Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Five Nights at Freddy's 3 is the Best in the Series

Back in the midst of ancient time, to the far off year of 2014- I had just gotten fired from my first job. I was very sad about it. I went to my Mom's house- It was closer to my workplace- plus she was away so I had to take care of her cat (RIP) at the time anyway. I cuddled up with the cat, turned on my laptop in bed, and watched a livestream of a little known popular streamer-bait game known as Five Nights at Freddy's. It was kind of magical experience.

Here's the thing- before this series got popular and flanderized, endlessly iterated upon and hated from being a pop culture icon of the annoying younger generation- it was a mysterious game. It had a lot going for it- incredibly simple in design and presentation, but totally unique. There was nothing quite like it at the time. I can say with absolutely zero percent irony that it was a really cool little gem. I should also mention here that I've never actually played any of these; I'm not a big fan of horror games like this and I find it hard to justify a purchase of something with so little content. So my knowledge of the series is mostly from the perception of an observer. But as an observer- I have come to a conclusion.

The third game is the best (ludonarratively). Here's why.

Five Nights at Freddy's Mechanics
To begin, let's look at the mainline series games. This is going to be about the series prior to Sister Location, which radically changed up the formula. The first game was about a security guard working in a small office, defending himself with a limited power supply and cameras to keep track of the movements of the animatronics. The second game was much the same; except now there were more attack angles from vents, a central direction, and the player had to put on a mask to hide from the machines. The third game has only a single opponent which you must distract while balancing different systems. The fourth game featured a child in their room, fending off the nightmareish creatures by shining a light on them and listening to audio cues at the doors.

These basic mechanics are all iterations of the main formula; but none of them fit exactly. You see, in the first FnaF game, you use the camera to keep track of the animatronics, but watching them on the screens is of little use (except Foxy, which slows his attack), as the animatronics are only going to be attacking from either side of you- you need to use your hallway lights to see them and close the doors. The second game is a more complex version of the first, but you have to use the camera to wind a ghost music box- this means you're actually penalized from watching the movements of the animatronics as you need to focus on the music box and your immediate surroundings by putting on the mask or watching the vents. None of the animatronics are actually a threat unless they're directly in your office or at the end of the hall. The fourth game is a bit of a departure and has a few things you need to watch, like keeping the toy freddy heads from piling up by shining your light on them (causing a game over if you don't keep tabs on them), closing a closet door that slowly opens to reveal a monster, and listening to audio cues. This game doesn't have a camera system at all- it's a bit of a departure.

Now of course- you can still use the camera for its intended purposes- keeping track of how close the danger is. It's just not optimal if you're playing the game on the later nights or the more difficult “custom night” mode. But for me; the original idea of the series was based on a simple premise- a security guard, trapped in a haunted location, playing a deadly game of cat and mouse. Your only eyes are your security cameras. You can't fight the monster, only try to play around it, using technology to give yourself the edge to survive.

Five Nights at Freddy's 3
Five Nights at Freddy's 3 features only one enemy- Springtrap. Springtrap is a unique animatronic in both look and feel, unlike anything that had come before in that point in the series. For the most part- the animatronics leaned into the uncanny valley effect that Scott's games already had (infamously, he began the series after a parent complained that his failed kid-friendly indie game about beavers was too creepy- they looked like animatronics as opposed to living thigns) The pre-rendered 3d models really helped with this as well. While some animatronics were broken up to that point, the idea of a totally decayed one with an actual human corpse inside (which had been implied to be a thing from up to that point) was unique. Secondly, Springtrap was unique as it was a solitary enemy- and he seemed to possess a sort of intelligence to him.

Using the camera is paramount in this game. You need to keep track of where Springtrap is- which is difficult as he often blends into the background. This game takes place in an in-universe horror museum, using actual animatronics and props from the other locations. But of course, one of the animatronics is alive. As such, every camera angle is filled with animatronics and rotting parts in darkness, making it hard to see him. Even when you DO see him, you need to lure him away from your security station by using noise cues with the camera, and you have to do this while balancing a few meters like heat and oxygen levels since the ventilation in the place sucks.

From a combination of these factors, I think the third FNaF game best encapsulates the basic concept of the series as a whole- no gimmicks or multiple ways to fight back. Even having only one enemy is a bit of a lie- there are ghosts of the other animatronics which will occasionally pop out to jump scare you- but it isn't an instant game over. They drain your other resources instead, which is a first for this series to have something like a “health” meter in this sense, beyond power. Basically, it gives more room to mess up and raises the stakes. In short- You are trapped somewhere with a malevolent force, and your only option is to outsmart it, watching it through a grainy television camera as the power is going out and the feed is cut- barely able to make out the shape lumbering in the darkness through the static. Your only option is to rely on ever failing noise makers, the same horrible feeling you get in a horror movie when all you can do is watch something on a screen with no power to actually control it- just praying it doesn't find you. This is the basic concept of the series distilled down in its purest form.

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