure the stories would be better experienced playing than watching someone else. I don’t mean to imply they’re perfect – I still haven’t played them! – but they definitely look more appealing than my assumptions led me to believe.
Anyone else ever been completely wrong about a game they’d never played? (I’m so adding this to the Blaugust writing prompts!)